Parshat Vayeshev tells the story of a low point for Yacov’s home and family. It also teaches that while there will always be “lows,” and times of distance, there will also be opportunities for growth and re-connection.
After the Torah describes the jealousy and hatred among the brothers, Yehuda “goes down” away from his family and Yosef is “taken down” to Egypt. Bereshit Rabbah takes note of this recurring word and teaches that these “yeridot” (descents) were purposely juxtaposed. In both cases, Yehuda and Yosef’s descent is also a spiritual decline as they both find themselves far from family and their values. Only by remembering their identity, as sons of Jacob, do they act responsibly and righteously.
Hanukkah too, is a time which spotlights the lows of Jewish assimilation and discord with the Jewish people. The Maccabees were battling fellow Jews who chose Hellenism over Judaism and were willing to abandon core Jewish beliefs and mitzvot. The antidote to this, can be found in the way we light the Hanukkah candles – increasing the light each night, moving upward. The Talmud explains this opinion of Beit Hillel: “One should elevate and not downgrade in matters of holiness.” The ascending lights symbolize the Jewish people’s historical resilience. The mitzvah is deeply connected to the home, where Jewish identity is born and nurtured.
Like Hanukkah candles, the mitzvah to light Shabbat candles also represent the unique role of home and family in Jewish life. Rashi associates Shabbat candles with “shalom bayit.” Moreover, women throughout history developed a custom to say a special prayer for the “goodness and blessings” of their families just after lighting Shabbat candles (traced back to the 13th century). These three sources – the parsha, Hanukkah and this female prayer over Shabbat candles – highlight the potential of home and family in strengthening Jewish identity and sparking spiritual growth. Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah sameach! -Karen Miller Jackson