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Do Not Turn Away From the Light: Joseph, Hanukkah and Racial Justice

At its most basic level, Hanukkah is a holiday about bringing light into the darkness. It’s winter. It’s cold, and the night comes early. This is the time of year when we need light more than ever.

One function of light is that it reveals to us that which we could not previously see. Light increases visibility. On each night of Hanukkah, we light another candle to illuminate our surroundings.

Mónica Gomery
Mónica Gomery

These past few weeks have brought unprecedented visibility to critical issues of racial inequality in our law enforcement system. Stories of unarmed black men killed by white police officers have surfaced weekly, culminating in two grand jury decisions to not take these cases to court for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Protests have swept the country, decrying police violence and unjust judicial processes with the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” As I participate in these public actions and watch the coverage of them in the news, I am struck by the need for the assertion that black lives matter. Don’t all lives matter? Isn’t that a self-evident truth, one that also has roots in the biblical teaching that all human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 5:1)?

In contemplating this question, I am reminded of images from the civil rights movement of black male sanitation workers standing in a line holding signs that read, “I am a man.” This simple and stark declaration needed to be made because the conditions and structures of our society did not support this truth: black people could not vote, earn a fair wage, and in certain parts of the country could not dine publicly or attend school with white people. Today’s rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter” requires us to face the ugly truth that our society still suffers from institutionalized racism.

Turning back to the holiday of Hanukkah for a moment, I find it powerful that as we celebrate this festival of lights, we also read about the trials and tribulations of Joseph and his family in our weekly Torah cycle.

As you might recall, Jacob favors Joseph, and the other brothers envy this preferential treatment. Overtaken with jealousy and anger, the brothers plot to kill Joseph. Ultimately, rather than kill their brother, the older siblings decide to throw him into a pit, and then to sell him into slavery. While the family eventually reconciles, it comes after years of deception, heartache, and separation.

When I read the Joseph story, I am struck by the image of the pit (Genesis 37:24). There is something so terrifying about that hole in the ground into which Joseph’s brothers throw him. What did they think would happen to him in there? The contemporary scholar Aviva Zornberg writes, “To be in emptiness, to be assigned to a hole, discontinuous with past and future, gone from the minds of others, is to be assailed by all the horrors with which emptiness is pregnant” (“The Beginning of Desire,” p. 292). Zornberg’s comment exposes the intention of Joseph’s brothers: By throwing him into the pit, they sought to erase him from their sight and consciousness.

The Torah specifies that this pit is “empty,” containing no water. Rashbam, a medieval Torah commentator, argues that if there had been water in the pit, the brothers would not have thrown Joseph in to it, for this would have meant that they had to kill him with their own hands. Reuben, Joseph’s oldest brother, warns the others: “By hand do not throw him in, we will not kill him or cause his death by our own hands” (Genesis 39:22). By throwing Joseph into the empty pit (and not drowning him), his brothers attempt to free themselves of the guilt of their brutal act. If he dies, they can’t see him; if he lives, they can forget about him. Either way, he no longer exists in their world.

Of course, we as readers know that this is ridiculous. The brothers are attempting to absolve themselves of their responsibility, without feeling the shame of their brutal actions. How is it possible for these men to try and fool themselves into believing that they have done no wrong?

Painful as it is to do, I want to ask if we, as contemporary Americans, have been guilty of our own act of self-deception. Who is responsible for a society that continues to deny the full humanity of black people? And have we, like Joseph’s brothers, attempted to wash our hands of this injustice? The American Jewish community is racially diverse, and as a Latina Jew, I am not only speaking to white Jews in this moment, but to all non-black Jews whose role can be as an ally and supporter.

While the vast majority of us are not directly involved in the law enforcement abuses, as citizens of this country we are ultimately responsible for its failings. Today’s movement to make black lives — and the injustice with which they are treated in the criminal system — visible is a response to the deep and menacing pit of racism. And now that we see the severity of this issue more clearly than we did just a few weeks ago, we dare not turn away from the light. As the great theologian and social activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society some are guilty, all are responsible.”

As we prepare to light the Hanukah candles tonight, let us remember Joseph, his brothers and the pit. As we kindle each wick, let us shed light on the hard reality of black lives in this country. And with this clarity, let us recommit ourselves to work for the creation of a society in which all people are safe from violence, each of us is honored as a creation in God’s image. To learn more about the “Black Lives Matters” campaign, please visit the following sites:

Mónica Gomery is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College. She has taught and led services in many different Jewish communities throughout Boston. Her interests include poetry, Jewish sacred music, Talmud study, social justice and pastoral care. She is currently serving as a rabbinic intern at Hebrew SeniorLife, relishing in the wisdom and resilience of Boston’s elderly community.

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