When I was about 19 years old, studying many hours daily in college and yeshiva, I decided I needed a change of scenery. I wanted to go do something exciting… something thrilling… but what? I found out about an invitation from Sing-Sing, a maximum security prison in upstate New York, to come make a Chanuka event for the inmates. I was in! I packed up my guitar and went with some friends “directly to jail!”
When we got there, we settled into the “party room.” This was a cement room, literally. The floors, walls, and ceilings were all a cold dirty cement (love the decorator there). The lighting was faint and flickering, and so were the faces of the inmates. Out of the thousands of inmates at Sing-Sing, there were about 25 Jewish prisoners that attended our event. They all looked like they were in prison… which made sense. The whole sight reminded me of a scene by Andrew Loyd Weber (Yes, for all you theatre buffs, you guessed it, Joseph and the Technicolor Coat!). It’s where Joseph is stuck in prison and it feels hopeless. And he has is monologue/solo:
Close every door to me.
Hide all the world from me.
Bar all the windows,
and shut out the light.
Do what you want with me.
Hate me and laugh at me.
Darken my daytime,
and torture my night.
If my life were important I
would ask will I live or die,
but I know the answers lie
far from this world.
I began to think of the biblical account of Joseph and his imprisonment, abandoned by his siblings, framed in a foreign country, and doomed to be “shut out from light.” But then I realized, wait a minute! He got out! How did he get out? Interestingly, the Torah tells us in the midst of his hopelessness, an account of a dialogue that sparked his redemption (Genesis 40:6-8):
Joseph came to them (the new prisoners) in the morning, and he saw they were aggrieved. He asked them, “Why do you appear downcast today?”
They went on to tell him about some disturbing dreams they had, Joseph helped to interpret what they meant, and it calmed them. This moment was the beginning of the course of events that ultimately lead to Joseph being taken out of the dungeon and ultimately becoming the viceroy to the King of Egypt.
I looked at these gloomy faces in this gloomy room, and I told them this story. Then I said to them, “You want to know how Joseph got out of his darkest hours, as every door was seemingly closed to him, all light was shut out, when his life perhaps felt meaningless? He looked around and found others who were down. And he brought light to them. He saw fellow prisoners and asked them, ‘Why are you looking so down? What can I do to help you? Tell me your sorrows, and let me see if I can be of service to you.’ This was the key to his redemption.”
We all have dark moments. We have them in our history as a people, and we have them in our personal lives. It is the light that we share with others that ultimately redeems us from the darkness. When we light the menorah on Chanuka, we remember a dark moment in our history and the light that shone through. We are told to light the menorah in a place where everyone can see. For true light is when we illuminate the world to others around us. That is when we experience the greatest light in our lives as well.
Happy Chanuka! May it be a beautiful year full of light and joy!