Joseph’s Identity – Miketz 5781

As this morning’s Torah portion, Miketz, begins, Joseph has languished in jail for a while. If you recall from last week, Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery when he was seventeen years old. Eventually winding up in the home of an Egyptian courtier named Potiphar, Joseph becomes head of the household, second only to his master.

That all comes crashing down when Potiphar’s wife, frustrated that Joseph will not respond to her attempts to seduce him, instead accuses him of trying to rape her. Furious, Potiphar sends Joseph to the king’s prison, where he resides for more than two years.

As before, Joseph rises up in the prison hierarchy until he is placed in charge of all the other prisoners. This puts Joseph in the position of being sought out for advice by the other prisoners. After some time, the royal baker and wine steward approach Joseph with their disturbing dreams.

Joseph correctly interprets them to predict that the baker is scheduled to be exectuted while the stewared will be restored to his former position.

Miketz opens with Pharaoh’s fateful dreams.  The steward, having completely forgotten about Joseph, suddenly remembers the time when he was in prison and a Hebrew youth, a na’ar ivri, correctly unravelled the meaning of his dream. 

Joseph, still seen as a Hebrew, is brought to Pharaoh’s court, where he again solves the somnolescent condundraum. Once again, Joseph’s natural skills lead to his promotion to Pharaoh’s Hand, the second most powerful person in Egypt. Notice the pattern?

Pharaoh gives Joseph his signet ring, dresses him in fine clothes and a gold chain, and parades him through the streets on the royal chariot, proclaiming Avrekh to the onlookers as he passes by.

Does this ring any bells?  (Sounds like Mordechai in the Book of Esther)

Pharaoh then renames Joseph Tzafenat Paneach and gives him an Egyptian wife. Her name is Asenat, and she is the daughter of a man named Poti-Phera, Priest of On. If that name sounds familiar, it is. It is remarkably close to Joseph’s former master, Potiphar.

Is this the same person? Impossible to say, but one commentator suggests that Pharaoh is making a calculated, strategic move here. (Iturei Torah, Vol. 2, pp. 370-371.)  Who is the person most able to bring Joseph down in scandal? Potiphar, who knows all about Joseph’s past sins, alleged or real. That could mean trouble. But if Joseph becomes family by marrying Potiphar’s daughter, the skeletons are more likely to remain in the closet. 

Joseph immediately sets out to educate himself for his new position by embarking on a tour throughout Egypt.

This all occurs when Joseph is thirty years old. He has spent forty three percent of his life so far away from his family and homeland.

In his new position, he quickly enacts his policy proposals, collecting vast stores of grain for Pharaoh. Towards the end of the seven years of plenty, Joseph and Asenat start a family. They have two sons, Menashe and Ephraim.

By this point, Joseph has spent his adult life, and more than half of his entire life, outside of the land of Canaan, away from his family. How does he feel about his identity?

Joseph’s brothers totally rejected him, sending him into slavery and exile. He now has an Egyptian name, wife, and children. His father in law is Egyptian clergy. He has money, honor, and power in Egyptian society. He dresses and speaks like an Egyptian. He even walks like an Egyptian.

If you were Joseph, how would you see yourself?

He tells us. Listen closely to the explanations that Joseph offers for his sons’ names. Both explanations are positive. Joseph acknowledges God for granting him some sort of respite from his earlier miserable situation.

The firstborn is Menashe — כִּי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִי —”for God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” 

Next is Ephraim — כִּי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עָנְיִי — “for God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” 

 Notice that for his firstborn, Joseph refers to his parental home as a place of hardship — amali. For his second born, Joseph refers to his new home as a place of affliction – oni. Both places have been difficult for him—Canaan because of his family troubles and Egypt because of his enslavement and imprisonment.

Joseph sees in Menashe an opportunity to finally move on from the hardship of his childhood. His son’s birth symbolically enables him to “forget.” In Ephraim, Joseph sees fertility, the ultimate sign of blessing.

What is the message? Joseph has shed his Hebrew past and embraced his new Egyptian identity. Interesting, however, that he continues to acknowledge God as the source of his good fortune.

The famine strikes, and it is global. Jacob sends the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery down to Egypt to purchase food. The text is very clear that Joseph recognizes them immediately but they do not recognize him – neither his appearance nor his voice. Joseph, by all accounts, is completely Egyptian.

