Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Chanukah!
BY AMY JOSEFA ARIEL
MIKEITZ GENESIS 41:1 - 44:17
16 DECEMBER 2017 / 28 KISLEV 5778
Joseph has been in prison. Eventually, he is called by Pharaoh to interpret a couple of dreams: one of seven fat cows that are swallowed up by seven lean cows, and the other of seven fat ears of grain swallowed by seven lean ears. Joseph interprets the dreams to mean that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. He advises Pharaoh to store grain during the plentiful years and is appointed the governor of Egypt. As mentioned in a previous post, Joseph marries Asenath, daughter of Potiphar, and they have two sons, Menashe and Ephraim.
Famine spreads, and the only food is in Egypt. Ten of Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to purchase grain; Jacob keeps the youngest, Benjamin, at home. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. He accuses them of being spies, and insists that they bring Benjamin to prove that they are who they say they are. Joseph imprisons Simeon as a hostage. Later, the brothers discover that the money they paid for their provisions has been mysteriously returned to them.
Jacob agrees to send Benjamin only after Judah assumes personal and eternal responsibility for him. This time Joseph receives them kindly, releases Simeon, and invites them to dinner at his home. He plants his silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack. When the brothers set out for home the next morning, they are pursued, searched, and arrested when the goblet is discovered. Joseph offers to set the rest free and hold Benjamin as his slave.
If I lean in, I can almost hear them. They have stopped by one of the vendors. Their accents are definitely Greek. They are worried that if their children spend too much time with the children from the other synagogue – they had synagogues in ancient Greece, I looked it up – they might become too observant, or less observant, or might befriend a Greek child who has been allowed to join in, or might . . . the talking becomes bickering. The bickering becomes fighting. I’m not sure who threw the first stone.
It could have been anyone.
It wasn’t only a war of independence. The Maccabean revolt against the Greeks rose from an atmosphere of spiritual and cultural conflict. That they needed to oppose Antiochus who established Zeus in the Temple was clear, but to what degree could Jews adopt Greek culture and still be Jewish? The pagan gods? For sure not. What about logic and philosophy? Some of those myths were pretty great stories. The Hamsoneans, also known as the Maccabees, fought the Greeks and clashed with other Jews – the Jews drawn to Greek culture. The way we usually tell it, the Maccabees won. Hands down.
I’m not so sure. Did we really reject it all?
The Mishna declares that “A Torah scroll can be written in Greek” (Megillah 8b) and the Gemara explains that Greek beauty should find a place in Judaism. Maimonides himself adopted many principles of thought from Plato and Aristotle. And the first and second books of the Maccabees? The very place we get the history of Judah Maccabee, the liberation of Judea, and the rededication of the Temple – yeah, it was all preserved in Greek. First and Second Maccabees were included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible originally prepared for the Jewish community of Alexandria. When it became the official version of the Bible for the new Christian Church, its authoritative nature was rejected by the Jewish community. Okay, but without it, we would know almost nothing about the historical events of our festival of lights.
Clearly, there were Jews who appreciated some aspects of Greek culture. Jews like, you know, Maimonides. I wonder what Judah Maccabee would have thought of him. For that matter, I wonder what Judah thought of Joseph. Joseph, our patriarch who lived steeped in the foreign culture of Egypt, appreciated what Egypt had to offer, and also retained his Jewish identity. Even though it didn’t always look like it.
“Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down low to him… Joseph recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him” (42:7-8). They’d lived together, fought together, prayed together. How did the brothers not know it was Joseph?
Let’s ask the sages.
Sforno offers that his harsh tone startled them. Rashbam suggests because translators communicated between them – the brothers only heard him speak Egyptian. Ramban and Radak both point out that the brothers met the viceroy of Egypt surrounded by advisers and translators and dressed in royal regalia. The long and short of it? He talked like an Egyptian. He was at the head of Egyptian society. He adopted an Egyptian name. (41:45) Depending how we understand the story, he might have had an Egyptian wife. (for more on that see my previous post) He named his first child Menashe: “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” He named his next child Ephraim. “For God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” (41:51-52) In so many ways, Joseph looks and acts like an Egyptian.
On the other hand, the Egyptians clearly see Joseph as “other.” When first mentioned to Pharaoh Joseph was described as Ivri - “A Hebrew (Ivri) youth” (41:12). When served a meal, “They served [Joseph] by himself…. and the Egyptians… by themselves, for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.” (43:32)
Meanwhile, our Rabbinic tradition understands Joseph as righteous, calling him HaTzaddik despite his Egyptian acculturation. They point to Joseph’s words of commitment to God when he resists Potiphar’s wife: “How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (39:8-9) Among his family, Joseph never mentioned God, and now, he seems to speak of nothing else. Even standing before Pharaoh, his first words are, ‘Not me! God will speak to put Pharaoh’s mind at rest’. (41:16) They are very different characters, but in their focus on God Joseph and Judah Maccabee have much in common. Jewish tradition maintains the Hasmonean family was nicknamed “the Maccabees” for the initials of their battle cry, Mi Chamocha Ba-elim Adonai, “God, who is like You among the mighty?” (Ex. 15:11). Maybe Judah Maccabee would approve of Joseph after all.
But do we get any hint that Joseph was connected with our people, as well as God? Joseph’s wife may have been Egyptian, or she may have been Dinah’s granddaughter. Either way, it is by their children, Menashe and Ephraim, that we bless our own. We also have good reason to believe he yearned for our homeland. Joseph asked his children to make an oath that they would take his bones out of Egypt and bury them in Israel. (50:24-25)
I think Joseph’s sense of self and Jewish identity was strong; it just looked different from the Jewish identities of his brothers.
Like Joseph, we live within a majority culture we don’t entirely share. Like the Jews living in the time of the Maccabees, we wrestle with the ways we understand our Jewish identities within that majority culture, and in relationship with each other as Jews. We are Jewish. And we decorate a gingerbread house in blue and white icing with our kids. When we stand in prayer, we name only the patriarchs. We join a walk for a cause we care about deeply on Shabbat morning on the other side of the city. We wake up, put on make-up, and lay t’fillin every weekday morning. We show up when our non-Jewish friend’s father is buried on Shabbat afternoon. The values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, interests, and habits of our surrounding culture don’t entirely match our own, so like Joseph (and with thanks to Marcia Falk ) it is on us to figure out how to stay true to who we are in all of the ways that we are.
As we light the candles this year, I encourage us to look at the first night’s candle aware that we each begin where we are, with what we know, with the ways we are Jewish, with the ways we express our Jewish selves – sending our own light out into the world. And the second night, I ask that we take a moment to think lovingly about someone close to us who expresses their Jewish self in the way that is just right for them. And the third? On the third night we can turn our attention to someone whose ways of being Jewish haven’t always made sense to us, and reflect on what we’ve learned from them. And so on, reaching out through our communities, until the 8th night when all of our candles are lit, and when we together, in all of our Jewish ways, proclaim the miracle of Chanukah: That from that time until this, from generation to generation, across lands and languages, in one way or another, our people is still a people, and as we light these candles, we are One.
Shabbat Shalom v’Chag Urim Sameach.
Chanukah begins Tuesday night December 12th.