Joseph with his brothers bowing before him (oil painting by Stefanie Steinberg)
Our Sages firmly believed that it was more than a coincidence that the Torah portion in which Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams is the portion read in synagogues around the world on the Shabbat that falls during Chanukah.
The most common explanation connects the lights of Chanukah which illumine the winter darkness to the emergence of Joseph from the darkness of prison to the light of freedom and the status he achieves as second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt.
For me there is another more personally meaningful explanation. In this portion Joseph emerges from the darkness of his own self-centeredness to the light of humility he has learned during his two years in prison.
At the beginning of the story Joseph flaunts his dreams and their interpretations in the face of his older brothers. Even though he is their father’s favorite son, and even though he and he alone receives the famous, “coat of many colors,” he makes matters worse by tattling to his father about whatever he observes the brothers are doing wrong. To rub salt in an already chafing relationship he flaunts his grandiose dreams of superiority and dominion in his brothers’ and his father’s faces.
But after two years in prison, he emerges with the light of a different perspective. When Pharaoh references Joseph’s skill as a dream interpreter, he responds with hard-learned humility: “Not I but God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”
This understanding of the connection between Chanukah and this part of the Joseph story makes Chanukah not just a historical remembrance or a time to show pride in our Jewish heritage. Rather the Festival of Lights becomes a catalyst for our personal journeys from the darkness of self-absorption to the light of selflessness.
The word. “Chanukah,” means, “Dedication.” The festival becomes so much more meaningful when it inspires us to “dedicate” our efforts less t our own self-interest and more to the well-being of those around us and the world at large.