Who is Joseph deep within? As the Hebrew youth rises from enslavement to privilege, from refugee status to rulership, what remains of his core identity? This question is central to the story of Joseph’s life, and is also tied to the festival of Hanukkah, with which Parashat Mikketz is always associated. The Hanukkah story begins with Jewish Hellenization and the destabilizing force of assimilation. How far can a Jew go in integrating the culture, cuisine, customs and religious practices of the surrounding culture before s/he ceases to be a Jew?
Joseph goes quite far. Pharaoh presents him with his royal ring, garments and necklace, and also with his spare chariot. He renames Joseph Zafnat Paneah, and arranges for his marriage to Osnat, daughter of Poti-phara, priest of On. It would seem that the original Joseph has ceased to exist, and yet we find hints that for all of his anger and angst, he remains linked to his original identity. He may call his first son Menashe, saying, “God has made me forget all of my travails, and my father’s house,” but you don’t need to be Freud (or Shakespeare) to realize that Joseph, “doth protest too much.”
The sages support Joseph by insisting that he remains loyal to the core; the outer trappings are just a ruse. The book of Exodus starts (1:5), “And Joseph was in Egypt.” The Hasidic writer R’ Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev reads this to mean, “He always remained Joseph in Egypt.” That is, even the new name, new trappings, new power and new family never diminish the core identity of Joseph. It isn’t simple, and yet the tearful revelation to Judah will confirm that Joseph remains Joseph inside, yearning for his father, searching for his brothers, seeking to survive as a noble of Egyptian high society while somehow remaining true to his Israelite identity. It is a difficult dance, one with which we too are well-acquainted. The message of both the parashah and of Hanukkah, especially those of us who live in comfortable diasporas, is that our core Jewish identity must be maintained, no matter what forces draw us away from it. At some point we must come out of hiding, proclaiming our distinctive name, embracing our heritage, and building a distinctive Jewish future for our families. Continue reading