We have so many seasonal expectations this time of year! The Torah reading of Miketz, always presenting itself at Chanukah, should certainly shape our experience of the historical events in Hasmonean times, but there is just so much to do and see that we are in danger of overlooking the stories about Joseph, Pharaoh’s dreams, and Joseph’s brothers’ repeated trips to Egypt to secure food.
If we we read through the portion perfunctorily, we miss the significance of the ‘magically appearing’ Egyptian goblet that the unrecognized Joseph orders his servant to place in Benjamin’s pack (Gen 44:2). Soon afterwards (44:5), Joseph orders his servants to chase the brothers, accusing them of stealing the goblet that he “uses to accomplish divination” (“nachesh yenachesh bo”). This echoes the similar confrontation many years earlier when Laban accused Jacob of stealing his idols (teraphim). Just as Jacob then denied Laban’s accusation (Gen 31:32), saying that “whoever you discover has them shall not live,” not knowing that Rachel had taken them, Joseph’s brothers say (Gen 44:9) “whoever has it with them shall die, and the rest of us will become your slaves.” But Joseph berates them when the goblet is found, saying (Gen 44:15) “what have you done? Did you not realize that a person like me could certainly guess through divination? (nachesh yenachesh ish asher kamoni).”
The contradiction is stark: How are they meant to accept both that they have stolen the means of his psychic powers and that those psychic powers led him to discover the magical cup? Either he needs the prop to practice clairvoyance or he doesn’t. Ibn Ezra explains away the problem by pointing out that the term “lenachesh” can mean that Joseph uses the goblet to test his brothers, to know whether or not they are still untrustworthy, all these years later. But, scared as they are, the brothers remain oblivious to what is right before their eyes: Joseph is still alive, and the bundles of money that mysteriously reappear in their packs are not a punishment from God but rather a boon to them, a clue that could lead to the truth if they would only have enough presence of mind to pay attention to the obvious signs.
In the Talmud (Taanit 21a) we read an eerily similar tale regarding Nachum Ish Gamzu, a righteous Jew sent to avert destruction by the Romans because he is skilled in miracles (“melumad be-nisim”). Bringing a fortune in jewels to Rome, his treasure chest is robbed and filled with dirt by unscrupulous people at an inn. When he arrives before the emperor and realizes the switcheroo that has been accomplished, he responds with the phrase that earned him his nickname: “gam zu le-tovah” – this, too, is for the good. Rather than feeling anger at God, Nachum trusts that the good will win out. Miraculously, Elijah saves Nachum and all the Jews.
Perhaps that is a lesson we can learn from Joseph and his brothers, from Laban and Jacob, and from Nachum Ish Gamzu: Maybe we need to pay more attention to the results of righteousness and the value of family and peoplehood. How might the sojourn in Egypt have differed had not the Israelite brothers destined themselves to enslavement by their words? How many years of pain and tears might Jacob have been spared had he not unwittingly doomed his favorite wife (and Joseph’s mother) to death by his careless words?
What might have happened had we learned to respond to difficulties with “this, too, will be for the good?” Then, rather than being blinded to clear indications presented to us, we would see that dealing with tricksters and cheats is not a punishment from God, but presents us with yet another opportunity to practice and promote that which is right.
So, too, we can view the Maccabees victory through the lenses of the fearful, who live with chips on their shoulders, imagining that military prowess is what matters. Or we can see through to the clear indications that despite setbacks and bumps along the road, the good and heroic are really what matters most.
Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom.