Mighty heroes and their clothes on Shabbat Chanukah

Mighty heroes and their clothes on Shabbat Chanukah

Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Sholom of Pasckack Valley, Park Ridge, Conservative

Shabbat Chanukah I, Parshat Vayeshev, Gen. 37:1-40:23; Maftir, Num. 7:1-17: Haftarah, Zechariah 2:14-4:7

In this week’s Torah reading, Jacob’s sons Judah and Joseph display heroic qualities of honesty, loyalty, and what we might call personal leadership.

In Chapter 38, Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar poses as a prostitute to get Judah to impregnate her so that she might conceive an heir to her dead husband’s name and estate. Her ensuing pregnancy arouses her neighbors and Judah himself to condemn her to death. Tamar shows Judah his cloak that he left with her after their sexual encounter and Judah recognizes that he was the cause of Tamar’s plight as he failed to provide her with a kinsman to marry her and carry on his son’s name, or to free her to marry someone else. He takes full responsibility for the matter by publicly proclaiming “Tzadkah Mimeni” – she is more right than he (Gen.38:26).

Clothes do make the man, the man who wants his inside reality to match his outward appearance. The parshah continues with another account of clothes and character, this time in the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. In Chapter 39, we re-meet Joseph after he was sold into slavery to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s palace guard. Joseph runs his master’s household and all he possesses. He fends off the insistent sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife on the grounds of loyalty to Potiphar, who has trusted him, and also because adultery would be a sin against God (and the teaching of his father Jacob, as per the sages’ commentary). The angry mistress tears off his robe, brings it to the authorities as proof of Joseph’s depravity, and gets him thrown into prison.

One imagines other temptations in the path of the handsome and charismatic Joseph, well-connected to the social elite, and blessed with a rich imagination and gift of gab. But he resists them all, even the power he wields over his fellow prisoners who entrust him with their secrets and dreams. Even when appointed viceroy over all Egypt after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, he retains his virtue and incorruptibility. During years of plenty and years of famine, with control over all of Egypt’s resources, Joseph wears the cloak of personal integrity, demonstrating at every turn his power to say no to selfishness and personal gain. Our sages reward him with the extraordinary sobriquet “Yosef Hatzaddik,” Joseph the Fully Righteous One, the exemplar of righteous behavior for all Jews.

Tomorrow is the first day of Chanukah and we read the maftir or concluding aliyah from a second Torah Scroll, from Naso, Numbers Chapter 7. The verses describe preparations for the use of the newly completed Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert. Over the course of 12 days, Moses and Aaron oversee the anointing of the Mishkan and its furnishings and utensils including the altar and the menorah. The heads of the tribes, leaders of their ancestral families, bring dedication offerings before the altar, one chieftain each day. In sentence 17:12 we read: “The one who presented on the first day was Nachshon Ben Aminadav from the tribe of Judah.”

Strange! We would have expected the chieftain from the tribe of Reuven, Jacob’s first-born, to go first. Our rabbis tell us that Nachshon was given this honor because of his faith in God and the Jewish future, demonstrated at the Sea of Reeds when the Israelites were fleeing Pharaoh’s army after leaving Egypt.

The sea’s waters had not yet parted and the Israelites cowered in fear as the Egyptian chariots drew closer.

Nachshon walked into the water up to his nose and then God split the sea into dry crossing paths. The Israelites followed Nachshon to freedom.

Nachshon, Judah and Tamar’s descendant, apparently learned to wear the cloak of responsibility and leadership from his forebear Judah, who strongly appealed to his brothers not to kill Joseph but to sell him to the Ishmaelites. “Beyn Echav,” when dealing with his fellow Jews, Judah has no peer. To him will ultimately go “Keter Malchut,” the Crown of Royalty. From him will emerge the kings of Israel.

The haftarah for this Shabbat from the prophet Zechariah spotlights two other leaders who light up our imaginations. Cyrus, king of Persia, asks the Jewish community there to return to Israel to re-form their national institutions and rebuild their holy temple and capital city, Jerusalem. Cyrus wants Israel to become a strong and loyal ally to thwart the growing might of Egypt and her allies. He appoints Zerubavel, a descendant of King David – and of Nachshon – to spearhead this effort. Zerubavel’s outreach to his fellow Jews meets with great resistance. They are comfortable living in exile.

Zechariah tells Zerubavel that God wants him to call on and to lean on Joshua, the high priest, to provide the spiritual stimulus for the project of Jewish renewal in their own land. Joshua’s dignity and strength are not so apparent – his priestly robes are soiled and tattered, his hair unkempt, his outer appearance totally uninspiring.

But God sees his sterling character, says Zechariah, and will cleanse his garments and help him radiate a glowing confidence to the people. The final scene in the Haftarah is of an angel appearing to Zechariah and showing him the rebuilt Temple’s menorah shining brilliantly. When the prophet asks the angel the meaning of this glorious light, the angel answers that it represents God’s spirit lighting up the Jewish future.

“Not by might and not by power, but by My Spirit, said the Lord of Hosts.”

The message fortifies Zerubavel to undertake his mission.

Chanukah is the story of a family of priests, the Hasmoneans, who rallied the Jews of their time, 2nd century BCE, to rid Israel of Greco-Syrian occupation and to keep Judaism alive. It is hard to imagine their uphill battle against not only the powerful Greek army but also with the majority of their fellow Jews, who happily embraced Greek culture, Hellenism, and actively pursued its message and modes. Judah and his brothers donned the armor and manner of warrior priests, calling themselves Maccabees or Hammerers, and led both a guerilla war to expel the foreigners and a civil war against their countrymen who championed Hellenism. On the day they were victorious they cleansed the Temple and re-kindled the menorah.

Chanukah to me is about each Jew getting new “inner clothes,” putting on a new mantle of personal leadership to discover and proclaim the heroic, the miraculous, the truly brilliant aspects of Judaism and Jewish civilization. Each of us is urged to contact the Judah, Joseph, and Joshua within us and express in our own unique ways the exhilaration of being part of something that stirs us to pride and even sacrifice. That’s not easy these days and it wasn’t easy in Pharaoh’s Egypt, Cyrus’ Persia, or in the days of assimilation to Hellenistic culture. The Maccabees restored our sense that Judaism was a grand idea, a noble adventure. On Chanukah, we rekindle the lights of faith in our tradition within ourselves and then show the resulting glow to the world outside.

Do you know why that only on Chanukah we use a shamash to light the other candles? I believe the shamash represents the potential Maccabee that each of us can and needs to become in order to light the inner candles of those around us, to pass on to them what in our faith we care about and delight in, to model for them how to be shamashes to their family and friends.

Will you be a Maccabee this Chanukah?

Shabbat Shalom V’Chag Urim Sameach.