Joseph for Israel, Joseph for All: Mikketz/Hanukkah

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.

Yet I also find a cautionary message in Hanukkah for those of us who live in Israel, where Joseph is a symbol of political, military and religious might. He becomes an example of the Jewish king, concentrating power and controlling the lives of all who surround him. The Hasmoneans followed a similar trajectory. After the death of Mattathias and then of Judah, the remaining brothers Jonathan and Simeon further consolidated power, quashing neighboring peoples and Jewish rivals. They were supposedly from a family of priests (my friend, historian Seth Schwartz tells me that his teacher Morton Smith raised doubts about this), but it has always been doubtful whether they descended from the line of Zadok, the high priest. On his deathbed, as narrated in I Maccabees, Mattathias instructs his sons to follow the zealous example of Pinhas. Some scholars have seen this as implying a claim of Zaddokite descent, while others dismiss this as proof (see “Were the Hasmoneans Zadokites?” by Alison Schofield and James Vanderkam in JBL 2005:124:1).  

What is clearer is that the remaining sons, Jonathan and then Simeon, each had himself named as High Priest. In the year 140 BCE a “great assembly” made this official for Simeon, and then his son John Hyrcanus and his line retained the office for the next century. In so doing they combined political and religious power into one person. Modern scholars believe that Jewish objections to this consolidation of power were a driving force in alienating the Essenes and perhaps the Pharisees from the Hasmoneans. The Dead Sea Scrolls often refer to the “Wicked Priest,” and some scholars feel that this was a Hasmonean, perhaps Alexander Yannai. Josephus, in Antiquities XIII, 10:5, tells a story which has a rabbinic parallel in Bavli Kiddushin 66a about a certain Elazar ben Poirah who offended the Hasmonean ruler (they sources differ on which one) and told him, ינאי המלך, רב לך כתר מלכות, הנח כתר כהונה לזרעו של אהרן, “King Yannai, let the crown of sovereignty suffice, but leave the crown of priesthood for the seed of Aaron.” The King was not amused, and the Talmud claims that he slaughtered the sages of Israel.

Did the Hasmonean claim of both political and religious sovereignty alienate some of the Jews, leading to the bitter sectarianism of the second temple period and even the destruction of the Temple? Let’s just say that it didn’t help. In Israel the claims of “Jewish” and “democratic” are each independently challenged. “Jewish” can mean a nationality or a religion. The modern State was built for a nation, but as religion becomes ever more politicized, the dangers of theocracy become ever more pronounced. A second message of Hanukkah is thus for the State itself. For Israel to thrive, it needs to separate politics and religion. Perhaps the separation need not be absolute, as in America, but the overlap of political and religious power is corrupting and divisive today as much as in the days of the Hasmoneans. What we need in Israel is rigorous democracy, religious pluralism, and a culture of respect for the remarkable diversity of the people who call that land home. 

בראשית פרק מא, לט-מו

(לט) וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יוֹסֵף אַחֲרֵי הוֹדִיעַ אֱלֹהִים אוֹתְךָ אֶת כָּל זֹאת אֵין נָבוֹן וְחָכָם כָּמוֹךָ: (מ) אַתָּה תִּהְיֶה עַל בֵּיתִי וְעַל פִּיךָ יִשַּׁק כָּל עַמִּי רַק הַכִּסֵּא אֶגְדַּל מִמֶּךָּ: (מא) וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יוֹסֵף רְאֵה נָתַתִּי אֹתְךָ עַל כָּל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: (מב) וַיָּסַר פַּרְעֹה אֶת טַבַּעְתּוֹ מֵעַל יָדוֹ וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָהּ עַל יַד יוֹסֵף וַיַּלְבֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ בִּגְדֵי  שֵׁשׁ וַיָּשֶׂם רְבִד הַזָּהָב עַל צַוָּארוֹ: (מג) וַיַּרְכֵּב אֹתוֹ בְּמִרְכֶּבֶת הַמִּשְׁנֶה אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וַיִּקְרְאוּ לְפָנָיו אַבְרֵךְ וְנָתוֹן אֹתוֹ עַל כָּל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: (מד) וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יוֹסֵף אֲנִי פַרְעֹה וּבִלְעָדֶיךָ לֹא יָרִים אִישׁ אֶת יָדוֹ וְאֶת  רַגְלוֹ בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: (מה) וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה שֵׁם יוֹסֵף צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ אֶת אָסְנַת בַּת פּוֹטִי פֶרַע כֹּהֵן אֹן לְאִשָּׁה וַיֵּצֵא יוֹסֵף עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: (מו) וְיוֹסֵף בֶּן שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה בְּעָמְדוֹ לִפְנֵי פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם וַיֵּצֵא יוֹסֵף מִלִּפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וַיַּעֲבֹר בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

