There was a trend on social media a while back called “How It Started…How It’s Going.” People posted a picture from the beginning of a relationship or friendship, or of a child from many years ago, and then a current picture. People posted their first dates or wedding photos and then many years into their marriages, their kids as little and now grown, and so on.
If I was to do a “How It Started…How It’s Going” on my life as a rabbi, the first picture would be me as a 1st year rabbinical student in Israel from 28 years ago and the second picture, depicting the “How It’s Going” would be a picture of a video camera. Why? Because so much of how it’s going today as a rabbi at a synagogue means being on camera.
As someone who hates to be on camera this is tough. As my cousin said, “We have nice faces but don’t pixelate well.”
If cameras had been invented thousands of years ago, our biblical Joseph, the focus of the week’s Torah portion, on first glance it seems would love the camera. He jumps into every moment we will capture for the rest of Genesis.
I have always been tickled by the startling way Joseph takes all the attention at the beginning of this Torah portion, Vayeshev.
Genesis 37: 1-2 reads
“And Jacob lived in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old was feeding the flock with his brothers;”
Again and again in this section of Torah, the scenes the biblical text reveals, can’t keep its eyes off Joseph. From the first moment of the portion to talk of a beautiful striped coat he is given by his father, to the intense jealousy of his brothers, Joseph is clear and in focus.
After Joseph is sold into slavery and ends up a servant in the house of a man named Potiphar, as Torah tells, Mrs. Potiphar was intensely attracted to the gorgeous Joseph. She finds him so handsome and attractive “she caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me’; and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got out.” (Genesis 39:12)
Yet what is remarkable about Joseph, with all the attention that is paid to his outside – how handsome he is, the coat he wears, the extra love his father gave him, it is Joseph that teaches us to focus not on the external, but on the inside.
The most enduring characteristic of Joseph is not his beauty, but his ability to interpret dreams. His own dreams and the dreams of others…his dreams that predict the actions that will come true in relation to his brothers … and the dreams of others he interprets that ultimately lead him to a position of great power, as Pharaoh’s assistant.
This all happened not because he is beautiful on the outside but because he is wise and able to see inside people’s heads and ultimately their hearts.
One of the rabbinical school professors I studied with decades ago gave an online post this week and pointed out an 8th century Chanukah prayer.
Professor Larry Hoffman wrote of the prayer, ” It starts with a single line…’These lights are holy,’ It has accumulated many meanings over the 3,000 years of Jewish experience on this planet. But none is more surprising than this one. ‘These lights are holy,’ constitutes just the first half of the line. An explanation follows: ‘These lights are holy: we may not use them.'”
What this means is you can’t use the light of the Chanukah menorah for the tasks at hand – not for reading, or lighting a room or anything at all. Instead of being used for their external quality, one must reflect on the internal quality of the lights – the story they represent. A battle for religious freedom, the power of miracles, the joy that comes in celebration.
Like Joseph, who was always judged for the external by others while he himself was focused on what was inside, Chanukah candles prompt us to ask us what majesty and meaning is found inside them. I hope the same for one another. That we see beyond the surface to what is inside.
I was never meant to be on camera. My Ashkenazi Jewish hair, even with tons of chemicals, never looks perfectly neat. There’re always a few pounds I need to lose to be healthier and with the years wrinkles have arrived. But inside I promise you there is intense joy in teaching, beauty in praying and an abundance of devotion to the Jewish community that rivals Jacob’s devotion to his son Joseph.
As Chanukah begins this Sunday night, I hope that as you celebrate, you too have people in your life like Joseph, who see inside your heart to appreciate the dreams and hopes you have; and that your festival of lights finds beauty in the internal alongside the evident external joy of this holiday.
Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton