Last night (Thursday) we lit eight candles for Chanuka, dispelling the darkness with bright and hopeful light. What will we do tonight, then, when the darkness returns? We’ll light Shabbat candles, and their glow will have to be enough. And it will be enough.
This situation reminds me of something taught by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Amy Bolton. She notes that in this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, Jacob is nearly at a breaking point. He lost his son Joseph (he thinks) years ago, now his son Simeon is held ‘hostage’ in Egypt, and the price to free him – and the only way to procure food for the family during a severe famine – is to endanger another son, Binyamin, by sending him to Egypt as well. And all this is on top of the other many difficulties Jacob has experienced in life – his disfunctional familial relationships, abuse suffered from his uncle Lavan, the death of his beloved Rachel while bearing that now-endangered child Binyamin, the rape of his daughter Dina, having to move and begin again multiple times…
As Jacob turns Binyamin over to the care of his older brothers for that dangerous trip to Egypt and an unknown fate, he says these words as either a prayer, or more simply, as a declaration:
“May El Shaddai grant you mercy before the man [Joseph] and may He release to you your other brother and Benjamin; and as for me, as I have been bereaved, so I am bereaved.”
Rabbi Bolton asks: “Why does Jacob call God “El Shaddai” here? It is not a common biblical name for God, appearing less than ten times total in all of the Torah. And how, at this point in his life filled with suffering, does Jacob even have the emunah, the faith, to reference God at all?
The language in the verse is in second person, though it also has the form of a prayer. Jacob appears to be simultaneously addressing his sons and God, offering a plea, an assurance, a hope that God will show them mercy.”
She notes that “Rashi is clearly also intrigued by the use of this appellation – “El Shaddai” – for God, and offers two possible explanations.” You know these words – “El” of course is the general name for “God”, “sh” could be read as a prefix meaning “that” or “which”, and “dai” is “enough” as in the Passover song “Diyenu” – “It would have enough…”
Rashi’s first explanation “is that it is a reminder that God is sufficient to meet our needs – God has so much capacity for mercy that there is enough to go around, thus translating “El Shaddai” as “God Who is enough.” That is the “simple” meaning according to Rashi, perhaps reflecting the “simple” faith that Jacob must have had in order to remain confident – even after all of the trials he had gone through and witnessed – that God is indeed merciful. According to this first answer, Jacob is expressing an affirmation of God, an assurance to his sons that “El Shaddai” will see them through.
Yet “God is enough” is a difficult place to get to for many of us. It requires an amount of trust and confidence in God that, for some, is too much to muster. Perhaps this is why Rashi included a second answer, a midrashic interpretation from Tanchuma. According to this view, by calling God “El Shaddai,” Jacob is saying: May God, who said to the world “enough” at some point during creation, only creating that which would be able to exist within the limits He had set, also say “enough” to my troubles, and not give me more than I can bear…. Jacob is appealing to God’s merciful side to say “enough,” to translate God’s “enough-ness” into saying “enough suffering already.” In this understanding of the verse, Jacob is trying to come to grips with all of the hardships he has suffered in his life. In his appeal to God, he seems to offer God a challenge: ‘Enough! Stop the cycle of pain in my life!’”
The idea of God as “El Shaddai” is reassuring, suggesting, says Rabbi Bolton, that “there is enough of God’s divinity and mercy and love for every creature. One of the other references to “El Shaddai” is in Lekh-Lekha, when God appeared to Abram at age 99 and declared ani El Shaddai, “I am El Shaddai.” Rashi there interprets the name as an affirmation that there is enough of God to go around – “there is in my Divinity enough for every creature.” At this dark juncture in his life, Jacob is trying desperately to hold on to this ideal of faith. El Shaddai – may we all merit to feel “enough” God in our lives.”
Rabbi Michael Schwartz