The special convergence this year between Hanukah, Thanksgiving, the aftermath of the Boulder flood and the devastating typhoon, together with the story of Yosef brings up many Torah themes. Of course the most obvious, -especially for me since my name means thanksgiving- is the importance of developing an ongoing ‘gratitude attitude,’ even, and perhaps especially, in the presence of life’s challenges. Hope and optimism without awareness of life’s difficulties is unrealistic, but awareness without hope and sensitivity to silver linings can lead to despair and depression.
Tonight, the 19th of Kislev, is also the liberation from prison of the first rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Sheur Zalman. He was in prison for 54 days for his unrelenting spread of Torah and Judaism in Russia, yet he did not despair. When he was released, the Russian opposition was at least temporarily transformed into support for his projects.
In the upcoming Torah portions, Yosef literally finds himself frequently in ‘pits,’ yet he does not give up. According to the sages, even when his brothers give him over to the snakes and scorpions, G-d’s protection, and/or Yosef’s own positive vibes, keep the poisonous creatures at bay. When Yosef is sold to the nomads, their caravan ‘happens,’ according to Rashi, to be carrying sweet smelling spices instead of the more common foul odor of kerosene like substances. Then, when he is later wrongly imprisoned, instead of stewing in his own misery, he turns to a few other prisoners who look forlorn, asks what’s wrong, and offers to help. This gesture becomes the upward turning point in his life. Even when his brothers later fear revenge, Yosef reassures them by telling them that whatever they may have plotted, G-d turned events in a positive direction.
The Hanukah story too expresses how the Maccabees may have needed to hide in caves, but they did not cave in to religious suppression. And the ‘small miracle’ of finding a cruse of oil that lasted for eight days, was taken, like Yosef’s sweet smelling caravan, as a sign that G-d’s presence was still with them.
Thanksgiving also reflects appreciation for bounty and blessing amidst struggles for survival. And if you have read some of the inspiring stories of the IDF assisting in the Philippines, and especially the birth of the first baby after the typhoon who was named ‘Israel’ as an expression of gratitude to the Israeli doctors and helpers- you know that you can find sparks of light and joy even among devastation. Finally, we here in Boulder can join what one rabbi refers to as the importance of ‘rooted gratitude,’ –that is connecting the present to the past- during the amazing confluence of this year’s events. As we say in the Hanukah prayers- we give thanks for the miracles, ‘bayamim haheim, bizman hazeh,’ in those days, (and) at this time. Like a charm bracelet, may our gratitude continue to link our present moments to links of eternity.