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A Chanukah Message: Taking Your Life Back

As the only black man on the Brooklyn Dodgers team, Jackie Robinson was subject to lots of derision, racism, and bigotry. Determined to make it as a professional baseball player, Jackie never responded to the jeers and bigoted remarks players and fans would make as he would walk into the batter’s box. Despite the threats and racial slurs, Jackie simply continued to play and impress people with his athleticism and unimpeachable moral integrity. The object of nasty bigoted comments, he never gave in to the lowly remarks and proved himself more than worthy of the sport, leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the 1955 World Series against the New York Yankees. Even after he retired from baseball, Robinson continued to fight on behalf of civil rights, working alongside the great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.

Despite being placed in what seemed like a helpless situation, Robinson’s extraordinary self-restraint and discipline transformed him from object to subject, fulfilling one of the most profound teachings of the Torah.

In the book of Genesis, the Torah describes three incidents that take place in the life of the biblical character Joseph. In the very next chapter, each of those incidents is repeated: The first incident involves dreams. In chapter 37 of Genesis, Joseph tells of his two dreams to his brothers, and later in chapter 40, the Torah describes Joseph interpreting the dreams of his two cellmates in prison.

The second incident concerns “the pit.” In chapter 37 of Genesis, the Torah describes Joseph being thrown into a pit by his brothers, and in chapter 39 Joseph is thrown into an Egyptian prison (which the Bible calls a pit) from which he ultimately rises to royalty.

The third incident involves temptation and includes a second biblical figure, Judah—one of Joseph’s older brothers. In chapter 38, Tamar, the wife of Judah’s eldest son, dresses up like a prostitute and tempts her father-in-law Judah and later in chapter 39 Joseph resists the temptations and sexual advances of the wife of Potiphar.

What is the significance of all this repetition?

My friend Rabbi Yosie Levine of The Jewish Center suggested that each situation demonstrates Joseph’s transformation from object to subject. In each of these three situations Joseph is first acted upon—he begins as a passive object, but ultimately exerts his own influence and takes control of the situation.

In the first instance, Joseph begins by merely telling his dreams to his brothers (which only gets him into trouble) but later he takes to interpreting other people’s dreams. In helping others make sense of their troubling dreams, Joseph develops a reputation as an effective dream interpreter which inspires Pharaoh to fetch him from jail to interpret his own troubling dreams. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph that he releases him from prison and appoints him viceroy of Egypt.

In the second situation, Joseph is simply thrown into a pit by his angry brothers and then sold into slavery. Later when Joseph again finds himself in “the pit,” this time in an Egyptian prison cell, Joseph reaches out to his cellmates, offers them help, and it is here where he develops his reputation as a dream interpreter. Instead of simply feeling sorry for himself he turns to his cellmates and asks: “Why do you look so upset today?”1 Overcoming the natural tendency to become absorbed in one’s own problems, Joseph turns to his neighbor and opens a dialogue. By asking them what was troubling them and offering them aid, he transforms the second pit scenario into a positive situation by turning away from the role of victim to one of leader.

In the third scenario, Judah gives into temptation, submitting to a prostitute who, unbeknownst to him, was his own daughter-in-law Tamar. Later we see Joseph in a similar situation, the object of his master Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances. In this case, however, unlike his brother Judah, Joseph resists the temptation. He fights off the urge to be with Potiphar’s wife, which the Jewish Sages describe as a heroic feat since Potiphar’s wife was very beautiful and relentless. Joseph takes control of the situation by refusing to give in. In this scenario and in the two others Joseph transforms himself from object to subject, asserting a level of control over the situation in which he finds himself.

