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Chanukah and Parashiot Mikketz & Vayigash 2011

Chanukah and Parashiot Mikketz & Vayigash by Cantor Gershon Sillins
21 December 2011

This is the last “Thought for the Week” for 2011. In our calendar, the main features of this time of year are, in order of their appearance in this year’s calendar, the Torah portion called “Mikketz,” the holiday of Chanukah, and the Torah portion called “Vayigash.” The two Torah readings tell the continuing story of Joseph and his brothers; the holiday of Chanukah is the Festival of Lights, the holiday of rededication, the observance of a miraculous divine intervention, the commemoration of a military victory, and a holiday of freedom. One can see an over-arching theme that binds all these observances together, the theme of the Jewish encounter with the non-Jewish world.

It is that encounter which, more than any other, has come to define the Jewish people. True, the encounter with God in the giving of the Law at Sinai might be seen as the crucial moment of the creation of Jewish identity, but even that moment comes as the culmination of the biblical exile and redemption from Egyptian bondage that is foreshadowed in the story of Joseph. And in the story of Chanukah, played out in the light of international relations, we see Jewish identity forged in the struggle between tradition and modernity, as it continues to be today.

In the Torah portions for these two weeks, Pharaoh dreams two disturbing dreams, and Joseph is brought forth from the pit into which he has been imprisoned so that he can interpret them for Pharaoh. Joseph, disclaiming any credit except that due to God for his dream interpretation, tells Pharaoh that the two dreams mean that there will be a seven year famine, and Pharaoh must save up food in preparation for it, putting a trusted advisor in charge of the effort. Joseph himself is appointed, and creates a food market. Everyone comes to buy food, including Joseph’s brothers. In an emotionally wrenching episode, Joseph recognizes and forgives his brothers, identifying their actions, however they were intended, as having led to the saving of life. He brings his family to an honoured place in Egypt.

At this point, something interesting occurs. In Genesis 47, the people who have been buying food from Pharaoh’s supply of grain have run out of money. First they bring their animals to trade, and finally they sell their land, becoming bondsmen to Pharaoh; all their future harvest will now be from land that once was theirs but now is Pharaoh’s. From what seems in the text to be a loosely governed association of independent farmers, Joseph uses the famine to create a feudal society in which all the land is owned by the monarch. Grateful as they might have been to be saved from starvation, the people cannot have been happy about this latter development. And Joseph’s genius for seeing what might develop out of the present and taking advantage of it, becomes clouded. He turns the economic system that he created to save the people into one created to enslave the people. And in doing so, he appears to have set the scene for the ultimate enslavement of his own descendants. Because when the hero who saved the people from starvation dies and is forgotten, all that is remembered is the oppression he left behind. His descendants become strangers who cannot be trusted, and their continuing foreignness becomes a reason to enslave them.

In the midst of these troubling stories comes Chanukah. What a relief! We can forget for a moment the ethically complex family and national events that lead inexorably and tragically to our ancestors’ enslavement, and celebrate the Festival of Lights! In the dead of winter, when the sun comes late and departs early, what can be more hopeful than the increasing glow of the little candles, along with songs, gifts, gambling, and fatty foods?

Unfortunately, even the upbeat holiday of Chanukah yields its share of complexity and conflict when we look more closely at it. For although the Jewish people were not in exile in a foreign land at the time of the Maccabees, they were at the mercy of foreign powers whose ongoing struggles overwhelmed them. And with these international military events as a backdrop, the dispute in the Land of Israel between traditionalists with Hebrew and Aramaic names like Onias contesting with Hellenizing High Priests with Greek names like Menelaus and Jason, became a violent one. According to Joseph P. Schultz in Judaism and the Gentile Faiths: Comparative Studies in Religion, "Modern scholarship … considers the Maccabean revolt less as an uprising against foreign oppression than as a civil war between the orthodox and reformist parties in the Jewish camp." The Hellenizers brought in the Syrian Greeks as allies, but the Maccabees won against them. And the triumphant victory we celebrate with our dreidles, latkes, candles and oil is not simply the victory of the traditional over the progressive, but also the celebration of the willingness to take up arms against one’s own people. Thus the question arises, does our contemporary celebration of Chanukah, in which little if any remnant of this contentious internecine history remains, reflect a denial of the uncomfortable reality of our past, or a tacet acceptance that we have transcended the conflict and partisanship of that history?

The story of Joseph too, raises questions. How does an individual who sees as his central mission the creation of an economy that allows the population to survive difficult times, become someone who uses difficult times to increase the powers of government to repress its population?

Often we are enjoined to look to our texts for universal values, and for a standpoint that allows us to see how to decide what is right.· Yet, as in the case of these two stories, what we might find instead, is that our texts lead us to the equivocalness of the encounter with the real world. They lead us to our ambivalences, to our struggles among ourselves for causes that may be less that just, to our propensities to delude ourselves or compromise our deepest held principles, as Joseph appears to have done. Progressive Jewish values are defined in part by our willingness to encounter the world. But they are also defined by our willingness to encounter ourselves in the world and to commit ourselves to the often uncomfortable, sometimes disquieting, examination of who we are and might become, in those encounters.