Light and Darkness, Pain and Joy – Reflections on Chanukah and Parashat Miketz

“I want you to listen to me very carefully, Harry. You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person, who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”  (Sirius Black to Harry Potter)

Reading the dialogue between Sirius Black and Harry Potter reminded me of the dialogue between Yosef and Pharaoh in Parashat Miketz. Pharaoh dreams of seven ugly slim cows devouring seven good-looking fleshy cows, and then of seven thin sheaves swallowing up seven healthy and full sheaves. He wakes up in the morning with a storm of emotions: “Now it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; so he sent and called all the magicians of Egypt and all its sages, and Pharaoh related to them his dream, but no one interpreted them for Pharaoh.” (Bereshit 41:8)

According to our Sages, the magicians offered him solutions to his dreams, but none of them sounded credible: ““They would interpret it, but their voices would not enter his ears. ‘The seven good cows are seven daughters that you will beget, and the seven bad cows are seven daughters that you will bury.’ Likewise, they said, ‘The seven good sheaves are seven kingdoms that you will conquer, and the seven bad sheaves are seven ministers that will rebel against you’“. (Bereshit Rabba 89:6) Only Yosef’s interpretation of the dream resonated with Pharaoh for one specific reason – his opening statement: “Pharaoh’s dream is one”.

Yosef shares with Pharaoh a profound message that was counterintuitive to Egyptian culture. He explained that the good and evil forces that Pharaoh saw in his dreams are not separate from one another; in fact, they are intertwined. The seven evil cows and the seven good cows do not represent two forces fighting against each other, as his magicians suggested, but are rather two parts of a single process. As Sirius Black said, good and evil are an integral part of us and our lives: “The world is not divided into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us.”

In our lives we may experience moments of darkness, pain and trauma. It is part of the package deal of the human experience. Many people are afraid of pain and try to numb it in different ways, whether by keeping themselves busy with distractions, by engaging with all sorts of addictions that serve as painkillers, or by projecting their pain onto others. This was precisely the Egyptian culture – a kingdom of slavery that encouraged addiction to all sorts of passions and desires, promoted the oppression of others,  deprived people of the opportunity to reflect and think by inflicting pain and imposing back-breaking work on them. We see that Pharaoh ordered the Egyptian taskmasters: “Let the labor fall heavy upon the men and let them work at it, and let them not talk about false matters.” (Shemot 5:9)

According to many approaches in modern psychology, the healthiest way of coping with emotional pain is to work through it, feeling it and even embracing it.  Pain and joy, light and darkness, and good and evil, are intertwined. Pain is an inescapable fact of life. Will your pain become suffering? That is already your choice. We can really grow stronger from our pain if we choose to recognize it as a friend and not be afraid to feel it. But pain can also lead to a lot of suffering and bring us down if we try to run away from it or numb ourselves to it.

Yosef has been through many painful experiences during the years since he was expelled from his family and sent to Egypt. He suffers from unpleasant ordeals and is imprisoned for no reason. But Yosef never complained, and he had the courage to grow and make the best of his painful experiences. Therefore, when he says to Pharaoh “Pharaoh’s dream is one”, it resonates with Pharaoh.

Judaism doesn’t believe that there are separate forces of good and evil in the world. Everything is part of one complicated process that includes positive and negative experiences, light and darkness. It is all ‘one’, as we testify twice a day when we say: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.” The question is how we choose to deal with the challenges. As Sirius says: “Within all of us there is both light and darkness. What matters is the path we choose to act on. That is who we really are.”

The struggle between the Maccabees and the Greeks revolved around the very same dilemma. Greek mythology divided the world into black and white, good gods and evil gods. In Jewish philosophy, both good and evil are part of G-d’s creation – “[I am the Lord] Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil; I am the Lord, Who makes all these.” (Yeshayahu 45:7).

We celebrate the victory of the Maccabees on Hanukkah, in the middle of winter during the darkest days of the year. That is why we light candles at night, to show our belief that only the darkness that we face enables us to discover the joy and light within ourselves and each other.

Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. (Brene Brown, Gifts of Imperfection)

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