|For eight nights, we have been lighting our menorahs. For each night, we added one candle, one flame, until last night, when we were full throttle, eight glowing candles plus a shamash. And then tonigh …as the sun set, Chanukah ended. And yes, we light our beautiful Shabbat candles tonight, but the bottom drops out a bit. Suddenly, no Menorah full of light, no dripping wax, no dreidels or singing Mi Yimaleil. It’s abrupt, the end of Chanukah. And it’s not uncommon to feel a bit of a Chanukah let down, the darkness a bit more pronounced because of its contrast to the light of last night. And now the air gets colder. And now the long winter begins.
But wait! In the midst of that jarring light vacuum, this past Monday, in the middle of a holiday about miracles, we started seeing pictures of the first COVID vaccinations. If you haven’t seen it, search for the hashtag #Igottheshot on social media and it is image after image of photographic hope as frontline medical workers roll up their sleeves. Yes, this shift toward normalcy will all take awhile, but oh wow, it’s hard not to get a little teary when the cavalry arrives.
BUT WAIT. On the same day as the first of these vaccinations, our country recorded our 300,000th death from this virus. A threshold we never should have seen. The loss is unfathomable and the numbers are surging again.
These highs and lows are enough to give us all emotional whiplash. What should we feel? How do we do this? When our rituals have gone from immense light to abrupt ending. When the nights are getting colder, but the snow is so beautiful. When the COVID numbers are surging, but our relief as we line up for the vaccine is palpable. What are we expected to feel in this rollercoaster world of emotional extremes and how do we do this?
For this, we might take a page out of Joseph’s book. We’re in Parshat Mikeitz, and Joseph has become second in command to Pharaoh. After a stint in the prison house, Joseph has made himself useful to the king of Egypt and now presides over the wealth of the kingdom. After foretelling of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, his vision has come true and now, people from all over neighboring countries come and appear before Joseph to procure rations for their starving families back home.
One of those families who comes before Joseph to get food is Joseph’s own brothers. Remember that these were the brothers who, jealous of him, cast Joseph into a pit, sold him into slavery, and lied to their father, saying he had been killed by a beast. And now they come before him and beg for his help.
The text tells us that the brothers did not recognize Joseph, but he recognized them. Imagine now, his own whiplash of extreme emotion.
Rage toward these brothers who abandoned him. Bitterness, maybe a hunger for revenge, for how they treated him. But wait. He must have also felt heartbreak that they had gone on living as a family together without him. But wait, he must have felt so much longing, seeing his birth family, the only ones who knew him as a boy, after so many years. But wait, he must have felt so much rejection. So much confusion. So much superiority that now they needed him. So much worry about his dad back home. But wait. There was his little brother, Benjamin, with them. His beloved Benjamin who had done him no wrong. But wait, the Torah tells us that he overhears his brothers talking, not knowing he understood their words, expressing their guilt and even regret for what they had done to him. Emotional whiplash. How should he feel? What should he do? How does he handle this ping-ponging of his heart and head?
As his brothers stand before him, Torah gives us a peek into his heart.
וַיְמַהֵ֣ר יוֹסֵ֗ף כִּֽי־נִכְמְר֤וּ רַחֲמָיו֙ אֶל־אָחִ֔יו וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ לִבְכּ֑וֹת וַיָּבֹ֥א הַחַ֖דְרָה וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ שָֽׁמָּה׃
“With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brothers and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there.”
The second most powerful man in Egypt. And what did he do? He cried. He ran out of the room. And he wept. Why? Nich’m’ru rachamav.
Our text translates nich’m’ru as he was overcome, but it’s closer to “churned up”—his emotions were all churned up inside of him. He felt everything all at once. This man, this person known widely as the wisest leader in Egypt, runs out of the room and cries.
And, to be clear, it does not say—“Joseph runs out of the room and then says to himself: ‘come on Joseph, get it together, man,’ shaking off his tears.” Joseph is not worried about being called a wuss. He’s not concerned about the stigma of his tears or emotions. Joseph literally takes the time he needs to cry. And feel it all, the highs and the lows. Later, once he reveals himself to his brothers, he doesn’t leave the room. He weeps in front of them a cry that the Torah records as vayiten et kolo bivchi vayishm’u Mitzrayim—so loud that all of Egypt heard it.
Somehow, we have misguidedly come to a place and time in history in which there is stigma around feeling our very normal emotions. Stigma around crying or admitting we are not okay. This is especially so for men, but really it touches everyone.
But we see clearly that our tradition provides something different for us. Even the most powerful are balls of tears when the world hands them the heights of pain and the heights of joy and the depths of sufferings and the depths of hope all at the same time.
Nich’m’ru rachamav —Joseph’s emotions were churning inside of him. But rachamav, while translated often as his emotions, is not quite that. Rachamim means compassion. Rachamav means his compassion. So as Joseph is experiencing the full spectrum of emotion with his brothers, what is it that rises to the surface for him? His rachamim emerges. His compassion. For his brothers, and for himself.
This might be the heart of the lesson we most need right now.
This time of year, the holidays and new year season in the dark winter months is known to precipitate or exacerbate depression and anxiety. That fact coupled with the extreme highs and lows we are facing plus our need to keep isolating—friends, it’s a lot.
So tonight, for the sake of anyone facing these turbulent times with trepidation, I ask that we try to draw on Joseph’s wisdom, his courage to feel out loud what he is feeling, and also to allow, of all things, his compassion to rise to the surface.
What might that look like?
Compassion for ourselves—maybe giving ourselves permission to cry—alone or with a friend. Giving ourselves the gift of talking with a therapist. Surely it’s to stop telling ourselves to “get it together, man” and instead allow ourselves to feel what we feel without judgment.
And compassion for each other? Actively and verbally destigmatizing mental health issues, encouraging one another to seek professional help if needed. Being a judgment free place for a friend to come to. These are acts of Joseph-like compassion.
So let’s start here: Jewish tradition places no stigma or judgment on depression or anxiety or other mental health issues. Good. Now we all know. So if you find that nich’miru rachamecha—your emotions are all churning right now, you are as beloved as Joseph.
In this judgment free space, Caryn’s going to drop a couple of resources into the chat now (see below) because just like we go get help when we are physically sick, so we go get help when our ailment is psychological. And this virus has hit us in a lot of different ways—compromising our mental health among them.
Chanukah is, indeed over, but maybe it’s on us to light up the ninth night and all those that follow. May we be like Joseph—bold in our emotion, brave in our expression of it, and compassionate in how we respond to it.
Some resources if you find yourself in emotional distress:
If you prefer to text: Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor. Free 24/7 support.
If you prefer to speak by phone: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (Note: You do not have to be contemplating suicide to reach out for help at this number)