On Shabbat of Hanukkah synagogues around the world read from the section of Genesis that details the impressive success of Joseph under the most difficult of circumstances. Joseph struggles through the formative of years of his life with the hatred of his siblings, who nearly murder him.
Instead, he is sold as a slave. He perseveres and, against all odds, rises to power under these difficult circumstances — only then to be imprisoned on a fabricated charge. Yet he refuses to submit, somehow rising to prominence even from the depth of a prison pit. Again his hopes are dashed, as his sentence is elongated because of the betrayal of his prison mate.
One would have expected Joseph to show some despair and frustration. He responds with the complete opposite. Joseph never gives up and never allows himself to become passive. Energetically, he takes advantage of every opportunity that presents itself until he ultimately finds success.
Rabbi Mayer Twersky has suggested that this quality of Joseph reflects an important theme of Hanukkah — resilience in the face of adversity. The Second Temple Period was ushered in with a ray of hope, as the Edict of Cyrus the Great encouraged the Jews exiled by Nebuchadnezzar to return to the land of Israel and to rebuild their destroyed Temple. After a couple hundred years of living under the rule of others, under harsh economic circumstances, under the constant attack of their enemies, and with an as of yet underwhelming Second Temple, the Jewish People might have become worn down and might have lost the will to fight religious oppression.
The Maccabees do precisely the opposite; they never lose hope in an ideal Temple. And their persistence is rewarded. The Hasmonean Revolt is more successful than even its greatest proponents dreamed — yielding not only a Jewish People who could worship freely but, for the first time in centuries — a free and politically autonomous Jewish State.
Hanukkah is celebrated at the darkest point in the year, the point at which we might be disposed to resign ourselves to darkness. Reasons for resignation can always be found, especially this year. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many of us are still struggling mightily to recover. Even with rockets now raining less frequently on Israel, time is running out on the existential threat of a nuclear Iran. But we refuse to submit.
Instead, it is at this crucial moment of darkness that we fill our homes and our communities with light. Much remains to be done. Now, not when the next storm comes, is the time to put our efforts into fixing the systemic infrastructural problems that made Long Island so ill prepared for Sandy. Now, not a few months from now when Iran has reached the point of no return, is time to be lobbying, to be writing to our elected officials, to be inviting them to our synagogues and community centers and demanding that they explain to us everything they are doing to prevent a nuclear Holocaust.
History challenges us in strange ways. It is precisely when we might feel entitled to give ourselves a pass and allow ourselves time to recover that we must be working and fighting the hardest. We must refuse to submit just as Joseph and the Maccabees refused to submit. Their persistence was rewarded. May ours too be rewarded.