Most children thrill to go on a swing. It is challenging to start off from the still position and slowly build up momentum. Gradually, the swing goes higher and higher. Watching the child swinging reveals an interesting point: in order to get really high on the upswing, one must develop a really strong downswing. After reaching the lowest point, at which there is the greatest momentum and energy, one swings up aloft to the highest point.

It is one of the ironies of life that in order to swing to the greatest height, it is necessary to plunge to the lowest point. It seems to be almost a law of nature that there is often a “descent” in order to “rise”—a negative situation before the positive. In the Torah this principle is illustrated by the chain of events which begin in this week’s Torah reading: the descent of Joseph into Egypt and his subsequent rise to greatness.

In a tragic example of a breakdown of brotherly relationships, Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt. For thirteen years he suffered slavery, imprisonment and derision, but eventually ended up as the viceroy of all Egypt. From this position he was able to save his family and thousands of others from starvation during the terrible years of famine.1

This pattern is the key to the twin concepts of exile and redemption. The divine promise of redemption depicts an exalted state of being and consciousness for all humanity. However, somehow, in order to achieve this, there must also be the “down” swing: the bitterness and darkness of exile.

Our problem is that, sometimes, a particularly unfortunate accident happens. For example, as the swing comes to its lowest point, the person’s foot might catch on something, and he or she is thrown out of their seat. In other words, the exile can suddenly become so difficult that many people lose hope. After the Holocaust, there was widespread despair about the future of Judaism, especially as regards to traditional observance and knowledge. Miraculously, despite these fears, there has been a wonderful rejuvenation of Jewish scholarship and traditional life. Jewish knowledge and Jewish observance, in Israel and elsewhere, has moved into a happy, joyful upward swing.

In the life of an individual or of a community, there can be comparable jarring events which threaten to shake the person from his or her seat. Gradually, one comes to terms with the new situation, and makes a step forward. The challenge is to keep sitting firmly on the swing, holding on tight2 as it goes through what seems like the lowest point, with faith in G‑d that soon it will reach the exalted heights.

The Chanukah festival, which is always read in proximity of this week’s Torah reading, also expresses this pattern. The Jewish people had reached the depths of assimilation to Greek culture and idolatry. This process began as something voluntary among wealthy Jews, and then became enforced by government decree on everyone. The sacred Temple was defiled, and Jewish study and observance were banned.

It was the lowest point on the swing. Then, in a miraculous way, the Maccabees gathered together, defeated the Syrian-Greek troops, and restored the Temple. When they lit the golden menorah, although they had only one day’s supply of oil, miraculously it stayed alight for eight days, heralding a nationwide return to Judaism. Thus again the swing soared upwards.

Whatever happens, hold on tight!