שמות פרק א פסוק ה

וַיְהִי כָּל נֶפֶשׁ יֹצְאֵי יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב שִׁבְעִים נָפֶשׁ וְיוֹסֵף הָיָה בְמִצְרָיִם:

קדושת לוי שמות פרשת שמות ד”ה ויוסף היה

ויוסף היה במצרים (א, ה). יש לדקדק למה כתוב ‘במצרים’, הוי ליה לומר ויוסף היה שם. ונראה דהכי קאמר, ‘ויוסף’ היה במצרים, כלומר שלא שינה שמו, כי אפילו שפרעה קרא שמו ‘צפנת פענח’ (בראשית מא, מה), אף על פי כן לא קרא עצמו רק יוסף, וגם פרעה עצמו אמר ‘לכו אל יוסף אשר יאמר לכם תעשו’ (בראשית מא, נה), כי בשביל שלשה דברים נגאלו, בשביל שלא שינו שמם (במדב”ר יג, יט; פרקי דר”א סו”פ מח), וזהו ויוסף היה ‘במצרים’:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף סו עמוד א

ואמר אביי: מנא אמינא לה? דתניא: מעשה בינאי המלך שהלך לכוחלית שבמדבר וכיבש שם ששים כרכים, ובחזרתו היה שמח שמחה גדולה, וקרא לכל חכמי ישראל. אמר להם: אבותינו היו אוכלים מלוחים בזמן שהיו עסוקים בבנין בית המקדש, אף אנו נאכל מלוחים זכר לאבותינו, והעלו מלוחים על שולחנות של זהב ואכלו. והיה שם אחד איש לץ לב רע ובליעל ואלעזר בן פועירה שמו, ויאמר אלעזר בן פועירה לינאי המלך: ינאי המלך, לבם של פרושים עליך! ומה אעשה? הקם להם בציץ שבין עיניך, הקים להם בציץ שבין עיניו. היה שם זקן אחד ויהודה בן גדידיה שמו, ויאמר יהודה בן גדידיה לינאי המלך: ינאי המלך, רב לך כתר מלכות, הנח כתר כהונה לזרעו של אהרן! שהיו אומרים: אמו נשבית במודיעים, ויבוקש הדבר ולא נמצא; ויבדלו חכמי ישראל בזעם. ויאמר אלעזר בן פועירה לינאי המלך: ינאי המלך, הדיוט שבישראל כך הוא דינו, ואתה מלך וכהן גדול כך הוא דינך? ומה אעשה? אם אתה שומע לעצתי רומסם. ותורה מה תהא עליה? הרי כרוכה ומונחת בקרן זוית, כל הרוצה ללמוד יבוא וילמוד. אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק: מיד נזרקה בו אפיקורסות, דהוה ליה למימר: תינח תורה שבכתב, תורה שבעל פה מאי? מיד ותוצץ הרעה על ידי אלעזר בן פועירה, ויהרגו כל חכמי ישראל, והיה העולם משתומם עד שבא שמעון בן שטח והחזיר את התורה ליושנה.

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XIII, 10.

5. However, this prosperous state of affairs moved the Jews to envy Hyrcanus; but they that were the worst disposed to him were the Pharisees, who were one of the sects of the Jews, as we have informed you already. These have so great a power over the multitude, that when they say any thing against the king, or against the high priest, they are presently believed. Now Hyrcanus was a disciple of theirs, and greatly beloved by them. And when he once invited them to a feast, and entertained them very kindly, when he saw them in a good humor, he began to say to them, that they knew he was desirous to be a righteous man, and to do all things whereby he might please God, which was the profession of the Pharisees also. However, he desired, that if they observed him offending in any point, and going out of the right way, they would call him back and correct him. On which occasion they attested to his being entirely virtuous; with which commendation he was well pleased. But still there was one of his guests there, whose name was Eleazar, a man of an ill temper, and delighting in seditious practices. This man said,” Since thou desirest to know the truth, if thou wilt be righteous in earnest, lay down the high priesthood, and content thyself with the civil government of the people,” And when he desired to know for what cause he ought to lay down the high priesthood, the other replied, “We have heard it from old men, that thy mother had been a captive under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. (29)” This story was false, and Hyrcanus was provoked against him; and all the Pharisees had a very great indignation against him.