Rabbi Leonard Cohen: Bayamim Hahem Bazman Hazeh – In Ancient Days, Just as Now

by Rabbi Leonard Cohen

Rabbi Leonard Cohen

(AJNews) – On Erev Hanukkah, we read the Torah portion Vayeshev about Joseph and his 11 brothers.  While these events took place over 3000 years ago, and while those of Hanukkah occurred over 2000 years ago, both of these provide important insight for us in our time.

When the patriarch Jacob shows special attention to his then-youngest son Joseph, it arouses the jealousy of the Joseph’s brothers, who take exception to this unfair treatment.  The Torah says, “v’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom” – they could not speak peaceably, or towards peace, with him.  The word l’shalom is also related to the word “shalem”, which means complete or whole.  Joseph’s brothers were so engaged in their rage and envy that they could not even talk with Joseph to make things whole.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs z”l elaborated on the idea that dialogue can lead to reconciliation, while the breakdown of speech can lead to violent conflict. He noted that, had Joseph and his brothers been able to engage in constructive dialogue, reconciliation might have been possible without entailing trauma. Such breakdown of communication is a repeated theme in the book of Bereshit/Genesis. Yet Bereshit also presents the important counternarrative of reconciliation – in which families come back together, address their difficult issues, and discover ways to make themselves whole once again.

Parashat Vayeshev contains one subtle detail that inspires hope.  Bereshit/Genesis 37:25 says of the traders who purchased Joseph as a slave, “a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, and their camels were carrying spices, balm, and lotus, going to take [it] down to Egypt.”  What is the relevance of the traders’ cargo?  Rashi comments that such a caravan, which could have borne foul-smelling items like tar and resin, instead carried spices to impart a sweet smell to Joseph’s journey to Egypt.

What a remarkable and strange detail!  A young man is nearly killed and then sold into slavery, and we are concerned about the aroma?  Yet here, too, the Torah provides great insight –that Joseph found encouragement, and chose to see G-d’s handiwork, even beneficence, amid despair.

After Joseph’s brothers fabricate the report of his death, their father Jacob is inconsolable: “And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said: ‘Nay, but I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.’ And his father wept for him” (Bereshit/Genesis 37:35).  Normally such a consistent refusal to be comforted goes against Jewish principle.

There is one exception where grieving remains continual.  As Rashi explains, “A person does not accept consolation for a living person who is suspected but not proven to be dead, for only with regard to the dead did G-d decree that the loss be forgotten by the heart, but it is not so decreed with regard to the living.”  Thus Jacob’s grief over Joseph remains constant as long as faint hope of return persists.  Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, chief Dayyan (rabbinic judge) of Brody, Galicia in the 1800’s, commented:

“Similarly, the fact that we, the Jewish People, have never reconciled ourselves to our exile is a sign that it is not our true state and that we will eventually return from the exile… Rabbi Levi said: Wherever a verse says, ‘Ain la’ / ‘She did not have,’ [i.e. when Sarai and Chana did not have children] she eventually did have… Similarly, it says (Yirmiyah 30:17), ‘She is Zion – Doreish ain la / she has no one who seeks her,’ and eventually she will have, as is written (Yeshayah 59:20), ‘A redeemer will come to Zion.’ (Kohelet Yaakov: Aseret Yemei Teshuvah p.275)”

Jacob’s longing for his son Joseph is likened to the Jewish people’s longing for the land of Israel, while the return of the Jewish people to Zion is likened to a parent rediscovering a long-lost child.

The Hanukkah holiday we celebrate each year serves to remind us of the miracles of our people’s existence, and the lights of the Menorah remind us of our heritage and history, including sovereignty over a Jewish homeland.  We describe these miracles as occurring “bayamim hahem bazman hazeh” – in those days, just as in this time.

Rambam (Maimonides) says that Hanukkah celebrate the restoration of Jewish sovereignty and “return to Israel for more than 200 years” (Mishneh Torah, Megilah v’Chanuka, 3:1) knowing full well that the history of Jewish leadership following the Maccabees – a time of corruption and evil – was far from ideal.  Nonetheless, Rambam and the Jewish sages declared Hanukkah, and the continuance of Jewish rulership over the land, worthy of commemoration and celebration for Jews across the ages.

Today’s Israel is not a Messianic ideal.  It is a real democratic country, home to millions of Jews from across the world, with a revived Hebrew language spoken on its streets and in its courts and parliament.  Israel is both a triumph of and an ongoing challenge to the Jewish people: to strive to bring ourselves, our land and world closer to the ideals that G-d imparted.

May this Hanukkah season continue to inspire us to greatness and bring the light of kedusha, sacredness, into our lives.

Rabbi Leonard Cohen is the spiritual leader of Kehilat Shalom, an egalitarian Jewish congregation in Calgary.



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