At our December 17th Saturday Morning Shabbat, Rabbi Steven delivered an inspiring sermon on the inclusive universality of the hanukkiah. You can hear this sermon on the latest Contact Chai Podcast. If you have been inspired this year by the songs, sermons, and services from Mishkan, then we invite you to consider a donation of any size to help us bring more inspiration in the new year.
Returning to the same text, each year — within the sweeping narrative of the Torah, allows us to pay attention to the small details. The rabbis believed that each word (if not each letter) could tell entire stories, linking us to other moments not only in this text but the collected stories of our people. There’s a very small moment in this week’s text that unlocks one of my favorite midrashim.
Our parashah opens up with a very peculiar gift. We’re told that Joseph was his father’s favorite son (a fact that sets the stage for the intra-family drama, and near fratricide, that we just read about). Jacob gifts his son a katonet pasim, an amazing technicolor dreamcoat (or, more woodenly, an ornamented tunic). A gift, at its best, is a reflection of how the giver sees the receiver. So what does the katonet pasim tell us about Joseph, as seen through the eyes of a loving father?
To unlock these words, we need to go back a few chapters – before Joseph is born. Let me set the stage: the sisters Leah and Rachel are both pregnant, they have a tense but loving relationship that has been put under strain by being married to the same man (Jacob) who clearly favors the latter over the former (this is not a good model for consensual and communicative polyamory). Leah and Rachel have been competing for Jacob’s favor by trying to have children and, because this is a patriarchal society, sons specifically — so much so that they have forced their slaves to become surrogates on their behalf (deeply problematic and a lot to unpack here). At this point, Leah has had six sons, Bilhah and Zilpah two each, and Rachel none.
When we are first introduced to Leah, she is described as having “weak” or “soft” eyes (einei Leah rakot). Yet it is suggested that perhaps we should reach arukhot, long — meaning that she had foresight. Whether through prophetic ability, or through her sensitivity and intuition, the rabbis teach that Leah understood Jacob was destined to only have twelve sons – the future twelves tribes of Israel. And Leah knows that she is pregnant with a male child, while her sister Rachel is pregnant with a female child. So let’s do the math: if Leah already has six sons, with one more on the way, and Bilhah and Zilpah have two each – and only twelve sons will be born to Jacob, then Rachel would only be able to have one son. And again, the patriarchy, she would be of lesser status than the two enslaved women (noting the cringe here).
So Leah prays – and miraculously through her prayer, the sex of the two children change in utero. And so Leah gives birth to her daughter Dinah, and Rachel gives birth to her son Joseph. But here’s the thing. The midrash tells us that although the physical bodies of the children changed, their souls did not. And so we’re given the first gender non-conforming or trans characters in the Bible. Don’t believe me? The rabbis bring in proof texts. For Dinah, we go back to when she wanders from the camp. Vayteitzei Dinah, and Dinah went out to see the woman of that area. Who else vayeiyzeis? Her father, the very opening of our last parasha: Vayeitzi Yaakov mi-Beer Shava, and Jacob went from Bersheva. To strike out alone, at the time, was seen as a particularly masculine act. And what about Joseph, what’s his proof text? His katonet pasim (almost forgot about that, didn’t you). There’s only one other katonet pasim in the Bible, and it belongs to Tamar. And when this garment is described in Samuel II, we’re told that it was specifically worn by maiden princesses. So Jacob, in gifting Joseph his katonet pasim, is really saying: werk, queen.
I’m sharing this midrash because not only is it one of my favorites, but it also points to the reality that a nuanced and multifaceted understanding of gender is indigenous to our tradition. The rabbis, two thousand years ago, conceived of at least six gender categories; yes, male and female – but also intersex and nonbinary. They understood that these categories were mutable (I’ll tell you about the great midrash that tells about Abraham and Sarah’s gender transition another time). And this fact, this fact is vitally important right now. Despite recent wins (which can and should absolutely be celebrated), the LGBTQ+ community is under attack – by conservative legislators, by armed protesters outside of drag story hours, by gunmen coming into the spaces that are supposed to be our safe havens and murdering us.
And so many of these people masquerade their bigotry under the banner of religious freedom. But I want to say, religion does not belong to the right. It belongs to us as well. And our faith, our culture, our tradition says — unequivocally — that queer people exist. We have always existed. From Dinah and Joseph to Edie Windsor and Harvey Milk, we are links in the chain of tradition that connects the Jews of today with the Jews we read about in the Torah. And as such, we have a place in community, you have a place in this community – not simply to be tolerated, but to be lifted up and celebrated. This is the driving principle of the Mensch Academy, and all of our educational programming at Mishkan: that each of us should be loved, should feel safe enough, to be our whole selves.
The primary mitzvah of Hanukkah is not simply to kindle the lights of the menorah, but to share that light with the world by placing the candles in our doors and windows. Yes, the hanukkiah is a universal (and incredibly important) reminder that each of us has the ability to create light within the deepest darkness. But it is also a symbol of particularity, remembering a time when we refused to be anything other than Jews – despite forces that sought to eradicate us. Barukh atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, she’asah nisim lavoteinu bayamim ha’hem baz’man ha’zeh, blessed is the source of all things who wrought miracles for our ancestors in their day, in this season. It is a bold assertion of nonconformity, of daring uniqueness, of brilliant individuality. It is a reminder that our particular light – straight or queer, cis or trans, male, female, or nonbinary — is what a world, so lost in darkenss, desperately requires.
So as you gather around the hanukkiah tomorrow, as you light that first light, know that you carry a light within you that only you can kindle – as you are, just as you were always meant to be. And watch the incredible miracle that even that single flame has the power to dispel the darkness.