from the heart of jerusalem

The power of light to push away the darkness


Recently, my brother shared with me the following story: Yuli Edelstein the speaker of the Knesset, was visiting a small school in Beitar Illit (Le’tzion Be’Rinah) and shared the following story:

On Dec 19, 1984, Edelstein was sentenced by a Russian Tribunal to three years of hard labor in Siberia. Technically the crime was possession of narcotics, but the real crime was that the Russians had caught him teaching Hebrew.

“That day in court was after three solid months of being imprisoned in an isolation cell in Moscow’s infamous Chistopol prison,” Edelstein recalled. “I was taken straight from my prison cell to the court, and found it full of Russian military and security personnel, who had clearly filled the court room to ensure there was no room for any of my supporters; only my wife and mother managed to get into the courtroom to hear the sentencing.”

After the sentencing, the 26-year-old Edelstein was immediately surrounded by Russian security personnel. On his way out of the courtroom he managed to stick his head through the ring of security and had a moment to say something to his wife, whom he likely would not see again for at least three years, if ever. He had not seen his wife for three months; what would he say to her? What one sentence was he driven to share with her? What was the question he asked her?

“Tonya! What candle is it?” 

The security personnel who overheard him must have thought he had lost his mind; after all, he had just heard he was sentenced to three years of hard labor. Years later his wife would share with him that at first she thought the same thing. So again he yelled: “What candle is it today?” 

Then she got it: So she yelled back: Tonight we light the second candle of Chanukah!” 

He had been in an isolation cell for three months but when the judge read the sentence and announced the date, he realized it might be Chanukah; as it turned out, he was sentenced on the first day of Chanukah in 1984.

That night, no longer in an isolation cell, but in the cell of sentenced prisoners, he managed to get hold of a couple of matches. And on the second night of Chanukah, Yuli Edelstein, son of two Russian assimilated Jews, who had come full circle back to Judaism, lit the Chanukah lights with two matches, standing in front of the barred window of his cell. 

Reciting the blessings over the miracles Hashem had performed for the Jewish people so many years ago, he held the matches until the flames burnt down to his fingertips.

As he explained to the school children with whom he was speaking: “It may have been the shortest candle lighting in Jewish history, lasting only a few seconds, but that little bit of light for me pushed away an enormous amount of darkness.”

How can such a little light push away so much darkness? Natan Sharansky, arguably the most famous Soviet Jewish prisoner of conscience, was imprisoned for many years and became a symbol of the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and ‘80s. I was there with the thousands of supporters who welcomed him home to Israel when he was freed in 1986 and will never forget the moment he proclaimed, holding high his new Israeli identity card, “Am Yisrael Chai.”

I once had the privilege of sitting next to Sharansky at a dinner and asked him whether he still bore malice towards his Russian tormentors. His response, which remains with me, was that they were just doing their job, and he was too busy getting on with his life to hold on to any anger. Amazing.

This week’s parsha, Vayigash, actually tells the story of one of the most incredible such moments in human history: Yosef’s rapprochement with his estranged brothers.

Twenty two years after they threw him in a pit and sold him as a slave, and despite all he had endured, Yosef seems to bear no malice towards his brothers and forgives them with tears in his eyes (Bereishit 45:1-9). While this is not the first time we sense forgiveness in the Torah, it is the first instance of one person’s real forgiveness of another. G-d ultimately forgives Adam and Eve, commutes Kayin’s sentence, and so on, but G-d does not really forgive because everything is part of His plan to begin with.

There are earlier instances of rapprochement in the Torah, but not of actual forgiveness: Avraham avoids a conflict with his nephew Lot (ibid. 13: 5-14) and they “separate,” but Avraham never gets angry and there does not seem anything to let go of. And when Esau and his long estranged brother Yaakov finally meet many years after Yaakov “stole” the blessings, Esau does not actually forgive Yaakov; the topic does not even come up in their conversation (ibid. 33:1-17).

But with Yosef, there is no avoiding the topic. When Yosef finally reveals himself the brothers cannot speak; they are clearly terrified.

If there ever was a person who had the right to be angry, it was Yosef. After all, his brothers robbed him of his youth — they stole 22 years of his life! And yet, finally given the opportunity to confront his tormentors, he not only seems to have no anger, he actually understands how terrified they must be and wants to comfort them! He not only seems to forgive them, he wants to help them! He immediately offers them a place to live, guarantees their sustenance and sets in motion the plan to bring Yaakov and Binyamin down to Egypt under his protection. 

What is the secret to such magnanimity? 

To understand forgiveness we first need to understand the anger and the sense of being wronged that necessitates forgiveness in the first place. Anger is about expectations — I become angry because I feel I deserve better or I am not sufficiently appreciated.

“I,” “I,” “I.” Anger, essentially all about me, and Judaism teaches that this is a character imbalance, that it’s really about seeing Hashem in everything and recognizing that life is not all about me. 

And that is exactly what Yosef does. He does not see himself as the center of the story: “For G-d has sent me before you to provide sustenance” (ibid. 45:5). Life becomes less about what someone else has done to me, and more about why G-d is giving me such challenges. Which leads to the second aspect of forgiveness.

Many years ago a very special friend (Rabbi Danny Beller z”l) pointed out that to be forgiving is really to be for giving, about wanting to give rather than to take. The Hebrew word for love, ahava, means to give (le’havi is to bring) because love is all about giving, as opposed to lust which is all about taking. That’s why when you love someone they are your partner, but when you lust someone they become an object. That’s also why love grows, and lust wanes.

The more you see Hashem as the center of reality and the person you love as so clearly created in Hashem’s image, the more ridiculous it becomes to get angry. To quote another line I recall from Rabbi Beller z”l: Forgiveness is an absolute refusal to live in a state of ill will. And the healthiest thing we can do with anger is simply to let it go. And we do that by recognizing that whatever made me angry is really a gift from Hashem.

Incidentally, that is the difference between just letting go, as Esau does, and the forgiveness of Yosef. Letting go still leaves us apart, which is part of why Esau and Yaakov go their separate ways (ibid. 33:16-17).

Real forgiveness, based on love, brings us together, as with Yosef and his brothers. Certainly, we could use a lot more of that.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.