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Even in Prison, Light Can Shine; in Fact, It Must

December 21, 2011 By:
Rabbi Joshua Runyan
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It's certainly not easy being someone you're not, but even more difficult -- as the story of Joseph illustrates -- is remaining true to yourself.
 
This week's Torah portion opens with the dream of Pharaoh and the Hebrew slave whose interpretation wins over the Egyptian ruler and raises him up to the pinnacles of power.
 
When famine strikes the land, Joseph's brothers in Canaan go down to Egypt to secure grain. When they finally meet the viceroy in charge of such transactions -- the same brother they had sold into slavery -- the Torah relates that "they did not recognize him."
 
There are reasons why the brothers' couldn't see Joseph for who he was. The classical commentator Rashi notes that Joseph had grown a beard, and since he didn't have one when his brothers sold him, they didn't recognize his face. The Rashbam, meanwhile, points to Joseph's use of a translator: Since the brothers did most of their communicating with the translator, they wouldn't have known that Joseph knew Hebrew, and they weren't afforded the opportunity to get close enough to Joseph to identify him.
 
Alongside these two commentaries, the Ramban offers another reason: Because the brothers would never have expected their baby brother to have risen to such heights, even if they had recognized his familiar face, they would have ignored it.
 
None of the explanations completely negates the others, and Chasidic thought adds yet another layer of interpretation.
 
There are two types of righteous people -- those that remain detached from the world and those that engage their physical surroundings while remaining immune to the world's negative effects. The brothers, as shepherds in the Chosen Land promised to Abraham, surrounded themselves with holiness and remained aloof to the outside world.
 
Joseph, on the other hand, sought to elevate the world by, in one case, taking grain and using it to save an entire people. When the brothers encountered Joseph, they couldn't fathom how anyone could immerse himself in the physicality of the world and still remain connected to the Divine.
 
If the story of Joseph was merely the tale of a slave who becomes a king, it would probably go unnoticed among other stories of amazing transformations. What makes Joseph unique is that while he was the greatest Egyptian aside from Pharaoh, he held onto his Jewish character.
 
Not only did he grow a beard, but Joseph also gave his two sons Hebrew names. And even the name that Pharaoh called Joseph -- Zaphenath-paneah -- indicated, according to its Aramaic translation, the firm Jewish hope that all that is hidden will be revealed.
 
Joseph comes to teach that the ultimate expression of one's Jewish character comes in engaging the world on the one hand, while remaining unaffected by it on the other. Even in the darkness of a prison, light not only has the ability to shine, but it must shine.
 
This also happens to be the message of Chanukah. In the darkest time of the year, when the night overpowers the day, the light of Torah and good deeds continue to shine. And although the Jewish people continue to find themselves, like Joseph at the beginning of this week's portion, imprisoned and scattered far from their homeland, they can thrive in such environments by holding steadfast to their traditions.
 
Ultimately the time will come when the darkness will fade away and, improbable as it may seem, only the light will remain.
 
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. Email him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.
 

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