Genesis How to Predict the Present
Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)
What a gift it would be to see into the future! And yet, in reality, most of us are barely able to gain clarity on what is happening right now.
This human life is so precious. Gathering around the menorah with loved ones this time of year is one way we can really feel it. The glow of the Hanukkah candles reminds us of the light that is present even in the darkness and, the mystics say, the spiritual radiance which is always in our world but so easy to overlook1.
Indeed, in the hustle and bustle of ordinary life—to say nothing of the overwhelming nature of the times we are currently facing—it is easy to miss everyday wonder and beauty and difficult to perceive the present moment with clarity and immediacy. There is a teaching from the Talmud about the original seven-branched menorah which stood in the Temple—that when it was initially kindled it was supposed to bring forth the full flame on its own, without need for adjustment2. The Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov interprets this as a metaphor for personal experience, wherein the seven luminaries (i.e. orifices) of the face correspond to the seven wicks of the ancient candelabra. That means, if we keep our two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and mouth in the right condition, “elevated” like wicks to be kindled by using them for sacred purpose—then the inner light of beauty and clear perception can arise in us on its own.
What does that mean on a practical level? It is about being intentional both with what we ingest and also with what we put out into the world. According to the BBC, many of us consume in one day the same amount of information that someone in the 15th century might have encountered in their lifetime. While it is amazing to have so much knowledge coming our way, it is also extremely confusing, disheartening, anxiety-inducing, and—most tragically and ironically—something that can take us away from seeing situations clearly and appreciating the light and de-light of our everyday existence.
So, in that sense, what it means to keep our seven lamps sanctified is to be aware of what we engage with and to ask ourselves, “Is this information helpful? Or, is this a task which was meant for me?” Both with intake and output, are we aligning with our higher purpose?
The 16th century Kabbalist Moshe Cordovero reminds us that every part of our body can be a dwelling place of Divine light if we use it for a holy purpose3. If we use our hands for charitable acts, for example, they become like the hands of God, radiating the warmth of kindness. However, holy action is not such a simple thing if our minds and hearts are overwhelmed with extraneous information.
If we are diligent with what we take in, we can receive the simple gift of knowing the present, or at the very least, we can understand how we really feel about the content we’ve ingested.
Next, if we are so blessed, we can know the right course for our speech and actions to be of service to ourselves and others. By pausing, limiting intake, and reflecting we can begin to glimpse the hidden light within ourselves, and through clear-seeing we can express illumination through our deeds.
This week’s parashah, Miketz, describes Pharaoh’s dreams, which Joseph interprets to predict seven years of bounty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph, an incredibly gifted young man, channels God’s wisdom and advises Pharaoh to store away extra food during the seven good years in order to prepare for the difficult years that follow.
What would it be like for us to focus on storing up all of the goodness and bounty in our lives as a preparation for what may come?
Indeed, we do not know what the next seven years may hold, but they will undoubtedly require our inner storehouses to be well stocked. Whether we are expecting bounty or famine, consciously opening the doors of introspection is an asset—both for traversing difficult terrain and for savoring the good times in gratitude and enjoyment.
Increasing inner clarity can start in the simplest of ways by turning off our screens as a daily or weekly practice. Human beings are drawn to the light; that is why we have been lighting candles for thousands of years. It is also why Hanukkah and Shabbat—moments of sacred illumination—are perfect opportunities to focus exclusively on the light which feeds and nourishes, while turning away from the seductive and distracting glow of media devices.
In this season, I’m taking on a personal stringency to be free of social media for 36 days. When we add up each candle lit for the eight days of Hanukkah (1+2+3+4…+8) we get 364, a number which is also a symbol of hidden light and righteousness in our world5. I’ve come to see that the abundant information that streams from Facebook, Instagram, etc. has overshadowed my own inner spark, and I’m striving to find it again.
I’m inspired by the words of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, “Each of us is called to serve in alignment with a unique understanding and perception, according to the root of our particular soul. In this [inner] dimension that encompasses worlds beyond number, you will find the treasure of your life. Do not be thrown off balance by the things that rush into you from other worlds, those you cannot absorb properly6.”
I invite you to contemplate what it would mean for you to find grounding and stability amidst the storms we are facing. How can you guard your eyes and ears to make sure that you know what you really see and believe in this moment? How can you guard your actions so that you do the greatest good each day? For the end of Hanukkah, for this whole winter season and the seasons to come, may we all find our inner light and know the best ways to let it shine in service of the world we are building together.
Rabbi Matthew Ponak is a 2020 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He is a spiritual counselor and the author of Embodied Kabbalah: Jewish Mysticism for all People, and teaches Hebrew College adult learning courses. To contact him and learn more about his classes and one on one sessions visit MatthewPonak.com.
1See, for example, the Bnei Yisaschar’s 19th teachings on Or HaGanuz, the Hidden Light and Hanukkah.
2 b. Talmud Shabbat 21a
3Pardes Rimonim 22:2, see EmbodiedKabbalah.com for a translation and commentary.
4This number excludes the shammash, the “helper candle” used to light the others. In its origin, the shammash was placed there to be a light to benefit from (for reading etc) while the Hanukkah candles themselves were not supposed to be utilized for any practical purpose. Thus, the total number of actual Hanukkah candles can be counted as 36 as opposed to 44.
5See b. Talmud Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b for the original teachings of the 36 tzadikim [righteous people] found in each generation, a legend which later evolved into the notion of “hidden tzadikim” who do good but take no credit.
6Shmoneh Kevatsim 4:6, translated by Matthew Ponak in Embodied Kabbalah: Jewish Mysticism for All People