Seeing his brothers show up in his chambers for food must have come as a shock to Joseph. Despite his embrace of Egyptian life, he realizes that he cannot forget his father’s house.

There are a few hints in Parashat Miketz that Joseph still harbors elements of his earlier identity: faith and food. Throughout events, Joseph credits God for his success. It is God who enables him to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and it is God who blesses him with forgetfulness and fertility.

When he accuses his brothers of being spies and nevertheless grants them permission to return home as long as they leave one of their number behind as his prisoner, Joseph states et ha-Elohim ani yarei – “I am a God-fearing man.” A strange statement in the land of Horus and Ra, Isis and Osiris.

A bit later in the story, when the brothers have returned to Egypt for more food, Joseph hosts them for a meal. The Egyptian servants refuse to eat with the Hebrews, as to do so would be an abomination. Joseph, on the other hand, stays in the room to dine with them. He even offers portions of food from his own table, extra portions going to his full brother Benjamin.

Through these interactions, Joseph, overcome with emotion, occasionally leaves the room to weep.

Over the next two Torah portions, as Joseph pushes his brothers harder and harder to ascertain the extant of their repentance, he opens up more and more to his past. By the end of the Book, Joseph fully reconciles with his family.

Jacob, now in Egypt, blesses the sons whose births once symbolized abandoning the land of his father and building a home in a new land.

Although he never returns to the land of Canaan, Joseph makes his surviving relatives swear that they will bring his bones back when they eventually return to the Promised Land. Many generations later, Moses fulfills that promise.

The theme of fate is strong throughout this story. Joseph’s teen-age dreams that his brothers will one day bow down before him are always in the back of our minds. We know that there will be a reunion, but the characters themselves do not.

We just finished celebrating Chanukah. The Maccabees launched their rebellion to protect their right to continue to follow the Torah in the land of their ancestors. Not only were there Jews who were actively assimilating, and trying to assimilate the rest of Judean society. The Greek authorities had actually outlawed some of the core practices of Judaism like Torah study and circumcision. The Maccabees fought to prevent the active, intentional cultural eradication of Jewish life in the Promised Land.

Ever since, Chanukah has symbolized the Jewish people’s struggle to maintain our identity, especially as we find ourselves living among larger non-Jewish cultures. America has been good to the Jews. Never in our history have we been more free to practice our religion outwardly and proudly, without fear of persecution. Ironically, it has never been easier to leave our ancient heritage behind and assimilate into the surrounding culture.

Joseph’s struggles predate the Maccabees. Only for Joseph, the struggles were personal and emotional. They were wrapped up in the difficult dynamics of his family. And the rising and falling of his fortunes in non-Hebrew society.

An Egyptian name, language, marriage and culture—despite embracing all of these things, Joseph still comes back to family.

Whose story most closely resembles our experience – Joseph or the Maccabees?

Theodor Herzl’s Menorah – Chanukah 5776

If you ask most Jewish kids in America what their favorite holiday is, they’ll say Chanukah.  From a religious standpoint, it is not really that important of a holiday.  In Israel, Chanukah is really not that big of a deal, certainly when compared to the other Jewish holidays.  It got to be this way here in America because of its proximity to a certain other non-Jewish holiday.  “The Jewish Christmas” and all that.

At least, that is the typical complaint made by Rabbis lamenting the over-commercialization of Chanukah.

But maybe this is not such a uniquely American experience.

I came across a story written over one hundred years ago at a transitional moment in Jewish history.  A story that is as relevant  today as it was then.

HerzlTheodor Herzl, who would later become the father of modern Zioinism, is a secular Jewish journalist from Austria.  He is putting the finishing touches on his book Der Judenstaat – The Jewish State, earning him some notoriety.  He has developed a relationship with the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Moritz Gudemann, who has become a good friend and advisor.  One day Rabbi Gudemann comes to Herzl’s home to discuss the forthcoming publication.  Rabbi Gudemann is shocked by what he finds.  Later that day, Herzl writes about it in his journal.  It is December 24, 1895.

I was just lighting the Christmas tree for my children when Gudemann arrived. He seemed upset by the “Christian” custom. Well, I will not let myself be pressured!  But I don’t mind if they call it the Hannukah tree–or the winter solstice.

