What is the connection between Hanukkah and Mikkets? The fact that this parasha always falls on the Shabbat of Chanuka simply begs an investigation.
Broadly speaking, Mikkets is the fable of Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt and the first interactions with his brothers since they sold him into slavery. Wrought with conniving plans, guilt, and sorrow, the parasha builds an epic worthy of the silver screen. Looking beyond the theatrics, our story is at its deepest level an elaborately sewn motif of the inability to properly see.
The Egyptian magicians and diviners all blindly attempt to interpret Pharaoh’s dream as two separate entities. In Pharaoh’s description, however, he only had a singular dream. In search of procuring rations in Egypt, the ten brothers are unable to recognize the man in front of them as their long estranged Joseph. Even Jacob, to whom tradition grants divinely inspired foresight, proves helplessly unperceptive. With one brother left in Egyptian jail, the remaining nine return to their father who proclaims, “Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more and now you take Benjamin!” (Breshit 43:36). Jacob is unable to see that neither of his children are “gone”. Not only is Joseph not dead, but he rules as lord over all of Egypt. Even more striking, Shimon is merely imprisoned, yet his father deems him to be no more. In reply, Reuven offers the lives of his two sons as collateral for taking their youngest brother on the return journey. This too is a grandly insolent act, for one cannot console a man bereaved by the loss of his children with the promise of taking the lives of his grandchildren!
As is much needed in our story, the festival of lights brings a fixing to our sense of sight. Davka at the darkest moment of the year, we ordain that all Jewish households should kindle lights. Even more amazing, once lit, we completely forbid the use of their light. Our widespread access to electricity takes away much of the power behind this ruling, but it is not hard to remember a recent past when light was expensive. I remember the stories my great grandmother would tell of kindling Chanukah lights in Russia. The family had no money and could not afford candles, let alone a chanukia. Their tradition became to light a wick placed in a small oil-filled hole dug into a potato. The next evening they would eat yesterday’s menorah and make another – they could not afford to let even a single potato go to waste.
In a world where bedtime came when you could literally no longer bear the expense of keeping the room lit, I can only imagine how marvelous it was on Chanukah to have the house full of festive light. I can also imagine how eager I would be to take advantage of the little extra time to see. I would surely want to take advantage of the rare opportunity to get a few more chores finished, enjoy eating dinner at a more reasonable hour, or spend some much coveted leisure time reading. But the law forbids any such act. The Hanukkah candles are for seeing only – their light is not for use.
In order to better understand the essence of the Hanukkah candles, we must first understand the philosophy called “לשמה (le-shmah) / for its own sake.” לשמה means, our motive for doing something should not be bent through the lense of another purpose, but merely in service of thing itself. I.e. that in which we toil should not be a means to an end. Rather, the toiling itself should become an end of its own. For example, some people grow plants as a livelihood or in order to make their homes more beautiful. Yet, it is they who grow things simply because plants want to grow who do not see their work as labor. Doing something לשמה is what transforms our actions from obligated toil into labors of love.
When we kindle candles on Chanukah, we light them לשמה. The light they shed is expressly for the purpose of only seeing it shine in a world otherwise filled with darkness. Lighting lights on Hanukkah helps us fix our sense of sight. In the moment we are eagerly drawn to bend the world’s light into the service of our will, we take a step back saying, ‘I brought this light into the world because the world needs more light, and for no other reason.’
Our family in parashat Mikkets needs to see the light in their world. The surplus provided by seven years of plenty is in Joseph’s hands, yet all his brother’s see is famine and cruel injustice. Reconciliation and reunification lie waiting in Egypt, yet all Jacob sees is destruction and heartbreak. If only our forefathers had been able to see the light in the world as light, and not focus only on the cast shadows, they would have seen their stumbling blocks were nothing more than love, forgiveness, and joy. Their hyper self-centered worldview effectively blinds them from glimpsing the bounty plainly before their eyes.
Chanukah is the time to stop ‘using for the purpose of,’ and start seeing. Even light, and its contrasting dark, hold between them an awe inspiring tension – something we can only perceive when we stop to look. Hanukkah is the time to take in all the beauty of the world simply because beauty surrounds us at all times. As the psalmist says, “How great are our work Lord, how vastly deep is your understanding!” (Psalms 92:5).
I pray that as light continues to grow in our world, we take the time to appreciate it for its own sake – setting aside how we may otherwise bend it to our benefit. I bless us that through doing so, we merit to see the world before us as it exists behind the masks.