Joseph and Chanukah: Thriving against all odds

Joseph and Chanukah: Thriving against all odds

There is no such thing as a coincidence; certainly not in Jewish life. The fact that we read the Joseph narrative during the holiday of Chanukah is not a fluke or a quirk. Instead, it reflects a fundamental common theme that enriches our appreciation of both the Joseph story and the celebration of Chanukah.

In both stories the heroes surmount astronomical odds to survive and thrive as Jews when dealing with a major world power. Joseph’s rise from a despised slave to become the viceroy of Egypt all the while maintaining an assertive Jewish identity parallels the Hasmoneans’ entirely unexpected triumph over the Syrian-Greeks. Adversaries expected to crush both Joseph and the Maccabees and yet they managed to triumph.

The miracle of the oil expresses the same theme. The tiny amount of oil was expected to last only a day and, according to some (Rabbi Achai Gaon in his She’iltot), not even a day. The miracle of the oil lasting far longer than expected parallels the miracle of the Hasmoneans prevailing in their miraculous struggle to maintain Jewish life and, in turn, the miracle of Joseph surviving and thriving in his Egyptian exile.

The Chanukah holiday in general and the miracle of the oil resonate deeply among us Jews because we understand that the holiday echoes the story of the Jewish People during the past two millennia. As Rabbi Jacob Emden has commented, in the introduction to his siddur (prayer book): “By the life of my head,” the greatest miracle is the continued survival of the Jewish people. Rabbi Emden, writing in the eighteenth century, asserts that the miracle of Jewish survival in our prolonged exile is even greater than the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea.

The miracles continue in the modern age. The Jewish People seemed to have been lost as a nation after World War II. Yet we managed to establish the State of Israel in 1948 despite overwhelming odds. Rabbi Yehuda Amital often commented that in the future, historians will likely cast grave doubts on the authenticity of the story of a downtrodden people, who lost a third of its people within six years, who, three years later, managed to reestablish its homeland by winning a war fought on multiple fronts which at times even was won by throwing seltzer bottles from planes and firing fake cannons (such as the “Davidka”).

Similarly, one who reads Michael Oren’s “Six Days of War” can only be amazed at how a desperate situation for the Jewish State shockingly turned into a stunning victory for Israel. For example, consider the irrational behavior of the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian armies, each of which prematurely retreated from their respective positions of battle, thereby enabling Israel to regain so much territory. One can only conclude, as even Moshe Dayan did at the conclusion of this war, that this is another example of God miraculously sustaining His people. One who studies the Yom Kippur War will also discover that Israel’s surviving this war was an incredible feat. The Arab armies were well prepared for battle (unlike 1967) and Israel was devastatingly unprepared. Despite this fact and the need to fight on two fronts, Israel emerged, badly bruised but intact.

Thus as we light the Chanukah candles and listen to the Joseph story let us celebrate not only the miracles of the past but also bear in mind the ongoing miraculous survival and thriving of the Jewish People. Let us bear in mind the State of Israel’s ongoing sixty-eight year reliving of the Chanukah miracle of “the few defeating the many” and thank God for all the good He continues to bestow upon our special people.