Yesterday I was Sent to Prison…Mikeitz/Chanukah 5777
Yesterday, I was sent to prison. Not by the judicial system, but by the Aleph Institute, a phenomenal organization that looks after the spiritual and physical needs of a number of isolated populations, most notably: the incarcerated, the military, and the institutionalized. I was sent to go light the menorah for the roughly twenty-five Jewish prisoners living in the Macomb County Correctional Facility.
I’ve been to prisons before to visit other Jewish inmates, but those were usually lower security prisons. Some of them did not even have walls around them, as the prisoners were deemed very low flight-risk, and not a danger to society. Not so at the Macomb Correctional Facility, which houses prisoners in security levels I, II, and IV. While security level I includes non-violent offenders, security level IV includes violent criminals convicted of murder and aggravated assault. There are also many “lifers” at Macomb County Correctional Facility (MCCF from now on); prisoners who will spend the rest of their life in prison. Because of this, MCCF is built like a fortress. There are three twelve-foot-high chain link fences around the prison, all topped with tight coils of razor sharp barbed wire. There is barbed wire and electronic detection systems in between the first and second wall, and two gun towers flanking the corners. It is not a place that looks friendly.
When visiting MCCF, your visit is processed in the administration building at the entrance. You leave everything but your license in the car. You must be pre-approved for your visit, and you present your license to the officer behind the desk who makes sure you are cleared and sends you on to the check in area.
When checking in, I walked into a room with bullet proof doors and windows, the door locked behind me, and I was asked to walk through a metal detector, got a full body pat down, and I even had to take my socks and shoes off, and show the correctional officer that I wasn’t hiding anything.
They offered me a PPD, a personal protection device, basically a small box with a string attached. If you feel in danger, you pull that string which sets off an alarm, and guards will swarm to that area. I was considering declining it, as I didn’t want the Jewish prisoners I was visiting to think that I thought they were bad people, but one of the guards said to me, “Remember where you are,” and I readily accepted the PPD. My check-in complete, a different door opened, and I was now in the secure part of the prison.
I was escorted through the prison grounds from the administration building to the education building by two guards, along with two other volunteers who were there to facilitate a Kwanzaa celebration. The walk was cold and scary. We passed by a few buildings where the prisoners were eating dinner, but as we passed one of them the door opened and prisoners started spilling out. So here we are, three civilians, one of them wearing a kippah (me), and the other two in their fifties, walking along the path with two guards and about thirty prisoners.
We got to the education building where I was checked in by another correctional officer, who gave me a menorah (with the correct amount of candles, it was the sixth night of Chanukah) and a box of matches. While I was being checked in, three Jewish prisoners approached and introduced themselves. All three of them were wearing kippahs, and one even had tzitzis under his shirt! They were very friendly, and we started chatting. I assumed this was the whole group I would be meeting with, but after I was cleared, they walked me down the hall to another room where there were about thirty people, all wearing the blue and orange MCCF uniform!
The men ranged in age from low twenties to mid sixties, some with shaved heads, some with silver hair, and many with long beards. Their faces were friendly, they don’t get visiting rabbis often, and they were excited for the Chanukah program. One thing I noticed right away was that every single one of them was proudly wearing a kippah! You don’t see that “on the outside.”
I spoke briefly about the power of the Chanukah lights, made the blessings slowly and songfully, and lit the candles. We all sang together Maoz Tzur and Haneiros Halalu, most of them using song sheets provided to them by Aleph. Then everyone sat down and it was time for me to speak. What do you say? What kind of encouragement do you give people who are locked up for years, many of them for life? I didn’t know any of them, I didn’t know what they did to get there, but I knew that they were fellow Jews looking to me for some inspiration, some message of hope.
It so happens that Chanukah is the holiday whose message perhaps resonates most strongly with prisoners. I spoke about how the miracle of the Chanukah lights did not at all signal the end of the war, the end of the Maccabees struggle against the far more powerful Greek army. That war would continue for another fourteen years after the miracle. The Maccabees would continue to see brothers, cousins, and friends slaughtered by the merciless Greeks. So what is the message of Chanukah? It is definitely not a holiday that represents a total salvation, like Purim or Pesach, Chanukah is a holiday that falls out in the beginning of the winter, when there are still many months of darkness and cold!
The message of Chanukah is not that everything is going to be OK, but rather that G-d is with us even in the depths of our darkness. The Jews would have fourteen more years of war, and see many more injuries and deaths, but the candles that just kept going when they should have gone out, showed them that G-d was with them, and that gave them the internal strength to keep fighting. It was like G-d was winking at them and saying, “It may not be over, it may get darker before it gets light, but I’m here now and I will be here with you for the rest of this long and bitter battle!”