There are many contemporary examples of individuals who refused to become victims of circumstance and instead transformed themselves from object to subject. Research scientist Eleanor Longden was diagnosed with a devastating case of schizophrenia, tormented and nearly driven to violence and suicide by voices generated by her illness. She was hospitalized, drugged, and discarded by a system that didn’t know how to help her. Longden was eventually empowered by a psychiatrist to understand the voices in her head and has since earned a doctorate, published a book, and works with victims of schizophrenia, helping them find the peace she finally found for herself. French Journalist Jean Dominique Barbais, after a massive stroke, was left completely paralyzed except for the ability to blink his left eyelid. Refusing to be the victim, he went on to write a bestselling book, blinking out one word at a time.

Transforming ourselves from object to subject is fundamental Jewish teaching necessary for happiness and freedom on both the personal and national levels. Rabbi Joseph B. Soltoveitchik taught that this is precisely what was accomplished by the modern Zionist movement. For two thousand years, the Jew had been victims of the control and dominance of other peoples and governments. As visitors in other people’s land, Jews have been the object of dominators’ manipulation and control. By creating sovereignty in the land of their forefathers, Rabbi Soltoveitchik argued the modern-day Zionist movement effectively transformed the Jewish people from a people of fate, subject to the whims of other rulers, to a people of destiny capable of chartering and shaping their own future. While a life of fate is thrust upon the group or individual, a life of destiny is freely chosen by the people of their own volition.

The best ancient example of this is the Chanukah story we celebrate this week. The Jewish community, living under the Greek Seleucid Empire was placed in what seemed to be an impossibly helpless position. Subject to the mighty Greek forces ruling over ancient Judea, Jews were faced with an impossible choice: relinquish their Judaism in favor of the prevailing Hellenistic culture or suffer death at the hands of the more powerful Greek forces. Many Jews began to abandon their Judaism, changing their names and covering up their circumcisions to look and sound as Greek as possible. Others faced martyrdom and paid the ultimate price. However, the Hasmonites, better known as the Maccabees, refused to accept the Greek ultimatum of abandoning Judaism or facing death. Instead, they created a third option: revolt! The Maccabees staged a difficult but ultimately successful revolt against the mightier Greek forces. In doing so, the Jewish community took the situation into their own hands and transformed themselves from object to subject.

We may be convinced we have no way out of a situation when in fact some way out is right in front of us. It could be a situation at work where we are subjected to inappropriate or abusive talk of a superior. We may feel we have no choice but to simply take the abuse or risk losing an otherwise good job. Remaining in an abusive situation is always a choice, and as much as we may desperately need the job, we must consider the negative effects of remaining in such a position. Staying an object can be more detrimental to us than we think.

The same goes for romantic relationships: One of my students complained to me about her boyfriend who she had been dating seriously for over two years. Every time she brought up the topic of marriage, he changed the subject or would pull away from her. My student felt if she continued to pressure him, he would bolt, and she really loved him. She felt like she had no choice but to remain in the relationship and simply hope he would have a change of heart. I sympathized with her situation, but I told her she was being an object and that she needed to transform herself into the subject by taking control of the situation. I encouraged her to believe in herself more and tell her boyfriend, in the sweetest way possible, that she could no longer remain in the relationship if he couldn’t make a commitment.

The most important thing is not to allow oneself to remain helpless and trapped. In his extraordinary book, Fear No Evil, former Soviet dissident (and my personal hero) Natan Sharansky tells of his experiences in a Soviet prison after he was arrested for Zionist activities and for “spying for America.” Chanukah was approaching. Sharansky explained to his friends in prison that there was this Jewish holiday that celebrated his people’s national freedom and retaining their own distinct culture in the face of forced assimilation. Sharansky’s cellmates were so impressed they decided to celebrate the holiday with Natan and even fashioned a wooden menorah from materials in the prison. The prisoners found some candles and on the first night, Sharansky lit the menorah and afterward shared the heroic struggle of the Maccabees with his prison mates.

