October is the month for two very different holidays — Columbus Day (October 8) and Halloween (October 31).
Columbus Day is about a lot of things, including the idea of “discovery.” For at least some people, Halloween is about tricks, treats, ghosts and scaring people.
Neither one is a Jewish holiday. But by the Jewish mode of thinking called midrash, I’ll try to make a connection. I need some biblical verses first, though. Here are two:
Now the men were frightened when they were taken to his house. They thought, “We were brought here because of the silver that was put back into our sacks the first time. He wants to attack us and overpower us and seize us as slaves and take our donkeys.”
Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there.
What’s the scariest thing in the world? That depends on who you ask. Some people would say it’s entering into a new relationship with someone. For others, it’s the threat of global warming or a melting polar ice cap. And there must be someone out there who thinks the idea of a caveman sitcom based on an insurance ad is really, really, scary. No end of candidates, really: Snakes on a Plane has sent people into Scareland.
Let me tell you what I think is scary to most Jewish people. There are a few things: anti-Semitism; any threat to Israel’s existence; and the idea of believing in Jesus. The first two are external things we have only a very limited control over. The last item in the list is more internal, and what’s scary is the idea that to contemplate following Jesus is tantamount to contributing to the destruction of the Jewish people, and to one’s individual identity as a Jew.
Now Columbus Day. Like life, this holiday is about discovery. As kids, we gradually discover the world around us. We discover our abilities, our limits, we discover geography through travel, we discover how to make a difference in the world. Columbus discovered a new land. Then came the discovery of space, disease, medicine, technology. We’re in an era now when we are discovering ourselves to an unprecedented degree.
Genesis 43:18 quoted above, is about being scared. It’s about Joseph’s brothers. You remember, the ones who sold him into slavery, and continued their lives over the years completely unaware that Joseph had become a very powerful person—the second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt. Not until a famine drove them to buy food in Egypt did they encounter their brother again, who played a cat and mouse game with them, scaring them out of their wits until he finally came out with who he was and embraced them as mishpochah, family. Until Joseph let on, though, his brothers were afraid that it was all a set-up to enslave them.
Genesis 26:19 is about discovery. It’s also about another famine (see verse 1 of that chapter), earlier in time than the one in Joseph’s generation. Isaac goes to live among the Philistines for a while where he is able to fruitfully work the land (that’s in verse 12). It doesn’t always go smoothly, and when Isaac flourishes among the Philistines, they stop up his wells until his servants discover new ones.
Two holidays in one month. Two famines among our people. In the “Joseph famine,” Joseph’s brothers were scared witless, unaware that Joseph was their brother and was waiting to embrace them. In the “Isaac famine,” Isaac did well for himself, but the discovery of fresh water led to quarrels until Isaac left for another place altogether.
Jewish people who contemplate whether Jesus is the Messiah are scared that they will be abandoning their people, history, heritage and future. Jesus, however, is our brother, the Jewish Messiah, who like Joseph is waiting to embrace us as mishpochah, not as someone alien and foreign.
Those Jews who have already discovered Jesus to be their Messiah sometimes find that, like Isaac, this discovery only leads to strife – strife with their own family and with the larger Jewish community. Some find they need to leave “for another place” because what they see as a discovery of fresh water has become a point of dissension.
May our Jewish people see Jesus as our brother (which he actually is), not the object of a quarrel. May our people see him as someone who provides us with mayim chayyim, living water, that is waiting to be discovered.
Such is a midrash based on two non-Jewish holidays!