Our parsha does not usually coincide with Chanuka but this year it does. As in the Chanuka story, our parsha also provides us with a number of heroes and would be heroes, who exceeded the usual in order to make a point, save a life, and give us something of value.
Our first example is, in fact, the least successful. The would-be hero is Reuben, Yaacov’s eldest child. He’s the daughter of Leah who, we will remember, was Yaacov’s less favored wife. In fact, as Rabbi Sachs’ commentary points out, Reuven was probably a decent fellow who imbibed Yaacov’s negative attitude towards his mother Leah, and never lived up to whatever potential he might have had.
In our story, Reuven is the only of the brothers to make an effort to save Yosef. The annoying young dreamer had come out to the far-away fields at Yaacov’s behest to find out what they were doing, in other to spy on them, and the brothers, driven by anger and drunk with the opportunity to be rid of the snotnose kid, decide to kill him.
Reuven steps in and says, Let’s not shed blood. Let’s throw him into that pit over there, and we’ll see what becomes of his dreams – while his real intention was to return later, extricate Yosef and send him home safe and sound.
But that doesn’t happen, because in the interim, Yehuda comes up with a better plan. Sell him off to a caravan of Ishamaelites, or Midianites, get rid of the brat and make some money on the deal. Which is what’s done. When Reuven returns, Yosef is no longer there and Reuven is totally demoralized. What am I going to do, he cries – the child isn’t there!
But he tried.
The second hero, actually heroine, is Tamar, twice-over Yehuda’s daughter-in-law. She married Yehuda’s eldest, Er, who died. She married the second son, Onan, who also died. Fearing that she was a fatal woman, Yehuda held back his third son, until he came of age, he said.
Years later, still a widow, Tamar has the chance to meet Yehuda on the road. She dresses up as a harlot, has sex with Yehuda and gets pregnant from him. When Yehuda hears that his daughter-in-law, who was supposed to remain a widow until he deigned to send another groom (i.e., never), is now pregnant, he sentences her to be burned at the stake. She sends him a reminder of who the father was and he recants immediately, taking responsibility and “pardoning” her.
Tamar struck a blow for women’s rights way before the MeToo generation. Good for her!
The third hero is, finally, Yosef. The young whippersnapper has turned into a handsome young man who is tempted to sin by the wife of his Egyptian employer. With a blend of superciliousness and humility (how does one combine those opposites?!) he keeps his honor and in return is thrown into jail on trumped up charges.
Now, this is more than a minor point. If the husband had truly believed his wife, Yosef should have been executed. He wasn’t, indicating either that hubby had suspicions about what had really happened, or that he truly liked Yosef.
We have some minor figures along the way who pave the way for Yosef to survive. One is, of course, his boss and patron, Potiphar. Another is the head jailor who is also taken by Yosef’s quiet authority. We can also mention the two servants of Pharaoh’s court who are imprisoned and give Yosef the chance to show off his dream-interpreting skills.
What we see, overall, is that there are men and women for all seasons, whose acts both small and large help the wheels of fortune to turn favorably. The same was true in the time of Mattathias and his five sons, who led the revolt against the Greeks that formed the backdrop for Chanuka.
Those who can fight – go out to the battlefield. Those whose roles are smaller, whose acts are much more modest, almost anti-heroic, must still perform them, so that the larger events can play out to the best possible end.
In our parsha we see the beginning of the light that will lead Yosef to become the Viceroy of Egypt and the period of prosperity that the Israelites will enjoy in that country. In Chanuka we see the light that led to the re-establishment of a free Judea.
In every age we need our heroes to ensure our survival and safety. Let’s hope that we still have reserves of such individuals to see us through the hard times ahead.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach