Parshat Miketz Chanukah 2018
Happy Chanukah! Welcome to the lake of oil created by latkes and sufganiyot and all things oleaginous, the ubiquitous Chanukah tunes and children and families playing games. As we almost always read Parshat Miketz on Shabbat Chanukah, let’s examine what connection, if any, Chanukah has with the story of Yosef, Pharaoh’s dreams and the meeting with the estranged brothers in Egypt.
Chanukah is basically the story of a clash of civilizations, the Jewish and the Greek. Surprisingly, perhaps, the rabbis had great respect for Greek culture, as is reflected in the Mishna and the Talmud, and later in the writings of the Rambam. The main problem between the two cultures lay in their underlying values. In the words of Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, the highest Greek virtue was excellence, winning – being the best, be it in sports, beauty or intelligence. This meant that there was – there had to be – a winner, which automatically meant there was also a loser.
Fundamental Jewish thought, as reflected for example in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, emphasizes that the main competition is between a person and himself. Who is strong? He who can overcome his personal weaknesses. Who is wise? He who learns from everyone. Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot. It’s you, stupid, not the others that count.
Of course, one might counter that this reflects the view of those who know they will lose, but the mitzvoth in the Torah indicate repeatedly that concern for others, not self aggrandizement, is a bedrock principle of our social and economic laws. Leaving a corner of the field for the poor, not picking up grains that fall during reaping, love thy neighbor as thyself, shmitta and jubilee.
Let’s look at Yosef. Yosef the youngster, as I pointed out last week, did not feel he had to prove himself better. He simply knew he WAS better. His father saw it. His brothers were made to see it. Potiphar, his Egyptian master, saw it. The head jailor saw it. Even as Yosef proclaims to Potiphar’s wife that he cannot submit to her seduction efforts because it would be an offense to God, he still maintains his haughtiness: “there is no one greater in this house than I,” he says.
And the truth will out. Yosef is better or more talented than others. Perhaps his greatness flourishes because Pharaoh gives Yosef his due. Or because he simply is great. His plan to save Egypt can be perceived as the workings of a sharp economic mind that sees a problem and finds a solution to it. At the same time it reflects Yosef’s concern for others, for a whole region in this case.
But that’s background. Where Miketz and Chanukah come together is in the heroes’ approach to their victories. Whether it’s interpreting dreams or winning battles against great odds – they attribute success to God.
There’s another less apparent parallel. We are not told what Yosef thinks when he sees his brothers in Egypt for the first time, only that he recognized them, they did not recognize him, and he behaved harshly toward them. Likewise, Mattityahu and the Hashmonaim also treated the Hellenizers harshly.
The Chanukah story is just as much about the war between the Jews as between the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks were there because the Hellenized Jews asked for their assistance in imposing the Greek way of thinking and living. Like Yosef, who wanted to know whether his brothers were with him or still against him, Mattityahu and his band wondered whether their fellow Jews were still with them, that is, connected to Judaism, or lost to Hellenism. (We can ask – but not answer – what Yosef would have done if the brothers had not shown remorse for their actions.)
Egypt was the Greece of the day. Even though Yosef adopted the Egyptian way of life externally, he did not tout Egyptian values and principles. His tactics in our story were aimed not at revenge – only reconciliation, but only on his terms of course. The Hashmonaim also wanted reconciliation between the two camps in Judea, but only on their terms: allegiance to Judaism, not to Hellenism.
This leaves us with the question of whom the 10 brothers represent. They were certainly not parallels of the Hellenized Jews. Crassly put, they were like 10 country bumpkins lost in the big city. They found themselves playing cards in a casino where the deck was stacked against them and they didn’t even know WHAT they were playing, or indeed that they WERE playing.
Although he might never put it this way, Yosef wanted to know if his brothers were worthy of his efforts to save them. Mattityahu and his sons also fought to save their brethren’s souls. Perhaps this is part of the parallel between the stories.
תהא הסיבה שתהא, סיפורי חנוכה ויוסף מהדהדים בנו חזק. שניהם עוסקים במלחמה בין כוחות הטוב וכוחות הרשע, ובשני המקרים, לפחות בטווח הקצר, הטוב מנצח. וזה נותן לנו השראה ותקווה.
Whatever the reason, both stories, of Chanukah and of Yosef, reverberate positively in our hearts and memories. They both celebrate battles between the forces of good and of evil, and in both cases, at least for a while, the good wins. This is what gives us inspiration and hope.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach