Monthly Archives: December 2015

Mikketz/Hanukkah/RH–Joseph for Israel, Joseph for All

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

Vayeshev 5776: Driving Out the Darkness

menorah

On a weekly basis, and sometimes every day, we hear of horrid incidents when a person’s internal state of jealousy, anger or hatred is expressed in violence. Until that moment there is the possibility that their rage may subside or be sublimated in a non-destructive fashion. That decision point, when a person either pushes back at the darkness, or plunges fully into it, is a fateful moment which can lead to life or death for them and their neighbors. Dark thoughts may lead to dark deeds, but until they do, there remains the chance that light can banish darkness, and calamity can be averted. 

One of the most poetic and profound examples of the link between jealousy and violence is the speech made by God to Cain prior to his murder of Abel. Cain is jealous that his brother’s sacrifice has been preferred to his own, and his “face falls.” Robert Alter translates the divine poem thus: Why are you incensed, and why is your face fallen? For whether you offer well, or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin crouches, and for you is its longing but you will rule over it. Of course, Cain does not rule over his sin—his jealous rage—but allows it to rule over him. Sin longs for Cain, and Cain longs for sin, so it wins and the earth absorbs Abel’s blood. The rest of Genesis builds upon this theme of jealousy and violence between brothers, offering only tentative steps towards reconciliation. The culmination of this theme is the saga of Jacob’s twelve sons.

From the outset of Parashat VaYeshev, Joseph inspires jealousy and hatred in his older brothers. The striped tunic given him by Jacob becomes a symbol of his beloved status and of their rage. It is no accident then that the moment when rage turns to violence involves the tunic. When Joseph arrives in Dothan, seeking “the peace of his brothers,” they instead “strip Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he had on him.” This attack is not the beginning of their hatred, nor is it the first clue to the inner state of the brothers. They had earlier challenged Joseph on his dreams of domination. But this moment is the point of no return, when they grab their brother, rip off his despised tunic and throw him into a pit. Continue reading