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How Do We Keep Our Past From Weighing On Our Present?

Last year, my partner and I spent the eighth night of Hanukkah in Portugal just after I finished a semester of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. Of course, I could not forgo the tradition of lighting the Hanukkah candles, so a hotel staff member allowed us to light them on the hotel’s private roof.

We set up the hanukkiyah, placing each candle in a row, as I excitedly imagined the full effect of a lit menorah against the stunning backdrop of the city of Lisbon. I struck the match and lit the shamash and…the flame went out. The roof was too windy. I tried again, not yet accepting the physics of being on a rooftop, but it was no use. We could not light the candles on the last night of Hanukkah, let alone keep the shamash lit for even a second. 

To me, this felt like the opposite of the miracle of Hanukkah. I was defeated. I had just traveled from Jerusalem, and could still feel the joy of kids singing and dancing among the glow of the Hanukkah candles in the cobblestone streets of Nahlaot. That elation was such a stark contrast to this dark moment, as I stood on a rooftop, hidden, unable to keep a single candle lit. 

Earlier in the day, we had taken a Jewish tour of Portugal and learned about the Jewish community that was eradicated centuries ago, with no trace of even an artifact remaining. Without realizing it, I carried that pain with me too as we tried to light the Hanukkah candles. 

I could not help but feel like a windy Portuguese rooftop was trying to tell me to lose hope. The pain I felt when the Hanukkah candles went out carried along with it years of generational trauma. 

Reflecting on this experience now, I know I was expecting way too much from my travel-size hanukkiyah. A hanukkiyah and some lit candles don’t carry the weight of our past—but we do. I am reminded that, in Judaism, we don’t worship objects, but we do use them as reminders. We use them as objects that help keep us on the path of our values, reminding us of important ideals we might otherwise forget. 

These objects are aids to our awareness. And when we are not aware of how our past is affecting us, we can lose sight of our values. When we put them in context, we can better understand our reactions and adjust them as needed.

In the parashah this week, Miketz, we move into the part of Joseph’s story where he interacts with a traumatic piece of his past. He is reunited with his brothers—the ones who tried to kill him and who sold him to slavery. Unsurprisingly, Joseph is still affected by his past. He is haunted by what his brothers did to him and has yet to process it, so does not let them off the hook easily. His vengeful response may make sense, but it is not an excuse for his actions. 

While our past trauma is part of us, we should not ignore it, unprocessed, and then let it turn into revenge. Ultimately, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and they reconcile, but he—perhaps obliviously—inflicted the same pain onto his brothers because of what he had experienced. Though he doesn’t act on his threat, the test he put them through was itself cruel.

Since October 7, this traumatic pain has resurfaced for many of us. With the distress of the war in Israel and Gaza and antisemitism on the rise, many Jews are reliving the pain of our shared past. 

So how do we honor this pain without acting out?

We remember our past and are aware of how it informs our present, but we do not let it control us. Perhaps we use meaningful objects like the hanukkiyah or the Shabbat candles as reminders of what we’ve been through, to give us permission to sit in those emotions. But what we cannot do is let our past—or a symbolic token of it—overtake our actions today or lead us astray from our values. As we put away our hanukkiyot for another year and move into Shabbat, let us honor whatever feelings we may be holding in response to the past week, the past two months, or even the past thousands of years. And let us use this connection to forge a new and better path forward. 

Shabbat shalom.