Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat-Chanukah, Rosh Chodesh Tevet 5776, December 12 2015
Ever wonder why we are called Yehudim and not Ivrim? We started as Ivrim, from the word “ever“, meaning the other side of the river. But somewhere along the way, we became Yehudim – in honor of Yehuda, only number four among the twelve sons of Jacob, but the undisputed number one leader of the pack.
And what about Yosef? Would we have been called Josephites – Yosefim – had Yosef been recognized as the leader of the Jacobites or Israelites? Rhetorical question, we don’t know. But we can understand why Joseph did not become the leader of the family. Not only because he was spirited away from his family for x years and worked and was imprisoned and then became viceroy of Egypt. No. He was never the leader. He was always the outsider in the family, both because of his actions, his father’s actions, and his brothers’ reactions to him, even after the great sulha, the great reunification of the family in Egypt.
We see that Joseph and Yehuda were different, but they were both leaders. They both accepted responsibility. Last week we saw that Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar gave him the option of accepting or denying responsibility for impregnating her. And he accepted it.
In trying to persuade Jacob to send Binyamin down to Egypt, Yehuda says, “I will take him and I will bring him back. If I fail, I will have sinned to you forever.” The “punishment” is the threat of not keeping his word, something that is very important to Judah.
This is why we will see next week that Judah is the one who speaks, eloquently, to Joseph. He weaves a web of subtle venom hiding under a veil of apparent humility, both ingratiating himself to Joseph and chastising him for his actions. And it was Yehuda’s actions that finally convinced Joseph that the brothers had changed, had repented, had understood the error of their early actions against him.
This brings us to Yosef. As some commentators point out, until Yosef speaks out before Pharaoh, he is passive. Yes, he dreams and relates his dreams to his disapproving brothers and father but everything that occurs is the work of others. His father makes him a coat. His brothers plot to kill (and then sell) him. Potiphar buys him. God makes him successful there. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him. God makes Yosef succeed in prison. And then, even when he can act, he denies it is his doing. God will provide an explanation for your dreams, he says to Pharaoh’s drink-master and baker. He explains that he was stolen from his home, that he was unjustly imprisoned. This is no way to interview for a job!
But with Pharaoh he finally acts. After citing God as the true interpreter, he then offers a strategy for avoiding the impending doom. And he succeeds in this.
Why now? What quality in him said, this is the moment?
The quality he had was the ability to read people. Sure, interpreting dreams, if you want to be accurate, can only benefit from divine guidance. But Yosef had something more.
Many years ago, in the television comedy series “Get Smart”, there was a character called “Simon the likeable“. If you looked at him and he smiled at you, you couldn’t not like him. Here we have “Yosef the likeable”. People liked him, not only because he was good-looking but because he could read their needs. He made them feel fulfilled. This happened with Potiphar, and it would have happened with Potiphar’s wife, except that Yosef could not give her what she wanted. It happened with Pharaoh’s two servants in jail, with the head jailor, and then with Pharaoh himself.
This also explains his behavior with his brothers. Why didn’t he reveal himself to them? Because he was not sure that revelation was what they needed at the moment. So he tested them. Was he cruel, putting them and his father under such duress? Sometimes a little coercion or a little cruelty will go a long way towards sorting things out and making sure the future bodes well.
As we will see next week, when he was satisfied that his brothers had indeed changed, that they were ready for the shock of their lives, that they could grasp the revelation that would reshape their entire existence – that is when he revealed himself. And it was Yehuda, the other charismatic leader, who led his brothers to this unexpected promised land.
Interestingly, the one thing that Yosef wanted, and could not get, and that Yehuda wanted, and could not give, was one united loving family. Yes, Yosef is finally accepted, but with reservations and lots of suspicion. We can assume that Yehuda was as wary of his newly re-found sibling as the others, probably because in similar circumstances, they would probably not have been as magnanimous as Yosef was. Which goes to prove that you can create a new present but you cannot erase the past. And like it or not, it colors our actions in the future.
Another Yehuda, Judah Maccabee, became our symbol of resistance, of heroism in the face of daunting odds and of devotion to Yahadut and our right to serve God as we see fit. His leadership qualities attracted followers, and he remained dedicated to fighting for what he thought was right, even when the odds were totally against him.
His courage and dedication are reflected in the courage and dedication of the pioneers and early Zionists who fought to establish our state and those who have continued to defend it over the years. One of the purposes of celebrating Chanukah each year (aside from festigalim and huge sales) should be to remind us that to keep our country, not only AS OURS but also in the image that we want it to be. We, too, have to be ready to stand up and be heard.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach
Because Shabbat Chanuka is always on Parshat Miketz, there must be some sort of connection between them (real or imagined). According to Professir Arnold Eisen (Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary), the heroes of the two stories faced the same problem and because of circumstances had to deal with it in different ways.
Yehuda Maccabi and his family fought against assimilation from within and religious coercion from without. The whole holiday is about keeping our religion as we want and to exclude the unacceptable elements that outsiders, or insiders, would have us adopt.
Yosef in Egypt, like Yehuda Maccabi, has a strong sense of his identity and he wants to keep it. But forces from outside, meaning Pharaoh, impose assimilation on him. When Pharaoh makes Yosef the viceroy of Egypt, he also makes him a full Egyptian, by tagging him with a new name and marrying him to an Egyptian wife. Of course, there were no Hebrew women in Egypt that Yosef could have chosen from at the time. And we see his dedication to maintaining his true identity with the names he gives to his children: Menashe and Efraim, both of which are reminders of where he came from and what he has lost.
But the kicker is that what enables him to succeed in his gambit with his brothers is the fact that he is part of the establishment, an assimilated person. Their picture of him was as a sassy Hebrew kid, not as a grown up who was the Egyptian viceroy. And so assimilation helps him to carry out his plan. And if we jump forward a few hundred years, we find that another assimilated Hebrew, Moshe, who has married the daughter of a Midianite priest, is the one who finally leads the Israelites out of Egypt. And he knows how to deal with Pharaoh because he grew up in the palace, as an Egyptian.
In other words, a little bit of the other world is not always bad. It’s all a matter of proportion, and most important, of maintaining a clear picture of who we really are and where our loyalties lie.