I talked about how we always read the story of Joseph being sold around Chanukah time. The Torah goes out of its way to tell us that the caravan of Ishmaelites that bought him was carrying spices, including balsam and birthwort (one of my Top 10 favorite spices!). Rashi is bothered why the Torah went out of its way to mention such a seemingly irrelevant piece of information. He brings the Midrash that explains that normally Ishmaelite caravans would be carrying smelly petroleum products like pitch, tar, or resin, but Ha-shem set it up that this caravan would carry sweet smelling spices so that Joseph not be bothered by the foul odors. This seems like a strange explanation. Joseph was just sold into slavery by his very own brothers, did he really care about the smells in the caravan?
But the commentators explain that it was G-ds way of winking at Joseph, and sending him a message that even though it was going to get a lot darker before it got lighter, G-d was with him and would be by his side throughout the ordeal of slavery which he was about to start.
I encouraged the men to look into their lives and see if they could see where G-d was winking at them. Most of them have many years to go, and a good number of them are in for life, but you can always find G-d with you, even in the darkest corners of the world. I could tell that the men were really being strengthened by the powerful message of Chanukah, but I cut it short, as it was almost 7:30PM. I asked the men when the program was supposed to end and they said 8PM, so I had another half hour with them. I asked them what they wanted to do during that time, and one man called out, “We’d like to take a field trip!”
I ended up telling them a few stories, one about people lighting a Menorah in Auschwitz, and one about how someone did a small act of kindness that ended up being repaid in a huge way. We had a short Q&A session and then it was almost 8PM. I walked through the room shaking everyone’s hand. They were so incredibly grateful, and they all asked that I continue to come out and visit with them, which I plan to do.
It was a fascinating few hours. Some of the key differences you notice in prison is that everyone seems pretty relaxed, and very much living in the moment. They’ve got nowhere to go, and nothing to do other than what they are doing. Some of the “lifers” were in prison for over thirty years, having been incarcerated before the internet was even invented! No one is looking at their phone in middle of the class, no one is gathering their stuff and walking quietly out the back door. They come to these programs because they are inspired by them, and once they are there, they drink it all up.
I may have been talking about the Menorah and the ability of its light to push back so much darkness, but I realized that in some way, that is exactly what we were all doing at that moment! We were the light of the menorah. In the middle of a cold and dark prison, in a group of people who at some point did some pretty dark deeds, we were bringing in the light and joy of Chanukah. We knew at that moment, that whether your home is in Oak Park or West Bloomfield, or even in Macomb County Correctional Facility, G-d is with every one of us in all of our darkest moments, and by holding on to our faith in Him, our candle will burn brighter and longer, illuminating the way forward to a better future!
Chanukah Dvar Torah
One of the primary functions of lighting the menora is pirsumei nissa, publicizing the great miracle that G-d performed on our behalf. This is why we only light the menora in a place that is highly visible such as a window open to a public thoroughfare. This idea also dictates the ideal time for lighting the menora. We should try to light it as it as it starts to get dark outside and people are heading home. During this time, our menoras can get the maximum exposure. If we can not light it then, we can light it later but preferably while there is still some traffic outside.
Based on the desire to publicize the miracle, the ideal place for a menorah would be right next to the door. Indeed in Israel, most people light their menorahs in that spot. The Sages teach us that a person should place the menorah on the left side of the door. Since the mezuzah is on the right, he will be surrounded by mitzvos when entering his home. Obviously, whatever is on the right when you walk in the door will be on the left when you walk out. So the menora which is on the left of the door when you walk in, would be on the right when you walk out. Is there any significance to which mitzvos are on what side when one walks in or out of his home?
The truth is that the mezuzah and the menorah represent two opposing ideas. The mezuzah is representative of compromise. There is an argument between two early commentators in the Talmud (Tractate Menachos folio 33A), Rashi and Rabeinu Tam, on how to properly place a mezuzah. Rashi says we should place it vertically, and Rabeinu Tam says we should place it horizontally. In practice, we place it diagonally in a compromise between the two opinions. This is the only time in all of Jewish Law where we have an argument in Halacha and rule in manner which strikes a compromise between the two views.
The Menorah represents being steadfast, unwavering, and obdurate. It commemorates a miracle that occurred to a small group of people that refused to be washed over in the tide of assimilation. A group of people who tenaciously hung on to their practices and beliefs even at a time when most of the world mocked them as old-fashioned, unrealistic, uncooperative, and foolishly superstitious. This group merited seeing the last open miracle that the Jewish people witnessed. They also merited having us commemorate that resolve every year, in an attempt to instill the lesson into our souls.
Let’s get back to the placement of these objects in our doorway. As we walk into our homes, the Mezuzah is on our right sight, the dominant side, reminding us that when a Jew comes into his home he must be prepared to make compromises in order to uphold the Shalom Bayis, the peace of the home. He cannot be rigid and unflinching, as that will cause his home to be rife with tension, arguing, and dispute.
However, as one walks out of his house, the menorah is on the dominant right side to signify to us that we cannot compromise our Jewish values even one iota when we are out in the big world. We cannot allow ourselves to do things that we normally wouldn’t do at home just to help the deal go through smoothly. We cannot allow our morals to become a bit more relaxed around the office, nor can we go hang out with friends in a setting that contrasts to the sanctity of our Jewish home. We need to take every aspect of the moral fiber of the Jewish home and bring it with us into the world outside, without a smidgen of adjustment or modification. This is the message of the placement of the Menorah and the Mezuzah, those two opposing symbols surrounding the Jewish home’s door. Together they make it into a Portal of Perfection!
This Parsha begins with Pharaoh having two very strange, yet similar, dreams. In the first one, he sees seven fat cows grazing in the marshes. Suddenly, seven thin, sickly cows consume the seven fat cows, but they don’t gain any weight. In the second dream, the same episode occurs with fat and thin stalks of grain. Pharaoh brings in all the wise people to help him interpret the dream but no one can do so.
Suddenly, the king’s butler remembers that there had been a Jewish boy in prison with him who properly interpreted his dream. He tells Pharaoh about Yosef, and Yosef is taken out of prison, bathed, barbered, and brought before the king (how did you like that alliteration?).
Yosef tells the king that with the help of G-d he will interpret the dreams. He explains that the dreams portend of seven years whence the land will experience great abundance (the 7 fat cows/ stalks), which will be succeeded by seven years of such hunger (the 7 thin cows/ stalks) that no one will be able to tell that there had once been an abundance (the thin cows/ grains not gaining weight). The fact that there were two dreams indicates that what they reveal will begin immediately.
Yosef then continues to advise Pharaoh to store up all the extra grain during the seven years of abundance so that there would be enough food to keep everyone alive during the famine. Pharaoh likes the idea and gives Yosef the job. He grants Yosef the title vice-king (Viceroy = Vice Roi, roi meaning king in French), and declares that Yosef shall run the entire Egypt, and that the only person with more power than Yosef will be Pharaoh himself.
Sure enough, things go as foretold. There are 7 years of plenty, Yosef gathers massive stores of food essentials, and then the famine begins. Oh, I forgot, in the middle Yosef gets married and had two children, Ephraim and Menasheh.
Soon, the famine reaches Israel and Yaakov sends 10 of his children down to Egypt to procure provisions for his progeny. He keeps Binyamin with him as he can’t bear to lose both of Rachel’s children, and he already lost Yosef (or so he thought). Now, it is important to remember that the string of events which follow were all devised by Yosef to help his siblings see the mistake they made in selling him, so that they could properly repent.
When the brothers come into Egypt they are rounded up and brought before Yosef who begins to interrogate them. They explain that they are from a family of 11 brothers and that they had another brother who is no longer with them. Yosef accuses them of being liars and spies and tells them that the only way they can prove that they are saying the truth is by bring down their remaining brother so that Yosef can see him.
Yosef instructs his servants to load up their donkeys and send them back home. However, he keeps one brother (Shimon) as a hostage and tells them that they cannot get any more food unless they bring Binyamin down with them. He then instructs his son Menashe to put each brother’s moneybag back into their sacks. When the brothers find their money, they become even more nervous, as now it looks like they stole!
The brothers go back to their father, Yaakov, and relate to him the events that transpired. He refuses to allow Binyamin to go down. Finally, the food runs out again, and Yehuda, the brother with inherent leadership capabilities, tells his father that he will take personal responsibility for bringing Binyamin back, to the point that he is willing to use his share in the World to Come as security. Yaakov relents and the brothers go back to Egypt with Binyamin.
The brothers bring money to the head of Yosef’s home and explain that they found it in their bags, but they are told to keep it. Yosef arranges for them to have a special meal with him. Yosef enters and inquires about his father, then turns to Binyamin and blesses him. Overcome with emotion, Yosef rushes out to weep and then comes back after regaining his composure. He then seats the brothers in order of age, telling them that his magic goblet told him their ages. He gives Binyamin a special portion 5 times larger than the brothers’ portions.
The next morning, when the brothers set out, he again instructs Menashe to put their money back in the bag, but he also tells him to hide his goblet in Binyamin’s sack. Soon after they set out, Menashe chases them down with a small army and asks them why they returned Yosef’s kindness with thievery, stealing the goblet they know is especially dear to Yosef. Yehuda speaks up for them and denies any liability, going as far as to say that if the goblet is found with any of the brothers, they can kill that brother and the rest of the brothers will be slaves.
Of course, they find the goblet with Binyamin, and Menashe tells the brothers that he won’t kill Binyamin, he will just take him as a slave, and the rest are free to go. They all go back to the palace, where Yehuda pleads before Yosef and tells him that all the brothers wish to remain together and that they will all become slaves. However, Yosef refuses, saying that he is not corrupt and he won’t take the others because they did no crime, but that Binyamin has to stay. In that tension-filled palace room, the Parsha ends, and I know you will be back next week to see what goes down!!
Quote of the Week: Worry is interest paid on trouble before if comes due. ~ William Ralph Inge
Random Fact of the Week: After a three week vacation, your IQ can drop by as much as 20%!
Funny Line of the Week: Hospitality: making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.
Have a Glowing Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham