By Rabbi Josh Weinberg December 11, 2020 כ”ה בכסלו תשפ”א
וַיִּמְצָאֵ֣הוּ אִ֔ישׁ וְהִנֵּ֥ה תֹעֶ֖ה בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה וַיִּשְׁאָלֵ֧הוּ הָאִ֛ישׁ לֵאמֹ֖ר מַה־תְּבַקֵּֽשׁ׃ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־אַחַ֖י אָנֹכִ֣י מְבַקֵּ֑שׁ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א לִ֔י אֵיפֹ֖ה הֵ֥ם רֹעִֽים׃
A man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” (Genesis 37:15-16)
It is fairly common practice in Israel for a stranger – a customer at a store, a taxi driver, someone waiting for a bus, etc. – to endearingly refer to another as achi – “my brother.” While it literally means ‘my brother,’ the salutation is used colloquially as one might throw out “hey bro,” or even as the Hebrew translation for the commonly American “dude.” (listen more on that here). The inherent assumption is that despite not actually knowing one another, we are all extended family members, and it is not uncommon to act as such. “Achi,” has its origins in the book of Genesis, first with Cain and Abel, then with Jacob and Esau, and this week with Joseph.
When Joseph seeks out his brothers, he is the estranged outsider searching for acceptance, love, and camaraderie with his older siblings. After his dream-telling and immature behavior made him out to be a holier-than-thou character spurned by his brothers, his father sent him into the fields. But the simple innocence of the four-word Hebrew phrase אֶת־אַחַ֖י אָנֹכִ֣י מְבַקֵּ֑שׁ – I am looking for my brothers, leaves a long-lasting legacy from the Torah to modern times.
We can be sympathetic to Joseph’s innocent and unassuming character who naively did not anticipate his brothers’ negative reaction, giving that trepidatious feeling of watching a horror film and shouting to the main character through the screen “DO NOT go in there!”
We know what happens next. His brothers summarily reject him for his dreams and attempt to kill him. Saved by his eldest brother Reuven, Joseph lives to interpret more dreams (which we will read over the next few weeks), and in doing so we learn that everything he dreamed and all dreams and visions that he interpreted came to fruition.
Like Joseph, we too are dreamers. On Shabbat we preface the Birkat HaMazon with Psalm 126 which opens with the verse:
שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב יְ֭הוָה אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים׃
“A song of ascents. When God restored the fortunes of Zion — we were like dreamers”
The establishment of the modern State of Israel was nothing short of a miracle, the fulfillment of that age-old dream, that we pray for daily. In fact, many in the Religious Zionist world, including the Reform Movement, add the same “Al HaNissim” (for all the miracles) prayer on Yom Haatzmaut, as we do on Hanukkah linking the miracles of old with modern day miracles of the few overcoming the many, the weak overcoming the mighty.
Anti-religious secular Zionists made it very clear that they rejected miracles. They believed that the story of Hanukkah and the lesson learned from the Maccabees were that we did not rely on miracles; rather, we were masters of our own fate and destiny. We were our own redeemer and we alone determined our future.
Rather than attribute our story to miracles, the secular Zionists chanted “Anu Nosim Lapidim – We are the Torch Bearers” claiming that:
“No miracle happened to us – No cruise of oil did we find.
We walked to valley, climbed the mountain high.
We quarried rock until we bled – And then there was light!”
This song of the Torch Bearers offers the narrative that we as Zionists emulate the Maccabees by bringing about a national revival through sheer force of strength and willpower.
Through and through, we Jews continue to search for our siblings. Many siddurim include this prayer after the Torah reading on Shabbat morning. It reminds us that, as religious Jews, we continue to search for our siblings and actively work for our people’s redemption:
אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל הַנְּתוּנִים בַּצָּרָה וּבַשִּׁבְיָה הָעוֹמְדִים בֵּין בַּיָּם וּבֵין בַּיַּבָּשָׁה. הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם וְיוֹצִיאֵם מִצָּרָה לִרְוָחָה וּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹרָה וּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד לִגְאֻלָּה הַשְׁתָּא בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב. .ואִמְרוּ אָמֵן
“As for our brothers [and sisters], the whole house of Israel, who are given over to trouble or captivity, whether they are on the sea or dry land: May the All-present have mercy upon them, and bring them forth from trouble to security, from darkness to light, and from subjection to redemption, now speedily and at a near time; and let us say, Amen.”
This year on Hanukkah, as we light the lights, sing the songs, and spend time with our families, friends or (in this period of Covid, alone), it is our tradition to search for and reconnect with our siblings. We may have brothers and sisters in trouble and need us to bring light to their darkness just as Joseph found himself in a dark pit only to emerge later and bring light to the world.
During this Hanukkah, we can begin by seeking out our brothers and sisters in Israel and connecting with them. Each Hanukkah, I am reminded of David Ben Gurion who famously said that “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”
Today, it is the miracle of technology that enables us to seek out and connect with our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world. Does your congregation have a partnership with an Israeli congregation? If not, why not create one and start a relationship today! Join with your brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world and light candles together. Join the Israeli Reform Movement for a shared candle-lighting celebration on the last night of Hanukkah and be with friends and partners around the globe!
As we light our lights tonight and this week and offer thanks for all the miracles of our lives, let’s spread a little light beyond our own homes and with our brothers and sisters, add light to our people’s flame.
Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameach!