Parashat Miketz — don’t let the light go out

Parashat Miketz — don’t let the light go out

“The Joseph story,” Genesis 37-50, is one of the great short stories of human literature. Parashat Miketz is the physical center of that tale. It is also the narrative in which we see this son of Israel transform himself into a responsible Jew.

This week’s narrative begins with Joseph’s personal redemption from an Egyptian prison and his rapid rise to power at the Egyptian court.

Joseph’s release from bondage is only a first step in a process of redemption and reconciliation. When I wrote the initial draft of this dvar Torah on November 27, we were in the first stages of what we hoped would be the release of all the hostages who were kidnapped by Hamas on October 7, as part of the worst single-day assault on Jews since the Holocaust. I pray that as you read this commentary that the release of hostages has resumed and that all the freed captives are on a path toward physical, spiritual and emotional healing.

The second half of the parsha recounts Joseph’s reconnection with the brothers who sold him into slavery. Here is where the story becomes not only interesting, but to me, extremely relevant to contemporary Jewish life.

The Torah tells us explicitly that Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not know him. Joseph, being a very human Jew, was caught in a real dilemma. He wasn’t yet willing to reveal his identity and welcome with open arms these brothers who had betrayed him, but neither was he able to turn them away in their time of famine. Joseph answers Cain’s question to God in the affirmative: Yes, he is his brothers’ keeper, even though he doesn’t always like their actions. Moreover, Joseph, as the story concludes in the next two weeks’ Torah readings, will come to understand that his fate, and the fate of his own children, is destined to be inextricably tied to the destiny of this people called Israel.

In the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas massacre, as I reread this amazing novella with which the Book of Genesis concludes, I see Joseph as the prototype for us, the American Jewish community, of 2023. Over the first nine months of this past year, many of us have rightfully questioned and protested against the actions of the current Israeli government. Many, both within and outside of our community, could not understand that our criticism came from a place of love.

October 7, and the weeks, now months, since, are both a brutally stark reminder that the cancer of antisemitism that many of us thought was, at the very least, in a state of remission, has returned with a fury to the body of human society. Moreover, as Joseph will come to realize in the parshiot we will read in the two weeks ahead, our communal destiny is inextricably intertwined to that of People Israel and especially, today, to the destiny of the State of Israel.

One lesson of Parashat Miketz, for us at this moment, is that irrespective of differences we have, personally, politically, or religiously, we must remain our brothers’ keepers. Like Joseph, we contemporary American Jews have both the opportunity and the responsibility to support Israel politically, financially, and emotionally in these difficult days.

The gathering of more than 200,000 Jews and many non-Jewish American supporters, on less than one week’s notice, in Washington, on November 14 was a clear statement that, like our biblical patriarch, Joseph, despite any familial conflict we may have with our Jewish brothers and sisters, in this time of crisis, we will be there for each other.

Another analogy I see in the Joseph story and the interrelationship of Israeli and American Jewry, is that like Joseph, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to advocate to world powers on behalf of our brethren. Over the past eight decades, American Jewry, after recognizing our inability to stop the tsunami of genocide that murdered six million Jews, has worked tirelessly to make advocacy for Israel and oppressed Jews around the world our priority.

I also see in the unprecedented and unbelievable response of Israeli volunteerism in support of the soldiers on the front lines of this battle against Hamas, and of those tens of thousands of Israelis who have been displaced by the war, and the multitudes who have lost loved ones and friends, an affirmative commitment to the mitzvah “v’ahavta re’acha k’mocha” — love your neighbor as yourself.

Many of the amazing volunteer organizations that have been providing food, clothing, and shelter, along with spiritual and psychological services to the soldiers fighting the war, had their start as protest groups in January 2023. Since October 8 they not only have been supporting soldiers in battle but also providing aid, comfort, and support to the survivors of the terror attacks on October 7, to the more than 150,000 Israelis from both the Gaza and Lebanon borders who have been displaced by the war; and the families of the hostages and the murdered.

These average Israeli citizens, who are no longer of combat age, are, to me, performing truly Joseph-like actions, of caring for their and our brothers and sisters.

In the midst of the despair that I, like so many of you, have felt these past two months, I nonetheless choose, to see a light of hope in the actions of Israeli non-combat citizens and in the overwhelming bipartisan support from Americans, Jews and non-Jews, we have seen in support of Israel’s responsibility to defend its citizens.

Moreover, despite my disappointment at the silence and even the unjustifiable and unwarranted criticism of Israel’s acts of self-defense by some political, educational, and communal leaders, I ask each of you reading this dvar Torah, in the aftermath of Chanukah, the Festival of Rededication, to join me in rededicating ourselves to re-energizing our outreach efforts to our fellow Americans of different religious racial and ethnic identities.

For Israel’s sake and for our own sake, we must not turn insular, but rather fulfill the command to be a light to the nations that we will receive in our Torah readings from Exodus next month.

In the words of Peter Yarrow’s Chanukah song, written 42 years ago, it is our right and responsibility to take to heart the command: Don’t let the light go out!

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