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.

Happy Thanksgivukkah

It shouldn’t be news to anyone with a pulse that the first day of Chanukah coincides with Thanksgiving this year.  What do we call it?  Someone actually trademarked the word Thanksgivukkah ®.  So we could try Thanukkah.  Or how about Chanksgiving?

A lot has been written about the culinary options made possible by the coinciding of two gastronomically-rich holiday traditions.

It probably should not surprise us that some folks have cashed-in.  This is America after all, where there is nothing than cannot be turned into a business opportunity.  You can buy Thanksgivukkah greeting cards, t-shirts, songs on iTunes, and so on.  Then, there is the nine year old boy who designed the “Menurkey” and raised almost $50,000 on Kickstarter to get it produced.

On deeper inspection, it turns out that there is more than just a date that ties Chanukkah and Thanksgiving together.

First, the date.  The Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar hybrid.  The months follow the cycle of the moon, but in order to ensure that the holidays occur in the right seasons, we have to add occasional “leap-months.”  Nearly two thousand years ago, the Rabbis came up with the system that we use today.  There is a nineteen year cycle in which we add a thirteenth month during seven out of every nineteen years.  That keep Passover in the Spring, the High Holidays in the Fall, and Chanukkah in the Winter.

The earliest possible date for Chanukkah is November 28.  The latest possible date for Thanksgiving is November 28.  This year, those dates happen to coincide.  The last time they coincided was 1861, but Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until Lincoln declared it in 1863.  That makes this year the first time it has ever happened and, as it turns out, the last time it will happen for approximately the next 77,000 years.

When they set up the calendar. the Rabbis were remarkably accurate, but not totally.  Averaged out, The Jewish year is a touch longer than the solar year of 365.25 days.  Every one thousand years, the two calendars diverge by four days.  The last year that Chanukkah will occur on November 28 is in the year 2146, but on none of the occasions between now and then will the 28th be a Thursday.  After 2146, the calendar divergence will make the earliest possible date for Chanukkah November 29.  It will take 77,000 years to work its way around the calendar, unless something is done.  That “something” will require a bunch of Rabbis to get together to agree on how to adust the Jewish calendar so that the holidays remain in the correct season.  And if that happens, it will truly be a “miracle.”  I don’t expect it to take place any time in my rabbinic career.

But there is more that connects these two holidays than just the date.  Much of the thematic convergence occurs through the relationship of these two holidays to a third Jewish holiday: Succot.

Let’s talk about Thanksgiving first.  The first recorded Thanksgiving took place in 1621 in Plymouth Rock after the first successful harvest by the Pilgrims who had just arrived that year.  They had come to America from Europe to flee religious persecution.  They were searching for a new home in which they could practice their faith in freedom.  First-hand accounts report that the meal was attended by fifty three Pilgrims and approximately ninety members of the Wampanoag tribe.

These were deeply religious people who read their Bibles closely.  They knew all about the Torah’s harvest festivals, in which Israelites marked the beginning and end of the agricultural cycle through celebrations of gratitude.  While they might not have literally modelled that first Thanksgiving on Succot, the idea of celebrating a successful harvest in the fall through a sacred meal was deeply rooted in their religious consciousness.  For the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving was a religious holiday with Biblical precedents.  For modern-day Americans who have inherited this holiday, the meaning of Thanksgiving is very much about religious freedom, the fall harvest, and gratitude.

These are themes that are shared with Chanukkah.  The Maccabees in Israel had similar experiences to the Pilgrims in Europe.  A dominating Syrian Greek empire offered extremely attractive alternatives to traditional Jewish practice.  Not only was assimilation widespread, the Greeks sought to forcibly impose their culture by outlawing some of the most important Jewish practices like Shabbat, Torah study, and circumcision.  They also took over the Temple, offering pagan sacrifices at the most important place of Jewish worship.  This is the first time in recorded human history that an attempt was made to eradicate a particular culture and religion.  It is the first record of attemped genocide.

It was working.  Jews were abandoning the Torah and embracing Greek ways of life.  In 167 BCE, the Maccabees revolted.  They fought to  undo the decrees and reestablish Jewish control in Israel.  When they recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple in 164 BCE, the Maccabees declared a celebration to give thanks to God.  It is not surprising that they would want to do this.  Most successful independence movements have an Independence Day.  Let’s look at how the Maccabees chose to celebrate their victory, in their own words.  The Second Book of Maccabees, written in 124 BCE, describes the first Chanukkah.

They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot and recalled how a little while before, during Sukkot they had been wandering in the mountains and caverns like wild animals. So carrying lulavs… they offered hymns of praise (Hallel) to God who had brought to pass the purification of His own place. (II Maccabees 10:6-7)

The victorious Maccabees, by their own account, modeled Chanukkah after Succot.  It is a particularly appropriate holiday for a few reasons.  Succot is not only an autumn agricultural holiday celebrating the completion of a successful summer harvest.  It also has an historical dimension.  The succot that we dwell in symbolize the temporary dwelling places that our ancestors used during their wanderings in the wilderness, during the time of their escape from slavery into freedom.  Succot symbolizes religious freedom.

Succot is also connected to the dedication of the Temple.  When Solomon completed the construction of the first Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem, he inaugurated it during an eight-day celebration that coincided with Succot.  We will read about it in the haftarah next week.

King Solomon gathered every person of Israel in the month of Eitanim (Tishrei) on the holiday (Sukkot) in the seventh month… for God had said, ‘I have built a House for My eternal residence.’  (I Kings 8:2,12)

For Solomon, Succot did not symbolize impermanence and vulnerability.  In fact, it was exactly the opposite.  Succot was about the establishment of a new, permanent home for God.

When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, it made sense on several levels to model their celebration after Succot.  First of all, they had missed Succot three months earlier.  And secondly, Succot was a tremendous precedent to use for a rededication ceremony for the Temple.  Succot, therefore, serves as a bridge that connects Chanukkah and Thanksgiving, regardless of when they happen to occur on the calendar.  Both holidays express themes of gratitude – for a successful harvest, for religious freedom, and for home.

Another reason for which I am grateful that Chanukkah is so early this year is that it means it is as far away from Christmas as possible.  Chanukkah and Christmas have absolutely nothing in common, and it is so unfortunate that so many elements of Christmas observance in America have been assimilated into Chanukkah.

This year’s earliness of Chanukkah offers a reprieve from the intensity of the commercialization of the holiday.  In contrast, while Thanksgiving has succumbed to commercialism to some degree, it seems to me that, more than any other national holiday, it is the one that is still observed in a meaningful way by the widest number of people.  Americans of all religious and cultural backgrounds really do express gratitude on Thanksgiving.  I would much rather have a Chanukkah influenced by Thanksgiving than by Christmas.

This year, we are blessed to be able to celebrate these two holidays on the same day:  The Festival of Lights, celebrating the Jewish people’s survival against religious persecution; and the festival of Thanksgiving, expressing the gratitude that people of all backgrounds, and of all religions, can enjoy the blessings of our great country

To all of us: Happy Thanksgivukkah!