This Chanukah celebration continued each night for the next several days, until one of the cellmates, a man by the name of Gavriliuk (a Soviet collaborator whose bunk was across from Sharansky), began to grumble: “Look at him, he made himself a synagogue. And what if there’s a fire (“Fear No Evil”, page 306). On the sixth night of Chanukah, the authorities confiscated Natan’s menorah with all the candles. They said the candles were made from state materials and therefore illegal and that other prisoners were complaining he may start a fire. Sharansky complained to the Soviet authorities: “In two days Hanukkah will be over and then I’ll return this ‘state property’ to you. Now, however, this looks like an attempt to deny me the opportunity of celebrating Jewish holidays.” He received the following response from the authorities: “A camp is not a synagogue. We won’t permit Sharansky to pray here.” (Ibid)

In protest, Sharansky declared a hunger strike. He didn’t know this at the time, but in a few weeks, a commission from Moscow was due to arrive in the camp, which explains why Sharansky was summoned to the office of the head of the prison, Major Osin. Sharansky describes Major Osin as a huge, burly man who “seemed to have long ago lost interest in everything but food.” Osin tried talking Sharansky out of his hunger strike and promised to personally guarantee that in the future nobody would hinder him from praying. “Then what’s the problem? Sharansky asked. “Give me back the menorah, as tonight is the last evening of Hanukkah. Let me celebrate it, now and . . . I shall end the hunger strike.” (Ibid, page 307). But the protocol of confiscation had already been executed and Osin couldn’t back down in front of the entire camp.

“Listen,” Sharansky said, “I’m sure you have the menorah somewhere. It’s very important to me to celebrate the last night of Hanukkah. Why not let me do it here and now, together with you? You’ll give me the menorah, I’ll light the candles and say the prayer, and if all goes well, I’ll end the hunger strike.” Osin promptly retrieved the confiscated menorah from his desk. He summoned Gavriliuk, who was on duty in the office, to bring in a large candle. “I need eight candles,” Sharansky said. Sharansky continued: “Osin took out a handsome inlaid pocketknife and deftly cut me eight candles. I arranged the candles and went to the coat rack for my hat, explaining to Osin that ‘during the prayer, you must stand with your head covered and at the end say ‘Amen.’” Osin put on his major’s hat and stood. “I lit the candles and recited my own prayer in Hebrew, which went something like this: ‘Blessed are You, Ado-nai, for allowing me to rejoice on this day of Hanukkah, the holiday of our liberation, the holiday of our return to the way of our fathers. Blessed are You, Ado-nai, for allowing me to light these candles. May you allow me to light the Hanukkah candles many times in your city, Jerusalem, with my wife, Avital, and my family and friends.’”Inspired by the sight of Osin standing meekly at attention, Sharansky added in Hebrew: “And may the day come when all our enemies, who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say ‘Amen.’” “Amen,” Osin echoed back. (Ibid page 308)

I can think of no greater example of someone completely helpless and subject to another’s control than a prisoner in the Soviet gulag. Yet, even in that extreme predicament, Sharansky managed to assert some level of control. Like the modern Zionist movement today, the ancient Jewish community in Greek times, and the biblical Joseph, Natan Sharansky managed to go from object to subject and in doing so became a master of his own destiny. Transforming a life of fate into one of destiny gives us the upper hand in life and prevents other forces from simply moving us from one place to another like a feather in the wind.

Like Jackie Robinson in the challenging all-white majors of the 1950s, the Biblical Joseph in Egypt, or Natan Sharansky in Soviet prison our lives back and becoming masters of our own fate is a fundamental Jewish value, critical for happiness on both the individual and national levels. Chanukah celebrates such an event 2000 years ago. But in our own time, we too have merited to experience this, in witnessing the Jewish people’s rising from the ashes of the Holocaust – the ultimate object of other people’s control – to the creation of an independent Jewish State of Israel, enabling us to charter our own national destiny. What a blessing – never to be taken for granted. May we follow this example in our own personnel lives, and in doing live our lives with greater fulfillment and happiness, becoming the masters of our own fate.

The above idea is taken from Rabbi Mark Wildes Beyond the Instant: Jewish Wisdom for Lasting Happiness in a Face-paced Social Media World, Skyhorse Publishing, 2018


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