“A Dysfunctional Family Becomes Functional”
(updated and revised from Mikeitz 5762-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

Looking at it objectively, the entire story of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers is frankly, just wild. Joseph dreams that sheaves of wheat, the sun, the stars and the moon bow 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 Schechem 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 by his brothers, who 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 (Vayeishev) we learn of the dreams of the butler and the baker. The only one that’s missing from this bizarre tale is the candlestick maker! The story seems to have careened out of control.

Now, in this week’s parasha, Mikeitz, we encounter more dreams–fat cows, thin cows, fat corn, thin corn. Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream, predicting a great famine and recommending an ingenious way of saving Egypt from starvation. Joseph becomes the number two honcho in all of Egypt. He marries Osnat, the daughter of the High Priest of On. A great famine strikes the entire region including all the adjoining lands. Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to buy food for their families. Joseph accuses them of spying, and the brothers are thrown into prison. In next week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his startled siblings. Eventually, Jacob and his entire family come down to live in Egypt and are reunited with Joseph. Finally, at the end of Jacob’s life, as described in parashat Vayechi, he blesses his children with exotic 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.

The story is not really that wild, after all. 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 man whose life revolves around love and lack of love, who is unsuccessful in trying to break the patterns of his own youth. After all, his mother favored him, while his father favored his brother, Esau, with disastrous results. Unable to break the pattern, Jacob favors Joseph, then Benjamin, at the expense of his other children.

It’s about Joseph, who must outgrow his narcissism and self-absorption, about whom scripture says (Genesis 37:2) וְהוּא נַעַר , and he is just a lad. It is quite likely that Joseph’s 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 also, in effect, the story of Chanukah in a nutshell. Joseph, the assimilationist (“Hellenist”), who shaves off his beard and probably his payos, his sidecurls. He changes his clothes, puts on the finest Egyptian tailored outfits, 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, (Genesis 41:51), “G-d has made me forget the pain that I experienced in the land of my birth.” The second son is named Ephraim, (Genesis 41:52),  “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, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, “I am Joseph! I am not Tzafnat Paneyach, I am not an Egyptian, I am not an assimilator.” In fact, in Genesis 45:3 he asks, ?הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי  “Is my father still alive? Is my father still alive in my heart?” And, he answers with a resounding, “Yes, my father is alive!” אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, “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 arrived. 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 submerged in their hearts and in their neshamot, their souls?

If we really want to celebrate Chanukah meaningfully, we must reach out to them. We must make their flames glow, we must pronounce loud and clear, עוֹד אָבִי חָי “Our father is still alive, Judaism is alive, it’s vibrant and there for the taking. Embrace it!”

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Chanukah began on Thursday night, December 10, 2020 and continues through Friday afternoon, December 18, 2020.

Wishing all a Happy Chanukah festival.