Yosef, who reaches the height of temporal power in this week’s parshah, was originally presented as unimpressive, even vain, the favorite of his father but the lesser, at least as they saw things, of his brothers. He tells on them, doesn’t think it unwise to share his seemingly self-aggrandizing dreams to his family and spends time attending to his superficial appearance. The Midrash refers to him as the katan shebish’vatim, the “small one” of the tribes.
How misleading all that is began to become evident when, in last week’s parshah, Yosef, made part of an Egyptian nobleman’s home, summons superhuman fortitude to refuse his benefactor’s wife’s adulterous entreaties. The Gemara (Yoma, 35b) holds him up as the ultimate model for the ages of resisting temptation.
The hidden potential power of the “small” and “unimpressive” is a timely thought at the time of Jewish year when we read about Yosef.
I’m always struck by the contrast between, on the one hand, the garish, multicolored and blinking lights that scream for attention from so many American homes each winter and, on the other, the quiet, tiny ones that softly grace the windows of Jewish ones.
Chanukah is often portrayed as a “minor” holiday. It is indeed only rabbinic in nature, but its deep power is evident from its treatment in classical Jewish philosophical and mystical works.
And, echoing “small” Yosef’s attainment of the epithet “tzaddik,” for his personal fortitude, the events recalled on “minor” Chanukah were about fortitude, too — the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance, and resist an enticing and dominant non-Jewish culture.
Small can be consequential. Isn’t that, in the end, the essence of rabbim biyad me’atim?
Chanukah celebrates how all the alien firestorms of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flame of Jewish commitment. Those empires may have flared mightily, but they disappeared without a trace. Their luster was mere tinsel.
Yosef seemed unimpressive; he was anything but. And our small, flickering lights are eternal.
© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran