This week’s Torah reading speaks of the dark side of our people’s journey as we read of the descent of Jacob’s sons into Egypt. At this point in the story, the brothers’ memory of throwing their brother Joseph into the pit has receded into the deep recesses of their minds. They no longer think of this brother, the one they planned to kill. These ten brothers journey down to Egypt hoping to return home with the much-needed food they need to sustain their families during a time of famine. However, the grain they so desperately seek was not easily acquired.
Upon arriving in Egypt they are imprisoned, thrown into a pit (as they did to their brother Joseph), and remain there for three days. Only then are they released and given provisions to take home, with one condition – that Benjamin, the youngest of Jacob’s sons, whom they had been left behind – be brought to Egypt. Simon remains in Egypt as a surety until Benjamin’s arrival. Only then do the brothers’ long repressed memories surface as we hear them say to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, Joseph, because we looked at his suffering and paid no heed as he pleaded with us. This is why distress had come upon us.” The dark phase of their journey is at hand.
What will sustain Jacob’s sons at this moment as they are forced to return to their father and request that Benjamin journey with them to Egypt? Despite their worry, it is Jacob himself who provides a clue. As the brothers prepare to return to Egypt for a second time, now with Benjamin, Jacob instructs them, “Take from the boughs of the land and put them in your sacks and bring them down to the Egyptian official as a gift.”
On one level this just seems wise – a father advising his son to bring a gift along for the Egyptian official holding Simon seems like common sense to help smooth the way at such a trying time. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav suggested another way to read this verse. He puns on the phrase, “bough of the land” – zmirat ha’aretz – and reads it to mean “song of the land.” Rabbi Nachman realized that Jacob’s sons may have needed more than choice fruits during their journey. So his interpretation has Jacob advising his sons to take with them a zemer, a song, from Eretz Israel and place it within themselves on this journey. In essence, the brothers were to be sustained by taking with them the melody of their homeland – a song from the people of Israel.
This Torah portion is most often read at the darkest time of the year, when the winter solstice arrives. It also falls this year on Rosh Hodesh Tevet when the moon’s light is just returning. Thankfully, we are not swallowed up by this darkness because of the Chanukah lights we kindle at this time. The lights of Chanukah are no ordinary lights. They are the lights by which we rededicate the symbol of the Temple, the beit hamikdash. They are the lights that remind us that the dedication of the few can overcome and banish the darkness of the many. They are the lights that – along with the many songs within us – give us the drive to continue despite the difficulties of the moment. May we draw on the power of song and the inspiration of the Chanukah lights to sustain us in our own journeys this year.