“Chanukah–The Struggle of Joseph and Judah”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

It is not at all a coincidence that parashat Mikeitz coincides with the festival of Chanukah. After all, Joseph’s struggle for his identity strongly resembles the struggle of the Jewish people in the times of the Maccabees.

In our previous analyses of parashiot Vayeishev and Mikeitz, we noted that Joseph experienced great inner turmoil with regard to his identity. Although Mrs. Potiphar, degradingly calls Joseph “Eesh Ivri,” (Genesis 39:4) the Hebrew man, and even though Joseph often talks about G-d in his conversations with Mrs. Potiphar, the butler and the baker, and even with Pharaoh– Joseph’s Jewish identity and his commitment to the traditions of the G-d of Abraham and Isaac is questionable, if not tortured.

When Joseph is called to Pharaoh, he quickly shaves and changes his clothes (Genesis 41:4), perhaps to look less Jewish. Once he is chosen to lead Egypt, Joseph is only too happy to assume an Egyptian name--Tzaphnat Panayach, to marry Osnat, the daughter of the High Priest of On, (Genesis 41:45) and to live a noble upper-crust Egyptian life. He even names his children “Menashe”–G-d has made me forget all my hardships and all my father’s house, and “Ephraim”–G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction (Genesis 41:50-51). Joseph seems to be totally lost to the tradition of Abraham and to Jewish life.

But, at the last moment, upon revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph cries out (Genesis 45:2): “Ah’nee Yosef,” I am Joseph, “Ha’od ah’vee chai?” Is my father yet alive? I am Joseph, the Jew! Does my father Jacob’s faith still beat in my heart, does his G-d still resonate in my soul? The answer is a resounding yes! So much so, that the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 2:3 even declares that before Jacob died, he commanded that Joseph’s son, Ephraim, was to serve as the head of the tribes of Israel and the peoples’ Rosh Yeshiva. So much for Joseph’s assimilation!

Rabbi Matis Weinberg, in his brilliant analysis of parashat Mikeitz, (Frame Works–Genesis), portrays Joseph’s struggle for Jewish identity as not only a struggle within Joseph himself, but as a competition between Joseph and his brother Judah, that very much parallels the battle for Jewish identity that took place in the times of Chanukah. After all, the issue in those days, 167 B.C.E., was not so much Judah the Maccabee’s battle and eventual victory over the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus. It was rather a spiritual conflict between the Chassidim–the traditional Jews and the Mityavnim–the Hellenist Jews, who had adopted the customs and values of the Greeks.

Rabbi Weinberg argues cogently that in the battle between Joseph and Judah, it is Joseph who exemplifies the Hellenists. After all, much of the story of Joseph revolves about Joseph’s preoccupation with aesthetics–his comeliness and beauty, which is a foremost characteristic of the Greeks. As Noah says to his son Yefet (Genesis 9:27), “Yaft Eh’loh’kim l’Yefet, v’yish’kon b’ah’haw’lay Shem ,” May G-d expand Yefet, (which also means beauty), and dwell in the tents of Shem. Yefet, in Talmudic literature, (Megillah 8b and 9b) is said to represent the Greeks and their language.

Judah, on the other hand, represents the purist, the traditionalist. Judah and his brothers cannot tolerate Joseph preening himself all the time and wearing his beautiful coat of many colors, rather than wearing the traditional garb of the Jew. He cannot countenance the fact that Joseph is worldly and outgoing. But after the disappearance of Joseph, when Judah falls out with his family and goes to live with his friend Chirah, the Adullamite (Genesis 38:1), it is Judah’s orthodoxy that falters. He befriends the Canaanites, and even marries the daughter of a Canaanite. His children, Er and Onan, are corrupted by the decadent local environment, and eventually Judah himself succumbs to the enticements of a harlot.

In contrast, Joseph, although he lives a life of many colors, and is sold to Egypt and loses his outward identity as a Jew, nevertheless maintains his inner Jewish identity, more effectively than does Judah–the would-be traditionalist. Surrounded by non-Jewish culture and the allure of exile, Joseph remains steadfast to his innermost identity. He constantly speaks about G-d. He refuses to succumb to the temptations of Mrs. Potiphar. According to the Midrash, Osnat, the woman Joseph marries, is a Jewish woman, the daughter of Joseph’s sister Dina, who was raped by Shechem, and together they succeed in raising children who have strong Jewish identities. In fact, Joseph’s children become a paradigm for maintaining Jewish identity in exile. “Y’simcha Eh’loh’kim k’Ephraim v’ch’Menashe,” (Genesis 48:20) May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe, is the blessing that parents bestow upon their male children on Friday nights. These words represent a fervent prayer that our Jewish children maintain their identities as did Ephraim and Menashe even though they live in exile, in an assimilationist environment.

Despite the fact that Joseph is chosen to be the first born and receives a double portion through his two sons who become full tribes of Israel, it is Judah, however, who emerges as the king of Israel. Joseph’s philosophy, although richer and more dynamic, represents a perilous way of life. Joseph’s tribe, Ephraim, eventually leads the people astray, and after the death of King Solomon, Jeroboam the son of Nebat of the tribe of Ephraim, establishes a idolatrous monarchy known as the Kingdom of Israel, to compete with the Kingdom of Judah. It is ultimately the tribe of Ephraim that leads the ten tribes into oblivion (722 A.C.E.). Judah’s children, on the other hand, prevail and maintain the great dynasty of King David, the most durable dynasty in the history of humankind.

Who then is the paradigm that the Jewish people are to emulate–Judah or Joseph? Perhaps it depends most on circumstances and timing. There are times when Joseph, the integrated, worldly Jew prevails. Those are times of great richness in our people’s history. It was during times such as those that Maimonides was able to master Greek philosophy and incorporate its lessons into his philosophical writings that so richly benefitted the Jewish people. It was during those times that Samson Raphael Hirsch was able to incorporate the values of humanism into his biblical commentary, and win back many Jews who had been lost to what they felt was the irrelevance of scripture and Jewish law. On the other hand, when we are challenged with wholesale assimilation, it may be necessary to pull back, to withdraw–like Judah. That is why we maintain both traditions, the traditions of Judah and of Joseph in Jewish life.

On each night of Chanukah we light a different number of candles. Perhaps the varying number of candles comes to teach us that each age of Judaism needs its own particular level and intensity of illumination, different from the illumination required at other times and in different ages. This is what is meant by the second blessing that we pronounce upon lighting the Chanukah candles: “Ba’yamim hah’haym, ba’zman hah’zeh,” In those days, in these times. Each age according to its own needs.

Chanukah Sameyach! Happy Chanukah!

May you be blessed.