On Yosef and Chanukah, Specialness and Vulnerability

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My father once pointed out to me a strange reference in a prayer said during the priestly blessing: We ask to be blessed like Yosef, in the moment his father cloaked him in the ketonet passim; his special coat. Imagine how wonderful it felt for Yaakov to show his love to his most special son, and how wonderful it felt for Yosef to feel so loved and special.

But we know full well that that coat incited jealously and hatred; that it would be torn from Yosef and returned to his father stained with blood, in a wishful lie that he had been killed. We know that while the coat was a symbol of blessing, of a special love between Yaakov and his favorite son, it was also a great danger. Why would we ask to be blessed in this way?


So much of our story, beginning with our forefathers and rippling through Jewish history, is our struggle with what it means to be special — what it means to wear a beloved ketonet passim, and make ourselves vulnerable to danger because of it.

Avraham struggled to figure out how he could be special to God but still love his own son more than anything. In the moment of the Akeida, he stands over his most special, most loved son, Yitzchak, with a knife. God tells him this is not what He wants: “Al ta’aseh lo me’umah.” (“Don’t do anything to him.”)

Avraham had thought maybe this — having to sacrifice one’s beloved son — is what it means to be special, and the Akeida was Yitzchak’s experience of being the special son. When he walked away from the Akeida, he carried it with him. As he prepared to bless his own sons, his eyes were too dim to see, the verses say. The Midrash explains the source of Yitzchak’s “blindness”: Yitzchak thought that to be loved deeply by one’s father, to be the special one, meant a potential for danger or pain. So he made himself blind to his love for Yaakov. It was safe to love Esav, who brought him good food; but to bond deeply with Yaakov was too scary.

When Yaakov became a father, he refused to be scared to love his most special son. He would not blind himself to Yosef the way his own father was blind to him.  He wouldn’t hide his love for Yosef — from himself or anyone else. He made him a ketonet passim.

Yosef indeed felt special. He dreamed he was the center of the universe, that his world bowed down to him. But it also made him into an outsider — and worse, the subject of jealousy and hatred.  Soon he was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery.

Yosef went through so much in Egypt, but over time he learned to use his specialness to connect, to help, to uplift: He used his special abilities to save the people from famine, and then to save his own family. He saw his father again. He forgave his brothers. After all that happened to him, I don’t think he regretted the ketonet passim. I don’t think he wished Yaakov had never given it to him.

The children of Israel thrived. But soon after, a new Pharaoh came to power. He oppressed and tried to end them because they had become too great and too strong.

Generations later, the struggle echoed in the story of Chanukah. The Jewish people insisted on being “special,” and were persecuted because of it. They had to fight a battle for their identity.

Last week we lit our menorahs for all to see in order to publicize our miracle. We proclaimed our specialness, our special relationship with God and our culture, knowing the joy and pride in this special bond but also the suffering, tears, jealousies, and sacrifices which came with it.

We feel Yosef’s pride, and the love of his father, in the moment he cloaked him in ketonet passim.  But maybe we also feel the self-consciousness: worrying about making others jealous, wondering whether it is okay to be different, and wondering if maybe we should try harder to blend in.

Like Yosef, we have to deal with all of the challenges and conflicts that specialness carries with it.  We have to figure out how to dream, and how to interpret our dreams, in ways which are honest to ourselves, but without inciting hatred. We have to develop our skills and talents and strengths, without causing others to feel threatened or smaller. We have to use our wisdom to teach and help others, without acting like ours is the only wisdom. We have to figure out how our specialness will connect us to others rather than push us away.

We dream of being an or lagoyim, a light for the nations. We have inherited a special light that we can give to the world; the light that has been passed down to us from our forefathers and foremothers, from our own parents, and which we strive to pass down to our own children. But along with our special light, we pass down the dangers that come with it. Perhaps this is another reason we put our Chanukah candles in the window — not only to show off our miracle, but to say to the world: Please let us share our lights and be okay with it. Please let us wear our colors and share our dreams. Let it be okay to wear our ketonet passim.

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