Each year we eavesdrop on Joseph as he eavesdrops on his clueless brothers. He has placed a “melitz” or interpreter between them in order to extend the ruse that he is a foreign potentate rather than their brother. And so he learns that Reuben tried to rescue him from the pit. This is presumably why Joseph chooses to take Simeon hostage—the next oldest brother will have to be punished. From the perspective of the brothers, this development is rather stunning. How does the Egyptian vizier know so much about them? Clearly, this must be a divine intervention. In verse 28, they fearfully ask, “What is this that God has done to us?” They think that events are governed by the mysteries of heaven, but they miss the clues that they are playing out a very human drama, and that they have become puppets in the hands of their own brother.
The word “melitz” recurs in the book of Job, in Elihu’s speech of reprimand to Job and the three older companions. In Job 33:22, Elihu speaks of an angel who is a “melitz yosher,” an advocate of the person’s rectitude. Even in the most desperate of circumstances, one angel who is “melitz yosher” can prevail over many opponents, bring grace and redemption. In b. Shabbat 32a, Rabbi Eliezer teaches that even if the odds are stacked 999:1 against a person, if s/he has one angelic defender, they will be rescued.
Throughout the centuries, the Jewish strategy for survival often depended on finding one patron, whether at the royal court, or among the gentile clergy, or in the business elite, who could be an advocate and rescue the Jews in their time of need. To this day we speak of important donors as “angels” who provide the support necessary for Jewish organizations to do their important work. Beyond financial support, the encouragement of well-connected leaders validates the activities of the Jewish community, which can often feel peripheral to the larger developments of society.
It is of course essential to find supporters and partners for one’s work. Yet the message of Mikketz, and also of Hanukah, is one of self-sufficiency. Rather than waiting for an angel to save the day, the heroes of these stories took effective leadership to change their own story line. The rabbis downplay the military success of the Maccabees in their account of Hanukah, focusing instead on the divine miracle. We too focus our liturgy on “nissim,” or miracles given by God, and indeed, it does feel miraculous that 22 centuries after the Hanukah story, we are celebrating this festival once again.
Still, the message of Hanukah is one of activism, not of desperate petitions for angelic intervention. There is a reason why Hanukah is the most Zionist of our festivals. I just finished reading Yossi Klein HaLevi’s wonderful book, “Like Dreamers,” which tells the story of the paratroopers who “reunited Jerusalem and divided the nation.” The members of the 55th brigade who conquered the old city of Jerusalem in June 1967 and announced “har ha’bayit bi’yadeinu” (the Temple Mount is in our hands) proceeded to pull Israeli society apart to the left and to the right. While external circumstances played a significant role, it was the action and inaction of these fighters that shaped the reality of Israel.
We too have many challenges before us, and it is tempting at times to become fatalistic about our future. The forces of assimilation are said to be too powerful for moderate tradition to survive. Only the most extreme and xenophobic, or the least traditional and most porous forms of religion can flourish in an open society. It is easy to succumb to such gloomy prognostications, but then we return to festivals like Hanukah and we remember that effective action can change the tide of history.
As we celebrate this holiday, it is important to see the lighting of the Menorah as a metaphor for religious leadership. Each additional light can refer to another person whom we engage in Jewish study and activity. We must be deep in our convictions, joyous in our actions, and effective in our outreach. We ourselves can become a “melitz yosher,” an advocate for Jewish integrity, so that the light of Torah and of righteous conduct will increase day by day. If we can do this, then Hanukah 5774 can set the foundation for Hanukah celebrations in the years and centuries to come.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף לב עמוד א
ואלו הן פרקליטין של אדם – תשובה ומעשים טובים. ואפילו תשע מאות ותשעים ותשעה מלמדים עליו חובה, ואחד מלמד עליו זכות – ניצול, שנאמר +איוב לג+ אם יש עליו מלאך מליץ אחד מני אלף להגיד לאדם ישרו ויחננו ויאמר פדעהו מרדת שחת וגו’. רבי אליעזר בנו של רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר: אפילו תשע מאות ותשעים ותשעה באותו מלאך לחובה ואחד לזכות – ניצול, שנאמר מליץ אחד מני אלף.