During Chanukah, when talking about the shamash on the menorah, the helper candle with which we light the other 8 candles, I realized that Joseph who we’ve read about the last few weeks in the Torah, was a kind of shamash in the prison. The Torah says about Joseph in the prison: “Et kol osim sham, hu haya oseh” Everything that they did there, he did.” The word “shammas” in Yiddish or “shamash” in Hebrew means servant and is used for the person who assists and makes everything happen in the synagogue: anything that needs to be done, he does. The Hebrew word “shamash” is derives from the name for the ancient Semitic word for the sun god, Shamash, sometimes also the author of justice and compassion. How striking to me that the word for sun came to mean someone who serves others and that this is who Joseph became in prison.
This year, during Chanukah, I told a story adopted from Peninah Schram and Steven M. Roseman’s retelling of Jewish folklore: The Secret of the Shammas. They write that “we must do what the shammas tells us. We must help to spread torah and light. We must help the weak and the oppressed. We must help the needy and teach those who do not know. In this way, you will also rise to a higher level and the world will benefit from you.”
Even when Joseph is at the bottom of society, stuck in a jail for an indefinite amount of time, he finds a way to serve others. This is the first step in his ascension to a high position. When he is no longer trying to prove himself as he had with his father, when his conversations are no longer reports about what his brothers did wrong, or about his own dreams, when he has turned his attention to doing for others, is he on a path towards light. As a shammas, a light unto others, he then ascends. He brings light to the Pharoah through service and is rewarded for his acts.
Now that Joseph has served as a light unto others, now that he has done what needed to be done, he can face his past. This week, in Vayigash, we find Joseph face to face with his brothers and ready to reveal his identity. Perhaps Joseph can reveal himself now because the brothers too have moved towards a position of service having come to Egypt twice for food, and Judah’s willingness to be taken into Joseph’s custody in place of Benjamin. He can reveal himself and reunite with his family as a brother and a son.
Maybe what we learn from Joseph is that when we are at our lowest, when we are in a darkness that imprisons us, the first step towards change is to bring light into the darkness by serving others as the shammas does. I think it is when we can turn our attention from ourselves, our accomplishments and our own status in the world and put our attention on helping others that we feel the light within us. When we serve, we uplift others thereby igniting their lights, just as the shammas of the Chanukiyah does. Maybe, like Joseph, when we haved serve others continually, helped the weak, oppressed and the needy, maybe then we can also face and shed a light on our past.