Parshat Vayeishev: I Will Send You a Little Candle

Happy Chanukah everyone!  The days are getting shorter, darkness is extending its hours, so what a blessing that we are filling our homes with increased light by adding a candle everyday.  

There’s a beautiful midrash that says Adam became depressed the first time he noticed the darkness increasing in the winter.  God assured him that such is the way of the world, and in the future his descendants would find ways to bring light to the darkness.  Adam was comforted with the knowledge of future possibilities.

I remember lighting Chanukah candles as a child and loving everything about them.  I would sing songs in rounds with my sister, while my brothers played the ‘how close can I put my finger to the fire’ game.  We would light the candles in birth order —oldest got the first candle, second candle was second oldest, etc.  I’m third in line so the third day of Chanukah was my special day.  Christmas was always around the same time, and I remember watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, and learning all the Christmas songs from TV.  I grew up enjoying Chanukah, and singing Christmas songs with my favourite cartoon characters.  I knew the difference between Chanukah and Christmas, and I knew Christmas was not part of my home, but I still appreciated seeing the neighbour’s beautiful lights, and singing along with the TV.  When I was a student in Israel, I loved Chanukah but felt disoriented by not seeing Christmas lights.  I didn’t realize how much they had become part of my world.  One year in Israel, I drove the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem because that road had Christmas lights.  I remember the feeling very well—I wasn’t feeling Christian at all, I was feeling Canadian.   A few days later I realized how much I missed snow.

Chanukah is always layered for Jews outside of Israel.  We have many other cultural realities that ground us even when we don’t realize it’s happening.  It’s easy to understand how one of the themes of Chanukah, in its original historical context, was for Judaism to question how much of Hellenism should we accept as an influence.  How much of the outside world should we let in?

Once we begin to peel the layers of Chanukah, the levels of meaning start speaking out.  There is a powerful connective moment between Chanukah and this week’s Torah reading that occurs in a tent, in ancient Israel, as we watch twins being born.

This week’s portion, Parshat Vayeishev, tells of Joseph’s sale into slavery and his odyssey in Egypt.  But sitting in the middle of the narrative is the story of Judah and Tamar.  Joseph’s brother, Judah, has locked his daughter-in-law, Tamar, into a quasi-marriage bind.  She was married to his son, who died, and she was subsequently married to his brother, who also died.  She must now marry the youngest brother in order to produce an heir.  These laws are the Levirate laws of marriage within the Torah.  However, Judah, her father-in-law, will not have her marry his last son, and now she can never marry anyone else.  Without question, this is an injustice that Judah is creating and perpetuating.  Tamar is caught in an endless bind and faces a future of loneliness from which she has no way out.  So, she plans and executes one of the most daring and innovative moments in all of Torah.

In order to produce the heir that will release her from this injustice, Tamar tricks Judah (her father-in-law) into cohabiting with her (she disguised herself as a prostitute and sat at the crossroads) — she conceives twins.  Amazing narrative so far, but the birth of the twins is what will grab our attention.

During the birth, the Torah states that one twin extended his hand outside the womb, and the midwife tied a red strand around his hand in order to know who was born first.  But that twin pulls his hand back into the womb, and now the second twin was fully born…first?  Who is the eldest?

The first twin stated intent and excitement to enter the world first, but changed his mind.  The second twin completed his birth first, but does that make him the eldest if the first twin already reached out of the womb?  If the first born is the one to engage in the service to God (ancient world rules), which twin would that be?  In today’s terms, who are they doing a ‘Pidyon haben’ for?  In the ancient world, who is the heir?  Most importantly, who is the next leader?!

Leadership in Judaism has gone through many changing models.  The ancient world dictated that the eldest should be the next leader, but although Abraham’s eldest was Ishmael, leadership went to Isaac, Abraham’s second born.  Isaac had twin boys, the eldest was Esau, but leadership went to Jacob, the younger brother.  Jacob then has many sons, the eldest of which is Reuben, but Jacob wants Joseph to be the leader, and the brothers revolt.  The outside culture is defining how leadership should transfer, but covenant is pushing against that, ultimately to break the influence.

Judah, the fourth eldest, will ultimately lead the brothers, and subsequently, the tribe of Judah will lead Israel.  The word ‘Judaism’ is a tribute to Judah as leader by merit, not birth order.

We continue to reject the foreign model as we look at Chanukah and the leaders of that moment.  Matityahu is the father who gathers his five sons together in the revolt against the Seleucid Empire and the influence of Hellenism.  When Matityahu is killed, it is Judah, his son, who takes over leadership.  Judah the Maccabee is not the eldest, he is third in line.  He has been designated leader based on his merit and his actions, not his birth order.

Tradition tells us that the confusing birth in Tamar’s tent speaks to our need to dismiss birth order as leadership.  We don’t physically know who was born first, since we’re not sure if a hand reaching into the world connotes emergence from the womb.  The second twin, the one who pushed past his brother, and his brother’s red string, is named Peretz (it means the one who burst out).  Peretz is an ancestor of Boaz, who will marry Ruth, who will give us David, who will give us the Messiah.  Tradition draws the roots of the Messiah back to Tamar, a woman who refused to ignore an injustice in the world, and took matters into her own hands.

Along with everything else Chanukah gives us, we should always remember that Judah the Maccabee earned his leadership, and led his followers to fight an evil empire.  Judah was not the oldest, he would not have lit the first candle of Chanukah, but he shows us, again, that every person shapes their place, and each one of us has the opportunity to burn brightly.

Rachael’s Centre is excited to invite you to Eight Illuminating Chanukah Insights – A sponsored shiur event – on Tuesday December 15th at 7:30pm ET. RSVP here.

2 thoughts on “Parshat Vayeishev: I Will Send You a Little Candle”

  1. Hi Rachael;
    Great insight. I have two questions:
    1. The red string. Is that connected to the Kabbalah and Madonna’s endorsement of the red string around the wrist?
    2. Judah. Why does he get to be the leader when he is so cruel to his daughter – in-law? How is that OK?

    • Hi Joan,
      Great questions.
      1. The red string in Judaism is multi-layered. This text is one of the sources that gets referenced (along with several others). The Madonna / Kabbalah endorsement is slightly connected, but the question at the core would be how Judaism views the red thread in general, and how much of it is the result of outside cultural/religious influences –not an easy answer ‘on one foot’, but definitely interesting for a deep dive at some point.
      2. The thing we value about Judah in this text is his transformation. He begins with a selfishly cruel act toward Tamar, but at the end of the story he declares her more righteous than he. We view this as his moment of change, in that he admits he’s wrong, and by bringing justice to the situation, he credits her righteousness and shows his humility.
      We want leaders who transform and grow, rather than looking for someone who never makes mistakes. Our key question would be what do they do after the mistake.

      I didn’t focus on this in the blog — thanks for the questions so I could go into more detail about it.


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