The portion of VaYeshev, which we are privileged to read this Shabbat, illustrates through the story of Joseph in Egypt how to remain Jewish in an alien environment. There are many important lessons to be derived from the way Joseph behaved in Egypt, which have applications even today.
Joseph’s innate abilities eventually allowed Egypt to prosper when all around it there was famine. As the Joseph narrative continues for a few more weeks we will see Joseph’s contributions to Egyptian welfare fade and disappear and eventually the Jews are enslaved. Throughout history, many cultures have become enriched because of Jewish contributions. Sometimes, unfortunately, these same cultures turned on Jews and persecuted them, exiled them, or even killed them. This is important to remember since we are soon to celebrate Chanukah.
Despite living among the Egyptians, far from home and family, Joseph remained a true son of Israel. He rose to a very high level in the royal household. He could have had anything he wanted. He may have appeared outwardly as an Egyptian, and it might have been assumed that he shared their vices, yet when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him he didn’t just politely refuse. He adamantly rebuffed and rejected her advances in the strongest terms. The Torah underscores this with the cantillation note known as a shalshelet, which is a high note in triplicate for emphasis.
Joseph never forgot who he was and who his people were. Sometimes Jews forget their own culture during times when there may not be overt persecution. Sometimes Jews may feel that the prevailing culture has more to offer than their own and they sometimes try to erase the differences between them to be accepted and to get ahead. This is the story of Chanukah.
Some Jews gave up their precious heritage hoping that they would be accepted if they assimilated and became culturally Greek. They desired social and economic advancement and tried to erase their Jewishness. Unfortunately, this has been repeated many times in history. Jews during the Renaissance, in Spain, Germany, Russia, and Arab countries were good citizens. Yet even the most assimilated eventually suffered. The same challenges, i.e., how to become a good citizen and a good Jew, exist today in the great melting pot called America.
Our rabbis crafted a significant response to assimilation in the manner in which we celebrate Chanukah. First of all the notion of “publicizing the miracle” by kindling the menorah where people can see it reminds us to be proud of our heritage and to remember that we, a small group of Jews, were victorious against overwhelming odds. We encourage our children to light the menorah, thus passing on the story – not just the chocolate coins and latkes. The story of Chanukah is the story of Jewish survival and continuity, especially when one considers that most of our history has been in exile.
We enhance our observance of Chanukah by using beautiful menorahs and partying with doughnuts and songs. We also enhance the observance by adopting the most stringent practice of lighting an additional candle each night of Chanukah instead of just one each night as the law requires. This is part of the celebration, which the Talmud calls “super enhancement.” When we celebrate a momentous occasion we pull out all the stops. In all probability, despite the rabbis’ ruling that one candle or oil light per household is sufficient, popular usage evolved to the point that each person lit his own menorah, and since the miracle of the oil grew each day they added one light each day. This is our standard practice today.
The miracle of Chanukah is not so much the story of the oil that continued to burn, it is the story of Judaism whose flame still ignites passion and commitment. It is not so much about dreidels and gift-giving as it is about the capacity of Judaism’s message to remain strong throughout the generations. Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, Spain, and Germany are now shadows of their former glory. We are still here and Israel has surpassed them all. Chanukah is not so much about rededicating the Temple as it is about the dedication of each generation before us to tell the story, light the menorah, and pass that flame forward.
Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk observed that people sometimes pursue falsehoods with the intensity of those pursuing the truth. Ha’levay (would that it be so) that we should pursue the Truth with such passion. The same issues facing our ancestors are present today. The rabbis also taught that we should be at home, if possible, to light the menorah. This, too, is a lesson. We ought not stray too far from our home, i.e., our sacred heritage.
When we kindle the Chanukah lights we pray in the second blessing that the miracles wrought for our ancestors be visited upon us as well. Amen.