Miketz - Worlds Apart at Hanukkah

by Rabbi Alexis Roberts

The themes of the Torah portion for Shabbat Chanukah 2001 sound painfully relevant: how are brothers with a long history of mistrust and violence supposed to make peace? How will the victim act when he finally is in a position of power? How much can be risked or compromised for survival? Can people who have grown so very far apart, and live in different worlds ever come back together? Against all odds, but with the help of God, all ends well.

Parshat Miketz contains the next installment in the Joseph story. Joseph is brought from prison to interpret Pharaoh's dream, and makes the prediction that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. His suggestions about how to cope with this earn him an amazing promotion to “Av Pharaoh”, a senior official under Pharaoh, in charge of storing and rationing all the produce of Egypt. The prophecy is fulfilled, and one day Joseph’s own brothers come and bow before him, as he had long ago dreamed they would, do not recognize him, and ask to buy rations of food.

What will he do?

One can easily imagine how he might have dreamt of revenge in the pit of the prison. But from the height of the throne, he is not hasty. He decides to test them by insisting they bring his full brother, Benjamin to him. Jacob is very reluctant to part with the only remaining son of his beloved dead wife Rachel, but the pressure of the famine forces him to relent. Benjamin travels with his brothers back to Egypt, back to Joseph, who tests them further by framing Benjamin in a theft. The portion ends with the brothers protesting their innocence in the incident. The suspense holds for another week before we read that Joseph is revealed and the tearful reunion takes place.

One connection between Miketz and the holiday of Chanukah is that both of these stories depend on beating the odds. There seems to be so little likelihood of Joseph’s brothers ever seeing him again after he is sold into slavery. More than that, when they do, he is able and willing to save and protect his entire family and thus preserve the people, who might have otherwise perished in the famine, thus ending the whole Jewish enterprise soon after it began.

Likewise, the Maccabean revolt was not likely to succeed. The Syrian Greek army was larger, more experienced, better equipped, and more efficient. The victory is counted a miracle, and defeat could well have meant the end of the Jewish people.

It is something of a myth, however, to think that the Maccabees were only fighting Syrian Greeks. Remember that Matathias’ first victim was a Jew who was willing to accept Greek religion. In a way, the Maccabean revolt was as much of a civil war between traditional Jews and Hellenized Jews as it was between Jews and Greeks. This was also a battle between brothers. If we were to judge by today’s standards, the attitude of the Maccabees might strike us as violently intolerant and anti-Western. So who are the good guys?

The rabbis of the Talmud did not choose to emphasize the military aspects of the Chanukah story. In their day, they knew the Hasmonean dynasty was not such a gift to the Jewish people. While they did fight the war and purify the Temple, it was their line that later invited Rome’s “protection”, which included the corruption of the priests and the installation of the Roman eagle in the Temple. A fellow named Herod married the last in the line. Rome destroyed the Temple in the year 70 and exiled the people.

What the rabbis chose to emphasize instead was the moment of the miracle; the possibility that enormous obstacles may be overcome with God’s help. It was to remember this that they ordained the lighting of the candles, increasing our hope and faith every night, that the light of holiness can dispel any darkness.

Religious intolerance is still, of course, a plague in the world. It is easy to criticize terrorists for the extremes of hatred and violence they promote. But it is just as wrong when intolerance turns Jews against one another. Ultra-orthodox Jews recently brought a bill before the Knesset in Israel to impose seven year prison sentences on women who presume to pray aloud with tallit, tefillin, and Torah scrolls on the “women’s side” of the Wall in Jerusalem. Liberal Jews are quite capable of being furiously intolerant of standards of Jewish practice being imposed on them by what they consider authoritarian, straight jacketing traditionalists. The feelings of anger and offense these things cause are just the kinds of things that lead to violence.

In Miketz, we see a family that has been torn apart by jealousy, hatred, injustice, and violence brought back together in peace and plenty. We see a young man who was left for dead rise to a position of great prestige. We see people brought together by terrible need, who have learned to be careful of causing grief. What makes it possible for them to find a solution to their hostilities and live together once again?

In the Bible, we are taught that God is behind everything, causing miracles, softening and hardening hearts as necessary to bring about a particular destiny. In our lives, it is much harder to know with certainty what exactly it is that God wants to see happen. However, we do learn from Joseph and his brothers that letting go of old vendettas and finding ways to forgive and understand are godly things. Let this Chanukah bring all of us a new and growing light of understanding and acceptance, of peace, compassion and justice. Let us count the miracles that have brought us to this moment. Let us marvel at the trivial happenstances that turn out to have been turning points in our destiny. Let us dedicate the small and the large choices in our lives to the possibility of renewed holiness.

Happy Chanukah!