Vayeshev and Hanukkah – Servants of the Holy, Servants of the Light

Sometimes it would seem that the focus within American Judaism is on impressive edifices, building funds, synagogue attendance, and business protocols – and why not? These values merely mirror those of our everyday lives. Sadly, Judaism appears to have forgotten the purpose of Jewish identity. We were not called to be Jews in order to spread borscht belt humor or, believe it or not, to give the world the perfect bagel. Neither were we called to obsessively observe minutia for its own sake, pridefully demonstrating our superior piety. We were called, and are still enjoined, to be a “Kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Our mission in the world is to embody a communal life that will concretize God’s highest values, holiness, learning, sensitivity, and justice. We are called to be a living testimony of the faithfulness of the Creator, who maintains his creation in love. We are summoned to be Avda de-Kud’sha: Servants of the Holy One.”

 

But how can we as Jews serve God if our leaders and teachers are so uncomfortable speaking of God? Several years ago, I was a member of a clergy association in the town where Shuvah Yisrael met. Each month we met at a different church or synagogue. One month we met at one of the member synagogues. We were all given a tour of the rather impressive facility. The rabbi then told us of an upcoming trip that they would be making to “Jewish New York.” The synagogue had contracted three large coaches to make the trip. When asked if they would be able to fill the buses, the rabbi replied, “My people will go anywhere I tell them to, except the sanctuary.” He then bemoaned the fact that most members rarely attended worship on a regular basis. I was not surprised though; this rabbi had always seemed uncomfortable with routine mention of God and public prayer. In fact, he seemed far more comfortable with speaking about the latest politico than he did about the spiritual issues at the core of our communal existence.

So, if the world we occupy is not suitable for God, why do we earth dwellers need him? Since the rabbi had relegated God to the sanctuary on Saturday, why then would he expect his congregants to risk the same incarceration?

The patriarch Joseph provides a much better role model of the committed Jew. After being sold into slavery to the house of Potiphar the Egyptian, we are told, “the Lord was with Joseph” (Gen 39:21). This statement is somewhat perplexing in that it seems so obvious. As the protagonist of his own biblical story, one would only assume this to be true. So, what else might the narrator be trying to tell us?

According to Rabbi Huna in Midrash B’reisheet Rabbah, Joseph “whispered God’s name whenever he came in and whenever he went out.” The idea is not only that God took an interest in Joseph, but more so that Joseph continuously cultivated a consciousness of God’s presence. By regularly invoking God’s love, Joseph trained himself to perceive the miraculous among the ordinary, to experience wonder in the midst of the mundane.  By whispering God’s name, he allowed his own deeds to speak more loudly than words testifying of God’s ever-present love.

Rashi interprets “the Lord was with Joseph” differently. According to the great medieval commentator, “the name of God was often in his mouth.” So, Rashi believed that Joseph spoke about God, not only to God. Joseph’s willingness to speak openly of his relationship with God, his love for God, and his eagerness to serve God encouraged others to consider their own relationship with God. By speaking openly of God’s love for humanity and his own reciprocal devotion, Joseph challenged the conventions of those around him, provoking them to rethink their own assumptions about the morality and the order of the universe.

Both interpretations, one of quiet piety, the other of a willingness to speak of God openly and frequently, have a place in Judaism and in our faith life. Sometimes we best testify to God’s loving care by simply embodying that love in the acts of caring for the homeless and visiting the sick and elderly. In such instances our hands are the hands of God and can speak much more eloquently than our mouths.

But there is also a time to speak about God and to speak up for God. Of course, we speak about God at our Torah studies and services. But do we take the time to thank God before and after meals, upon rising, and before going to bed? Would our children be surprised to find us praying with regularity? Do most of our articulated dreams and values begin and end with God’s clearest values?

Also, are there times when it is not enough to merely care for the homeless and the needy, but to speak out for them as well, to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves? Joseph was willing to speak up for fellow prisoners, though he was falsely accused himself. Like Joseph, can we take a stand for those who have been forgotten by society and even vilified by those in power? Yeshua, who embodied the purest presence of the Holy One, lived his life and sacrificed his life for all, especially the meekest, the humblest, and the neediest among us. He was truly a Messiah cast into the model of Joseph, the suffering servant. He also encouraged us to live lives dedicated to Hashem, taking up our crosses daily!

Can it be said of us, “the Lord was with (state your name)?” Our Messianic Judaism can be one that concretizes and enlivens our ancestral love for our Creator, Provider, and Protector and honors the presence of Yeshua our Redeemer.

As we commemorate Hanukkah this year, let’s allow it to be more than a materialistic celebration of society’s verities. Let’s resist the temptation to overemphasize Jewish military might! Rather might we focus on the Shamash candle, the servant light that brings light to the rest of the menorah and sheds that light to the entire house. Let’s focus on Yeshua the quintessential servant, who through his sacrificial life brings light to the entire world.

Then perhaps we can pronounce with conviction, , “Ana avda de-Kud’sha b’rikh hu: We are the servants of the Holy Blessing One.”

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