Two years later, Herzl is living in Paris and reporting on the Dreyfus Affair.  The rampant antisemitism shakes him to his core and leads him to abandon his earlier assimilationist positions.  Herzl concludes that the only solution for the Jewish people is to have a homeland of their own, along with a re-embracing of Judaism.  With this realization, Herzl convenes the First Zionist Congress, and modern Zionism is born.

In December 1897, Herzl writes a short story entitled “The Menorah” which appears in the journal Die Welt, a weekly newspaper that he has recently begun publishing to promote Zionism.  The following is a paraphrased summary of Herzl’s story, utilizing some of his language.  (The full text of the story can be read here.)

Deep in his soul, he began to feel the need to be a Jew.  His circumstances were not unsatisfactory; he enjoyed ample income and a profession that permitted him to do whatever his heart desired.  For he was an artist.

Of course, Herzl is writing about himself.  He goes on to describe a thoroughly assimilated European Jew of the late nineteenth century.  When antisemitism rears its head, this enlightened Jew assumes that it will fade just as quickly.  But it does not, and his soul begins to wear down.

He begins to think of his Judaism.  Despite its alienness, he begins to love it intensely.  Gradually, his yearning crystalizes into a conviction that he must return to Judaism.  His closest friends think he is crazy, ridiculing him behind his back and even laughing in his face.  But he is indifferent to their sneers.

As an artist of the modern school and a man of the senses, he has embraced many non-Jewish habits and ideas.  How can he reconcile this modernity with his return to Judaism?  Doubt plagues him.  Perhaps it is too late for his generation, which has become so heavily influenced by alien cultures.  But the next generation, if it is trained in the proper path, will be able to make the return.

Until then, the artist has allowed the holiday of the Maccabees to pass by unobserved.  Now, however, he makes this holiday an opportunity to prepare something beautiful which should be forever commemorated in the minds of his children.

… He buys a Menorah, and when he holds the nine-branched candlestick in his hands for the first time, a strange mood overcomes him.  He grows nostalgic and sad when he recalls the memory of burning lights in his father’s house.

But the tradition is neither cold nor dead, he realizes.  It has passed through the ages, one light kindling another.

The artist begins to think about where the shape of the Menorah came from.  He sees in it the form of a tree: branches emerging from a central trunk to the right and the left, all ending at the same height.  Then the ninth branch projects to the front to play the role of shamash, servant to the others.

What mysterious meanings have previous generations passed down to the next about this simple, natural shape.  He imagines that he might be able to water this withered tree and restore it to life.  He joyfully recites its name to his children – Menorah – and delights in hearing it repeated back to him out of their mouths.

He lights the candle on the first night and tells his children what little he knows about the origin of the holiday.  The wonderful incident of the lights that strangely remained burning so long, the story of the return from the Babylonian exile, the second Temple, the Maccabees – our friend tells his children all that he knows.  It is not very much, to be sure, but it serves.

The next night, with the second candle, the artist’s children repeat back to him the stories that he had told them the night before.  Even though the stories are the same, they seem to him to be new and beautiful.

Each subsequent night is brighter than the previous.  The artist muses on the little candles with his children until the profundity becomes too deep for him to share.

When he first resolved to return to his people, he thought simply that he was doing an honorable and rational thing.  He never dreamed that he would find something that satisfied his yearning for beauty.  Yet that is what he found.

After the holiday, he sketches out a plan for a new Menorah to present to his children the following year.  The artist is searching for living beauty, so he does not limit himself to the strict traditional form of the Menorah.  Yet his design still takes form as a tree with slender branches.

The following year, he lights the Menorah with his children, the light increasing.  On the eighth night, a great splendor streams from the Menorah.  The children’s eyes glisten.  For our friend, all this is the symbol of the kindling of a nation.  When there is but one light, all is still dark, and the solitary light looks melancholy.  Soon, it finds one companion, then another, and another.  The darkness must retreat.

The light comes first to the young and the poor – then others join them who love Justice, Truth, Liberty, Progress, Humanity, and Beauty.

When all the candles burn, then we must all stand and rejoice over the achievements.  And no office can be more blessed than that of a Servant – a shamash – of the Light.

What a change!  In just two years, Herzl is transformed from a father casually lighting up a Christmas tree for his children to a Jew finding profound beauty and meaning in the kindling of the Menorah.  Such a tremendous inspiration.  What a legacy he has left us!

Chag Urim Sameach.  Happy Festival of Lights.