“A Dysfunctional Family Becomes Functional”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, the soap opera, I mean, the saga of the family of Jacob continues. And what a saga!

Looking at it from an objective point of view, the entire story of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers is just wild. Joseph dreams that sheaves of wheat, the sun, the stars and the moon are bowing down to him. He obviously has delusions of grandeur. Jacob favors Joseph at the expense of his other sons. The other children are so offended by the blatant favoritism that they move away–they go to Shechem and then to Dotan, miles and miles away from home to graze the sheep. Joseph’s brothers want to kill him, but settle on selling him to the Midianites who sell him to Egypt.

Judah is so offended that his brothers hold him responsible for the sale of Joseph, that he also checks out. He marries a Canaanite woman and eventually commits harlotry and incest with Tamar, his daughter-in-law. By the end of last week’s parasha (Va’yeishev) we learn of the dreams of the butler and the baker. The only one that’s missing from this tale is the candlestick maker! It’s really gotten out of control.

Now in this week’s parasha, Mikeitz, we encounter more dreams–fat cows, thin cows, fat corn, thin corn. Joseph becomes the #2 honcho in all of Egypt. He marries Osnat, the daughter of the High Priest of On. A great famine breaks out in all the lands. Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to buy food for their families. Joseph accuses them of spying, and they’re thrown into prison. Joseph reveals himself to his shocked brothers. Eventually, Jacob and his entire family come down to live in Egypt and to be reunited with Joseph. Finally, at the end of Jacob’s life he blesses his children with wild poetry. It’s quite a saga.

On the other hand, it may just be the story of a “typical” dysfunctional Jewish family.

Let’s take a closer look at this story.

It’s not really that wild. In fact, it is quite a realistic portrayal of family tensions, of children trying to work out the legacy of their own upbringing.

It is about Jacob, the “love slave,” who is unsuccessful in trying to break the patterns of his own youth. After all, his mother favored him, while his father favored the other child, with disastrous results. Unable to break the pattern, Jacob favors Joseph, then Benjamin, at the expense of the other children.

It’s about Joseph, who must outgrow his narcissism and self-absorption, about whom scripture says (Genesis 37:2) “V’hoo na’ar,” and he is just a lad. It is likely that his immaturity is due to a doting father and mother.

It’s about the inner struggle of Joseph, fighting with himself, existentially. Do I hate my brothers? Shall I be vengeful? Should I do to them what they did to me?

It is, in a nutshell, the story of Chanukah. Joseph, the assimilationist, who shaves off his beard and probably his payos, his sidecurls. He changes his clothes, puts on the finest Egyptian styles, and has his name changed to “Tzafnat Paneyach,” an Egyptian name. In order to achieve proper social status, he marries the daughter of the High Priest of On. He names his oldest child “Menashe,” because he says, G-d has made me forget the pain that I experienced in the land of my birth. The second son is named Ephraim, for G-d has made me fruitful in this land of my would-be affliction.

It is Joseph asking himself: Do I hate my father? Do I hate my father’s religion? Do I hate my Jewishness?

And yet, in the end, Joseph stands up and identifies himself as, “Ani Yosef,” I am Joseph! I am not Tzafnat Paneyach, I am not an Egyptian, I am not an assimilator. In Genesis 45:3 he asks, “Ha’od avi chai?” “Is my father still alive?” Is my father still alive in my heart? And he answers with a resounding, “Yes, my father is alive.” “Ani Yosef,” I am Joseph.

Throughout the world, our Jewish brothers and sisters are changing their clothes and their names. They’re shaving off their Jewish identities and are marrying the daughters and the sons of the High Priests of On. Their children are being given no chance to grow up as Jews. And now the moment of truth has come. Do we walk away from them, or do we embrace them? Do we help them light their Chanukah candles? Do we find and ignite the cruse of oil that’s in their heart and in their neshamah, their soul? We must reach out to them. We must make their flames glow, we must pronounce loud and strong, “Od avinu chai!” Our father is still alive!

Chanukah Sameyach! Happy Chanukah!

May you be blessed.