“The house of Jacob will be fire, the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for straw, and they will ignite and devour them.” (Obadiah 1:18)
This intense verse from the Prophet Obadiah is about the ability for the Israelites to overcome in the forces of Esau when the Messiah comes. What is interesting for us is that the image is one of fire and flame, and in particular, it connects Joseph to a flame.
This verse is quoted in the Midrash, and in Rashi, on the opening of this week’s parsha, describing the descendents of Jacob, and opening the Joseph narrative. The midrash explains the juxtaposition of the long list of descendents of Esau at the end of last week’s Parsha (Genesis 36:1-43), with the mention of Joseph as the primary descendent of Jacob. Why? The Midrash tells a parable of a blacksmith that sees a flax merchant enter the town with a camel ladened with flax and wonders where he will be able to store all of his flax. A wise bystander offers that one spark from the bellows could burn up all of the flax. The Midrash than explains that Jacob is concerned after the enumeration of the long list of Esau’s descendents and generals, therefore a ‘spark’ comes–implying that Joseph will be the ‘remedy’ to the intimidating challenge of Esau.
The Mishna (Bava Kama 6:6) describes a similar story in an entirely different context. There, the discussion is about the dangers and responsibilities around fire. When a spark goes out and burns the flax that a camel is carrying, and subsequently even burns down the building, there are two possibilties for who is responsible to pay for the damages. If the camel is overburdened, and the flax enters the store where the shopkeeper had the candle in a reasonable place, the flax merchant is responsible. If the shopkeeper put his candle outside the store, in the public domain, he is responsible, EXCEPT in the case of Chanukah! Why here, in a discussion of fire-safety and damages, we learn about Chanukah, and with the same story–what is the connection? This Mishnah is implying that even if it is not the safest thing to do, the merit of lighting Chanukah lights takes precedence. We should of course exercise due caution, but at the end of the day, lighting the lights is more important.
The connection between Joseph and flame is striking as this is always the parsha that corresponds to the beginning of Chanukah. The Mishnah also connects a similar story to Chanukah. What are all the connections here? What additional insights can we gain by connecting these together?
We all know that it only takes a little bit of light to dispel a great amount of darkness. One small candle can illuminate an entire room. This concept is very important at this time of year, as we shine a little light into the darkest part of the year with Chanukah. Joseph is one man. We will learn next week that we will single-handedly devise a plan that will not only save Egypt, but will save most of the Middle East from a devasting famine. On a spiritual level, Joseph stands up to great temptationon multiple occasions. He could easily have despaired in the pit or in prison. He could easily have fallen to Mrs. Potiphar’s seductions. He could easily have assimilated as he ascended to power in Egypt. He could easily have taken revenge on his brothers. Joseph had an inner fortitude, a inner spark of light that kept him focused in all of these moments. The Sefat Emet often writes about the pintele yid, or little spark of the Jewish soul that exists inside of every Jew, that is impervious to becoming tainted. This was the spark the helped Joseph, and this is how Joseph became the spark that changed the history of the world.
It is not easy, nor without risk, to stand up in moments of crises and doubt. The mishnah, by using the same story, connects all of the pieces and encourages us that even if there is ‘risk’ involved in taking the right action, the declaring of one’s identity as a Jew is ideal, even if it might cause a little danger. This project of fighting for one’s identity and truth is not always neat and clean. Joseph did it in the Bible. The Maccabbees did it in ancient history. The builders of the State of Israel are doing it today. What will we do this Chanukah to continue this rich legacy?
Blessings for a wonderful Shabbat and a fantastic beginning of the Festival of Lights!