This Shabbat we would have read Parshat Vayeishev in the Torah, the beginning of the Joseph saga, and specifically the dreams of his youth, of his arrogance and superiority over his eleven male siblings, of his untimely and perhaps justified assault by those siblings and their human trafficking of him to traveling Ishmaelite merchants, the brothers’ deception of their father Jacob in attributing the blood of Joseph’s famous coat of many colors to a preying animal, Joseph’s subsequent rise and demise in the house of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s ministers in Egypt, and we leave him this week incarcerated in Egypt on a trumped up rape charge by Potiphar’s unnamed wife.
All this is to say, that, I felt compelled to find connections between the Torah reading that did not happen tonight and the heroic saga of Hanukkah, officially here in two nights. So, two lessons that I gleaned from the Joseph narrative and the Hanukkah story:
First, disunity leads to defeat, while unity can lead to reconciliation and redemption.
Regarding the Hanukkah story, we were all taught as children that the Maccabees were “the good guys” and the Greeks were “the bad guys.” This is undoubtedly true, as we just read from the First Book of Maccabees (1:41-50) that the king [Antiochus] wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up their customs. Antiochus proceeded to forbid their sacrifices in the sanctuary, to build altars for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to force the Jews to leave their sons uncircumcised. And, whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.
But, according to the Second Book of Maccabees (Chapters 4-6), the decrees of Antiochus were the result of the senseless hatred among the Jewish leaders at the time, who plotted ceaselessly against one another. A member of the upper class named Joshua, who was a supporter of the Greeks, changed his name to Jason, (a Greek name). Jason encouraged the practice of Greek cultural activities at the Temple, including many that flew in the face of conservative Jewish beliefs. Most significant was the construction of the gymnasium (where men exercised in the nude) within the Temple precinct. Can you imagine? Currying favor with the Greek leadership, Jason grabbed the High Priesthood from his brother Onias; Menelaus grabbed it, in turn, from Jason. Onias slandered Menelaus to the authorities, who retaliated by having Onias murdered. Jason then tried to capture Jerusalem by force. As a result, Antiochus IV thought that the Jews were revolting against him. He captured Jerusalem, killed 80,000 Jews, plundered the Temple, outlawed Jewish practices and defiled the Temple.
Let’s return to the lesson of the Joseph story, one of fracture and disunity in the family. Joseph’s 10 older brothers, competitive, jealous of their father’s focused affection on Joseph, justified or not, led to their vengeful ensnaring of Joseph in a pit, ultimately resulting in Joseph’s slave status in a foreign country and a father in agonizing grief over a lost son. Jacob never spoke up about his son Joseph’s arrogance towards his brothers, so he was also complicit in fracturing family unity. None of the members of this biblical family won in this scenario. This family endured one emotional defeat after another and in the wider scheme of our people, caused Joseph’s exile in Egypt and eventually that of all the Israelites. Joseph did eventually reconcile with his brothers but that did not lead to redemption or lasting unity.
As our sages stress (Shabbat 10b), if not for the senseless enmity between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph would not have been sold into slavery in Egypt, and the Children of Israel would not have been enslaved there for 400 years.
We read in Midrash Tanhuma:
“If a person takes a bundle of reeds – can he break them at the same time? But if he takes one at a time, even a child can break them. And so, you find that the people of Israel will not be redeemed until they are one bundle…” In Judges 21 we read: “Thus said the Eternal God: ‘I am going to take the Israelite people from among the nations… and gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land. I will make them a single nation in the land.’” We may never be one bundle, and we may never be a single nation in the literal sense. Unity for the Jewish people is not the opposite of Disunity. We yearn for Klal Yisrael – the community of Israel, its entirety, its totality. We want to stand as one entity, united in our common beliefs and practices, but the bundle of reeds, and the people of the land are not monolithic or homogeneous.
The second lesson, or truism, is that our history has proven time and again that we are caught, or rather embraced by both the pull to be a part of the majority culture wherever we live, . . . and to also stick like glue to the beliefs and practices of our Jewish heritage in order not to lose our Jewish identity altogether.
For the Jews in the time of the Antiochus and Greek sovereignty, the tension between the Jewish Hellenists, the Greek-lovers, like Jason, and the Jewish zealots like the Maccabees was untenable, because their rigid stances, one for total immersion into Greek culture, and one for total preservation of fixed beliefs and practices, escalated into intolerance of each other and confrontation, rather than civil and respectful disagreement and some kind of mediation on how to live side by side with their differences. We learn from the Second Book of Maccabees that mutual hatred and mudslinging among Jews made them vulnerable and an easy target of oppression by their foreign rulers – shades of election campaigns in our day, for example. We wonder what indeed would have happened if the Hellenists could have also retained meaningful Jewish rituals, and the traditionalists could have shown respect for Hellenist institutions around them, but not be forced upon them? Not unlike today’s assimilated Reform Jews and today’s ultra-orthodox Jews.
In the next chapter of the Joseph saga, he has been promoted to be the Prince of Egypt, a vice-premier to the Pharoah. Joseph will have acculturated, assimilated, and reared an Egyptian family. We don’t know from the text to what extent Joseph maintained his Jewish identity overtly or in secret and we often tend to write him off as a Jew while in Egypt. We wonder what would have happened if his brothers did not come down to Egypt for food during the famine and remind Joseph of his Jewish roots? In the Hanukkah story Jews felt compelled to fight to preserve their freedom to be Jewish. Perhaps, Joseph had a similar struggle, an internal one, given the appearance of a total absence of an outside adversary, or motivations or even reminders to help him maintain his Jewish identity amidst his Egyptian comfort and complacency.
Joseph waited until his brothers came down to Egypt, and the Maccabees did not wait passively. Where is the balance between assimilation, . . . and preservation of one’s faith tradition at all costs?
Gerson Cohen, chancellor of JTS from 1972 to 1986 and a magisterial historian of Jewish societies and cultures, probed these dilemmas 50 years ago in a brilliant essay entitled “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.” Cohen took issue with the well-known midrash that attributes Jewish survival to the fact that our ancestors did not change their names, abandon their ancestral language, or stop wearing distinctive clothing. He notes that this generalization did not hold for Jacob’s grandchildren in Egypt (who according to the Torah took Egyptian names such as Aaron and Moses).
Cohen forcefully disputed the claim that Jews survived only by remaining utterly distinct from the cultures that surrounded them; rather, he wrote, assimilation and acculturation was and is a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source of renewed vitality.
As we enter into the holiday of Hanukkah and also the Joseph story that continues until the end of the book of Genesis, let us pray as Jews and as members of the Jewish people that we are able to discern what we need to say and to do alone and together, in order preserve our heritage, and to actualize our dreams in ways that are worthy of the just and righteous covenant bequeathed to us. Keyn yihiye ratzon – May it be so.