“In Those Days, in These Times”
(updated and revised from Mikeitz 5763-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As we have previously noted, the story of Joseph may be seen as the story of an “assimilator” struggling with his identity. When Joseph, however, eventually proclaims loud-and-clear (Genesis 45:3), אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” he re-embraces his family and his tradition.

How timely it is then that parashat Miketz always coincides with the festival of Chanukah whose central theme is assimilation and the challenge of returning to one’s roots.

The basic story of Chanukah is that in the year 167 B.C.E. the Syrian-Greek monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes, set out to abolish the Jews’ observance of Shabbat, new moon festivals and the practice of circumcision. Many of the Jews of those days were deeply impressed by the Hellenist culture. They loved the intellectual pursuit of Hellenism as well as the centrality of aesthetics in the tradition of the Greeks. Many Jews became enamored with the Helleniststic “worship of the human body.” In fact, sources report that some Jews even underwent the painful operation of reverse circumcision so they would look non-Jewish during the naked wrestling matches. And, yet, despite the fearsome external enemy, Chanukah was not so much the battle of the Jews against the Syrian-Greeks, as it was a battle of the Chassidim–the Jewish Traditionalists, against the Mityavnim–the assimilationists, the Jewish Hellenists!

Although more than 2,000 years have passed since that fateful Chanukah victory, tragically, we are facing the same battle against assimilation today. In a sense, the battle today is even more heartbreaking, because the contemporary struggle is not against forced assimilation under duress from our enemies, but rather, assimilation through kindness. The blandishments of America are so subtle and powerful that the vast majority of Jews are not even aware of the battle taking place and, consequently, are unable to withstand the seductiveness of the dominant culture.

So, for instance, the average American Jewish child today surely knows who was the mother of Jesus, but has no clue of who was the mother of Moses (Yocheved). The average American Jewish child knows the words to “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly…” but has no idea of the lovely Hebrew Chanukah song, “Maoz Tzur…” Assimilation in America has become so pervasive that perhaps 4-4½ million American Jews are at risk today of vanishing as Jews within one or two generations. Tragically, these losses are further compounded by the fact that the reasons for these losses can be relatively easily addressed by attending to the vast illiteracy and ignorance of basic Judaism that afflicts our people today, and by providing positive, joyous Jewish experiences to the unaffiliated masses.

While those in the committed Jewish community often speak forlornly of their unaffiliated and assimilated brothers and sisters, they fail to recognize that assimilation is a significant threat to the committed Jewish community as well. Slowly but surely, the dominant culture is impacting on the, so-called, “absolute values” of the traditional Jewish community.

Traditional Jews are becoming increasingly insensitive and indifferent to many of these vital values, especially to the value of the “sanctity of human life.”  So, for instance, after a long period of decline in violent crime in America, crime has begun to rise significantly, becoming a political “hot potato” issue once again.

How are we being impacted? Think about this for a moment: The number of murders in New York City has declined from its peak of 2,245/year, to “only” about 457 in 2021, and we rejoice. Yet, how can we rejoice when 457 people (many totally innocent) lost their lives to violence? Every day in America, mothers are burying their children who are dying of gun violence in epic proportions, and we’re rejoicing over “only” 457 deaths in our city?. In 2020, in the entire country of Japan (population 127 million) there were 319 homicides! We’ve been reduced!

Furthermore, how can committed traditional Jews remain basically indifferent to the masses of homeless living on the streets of America and to the huge pockets of poverty and squalor in our nation? How can we sleep at night when millions of children go to bed hungry every night? We’ve been reduced! Of course, it’s hard not to become insensitive when 85% of American entertainment is either sex or violence. Even our tiniest children (some in their cribs!) play violent video games all day long, and we wonder why there is violence in our schools. Should we really be exposing our children to horrific stories of werewolves and vampires rather than sharing inspirational stories about the lives of ethical and moral people? We Jews are being constantly bombarded by values that are thoroughly inimical to our Jewish tradition. We’ve been reduced, and in too many instances we’ve become hardened and indifferent.

It is this battle against the “subtle assimilation” that is very much an essential element of the festival of Chanukah. Chanukah proclaims the need to reaffirm commitment, to strengthen our resolve to heed the immortal values of our people. We must be certain not to allow ourselves to be swept away by the often-decadent marketing and the blandishments of the media, especially the contemporary electronic media.

A constant awareness is necessary to do battle with the pernicious assimilation. This awareness is what is reflected in the blessing that we recite over the Chanukah candles: שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה, thanking G-d for having wrought miracles to our forefathers, in those days, in these times.

In this time of Chanukah, it is incumbent upon all committed Jews to address the issue of the subtle assimilation which is exacting a heavy toll on our people. The committed community must kindle its lights more brightly than ever before. We must affirm and reaffirm our commitment to the ethics and morality reflected in our Torah. We must work assiduously to share the beauty of our tradition, and to stave off the blandishments of those alien values.

If we are prepared to make this commitment and to do our part, then we will surely merit to see the lights of the candles that we kindle be מוֹסִיף וְהוֹלֵך–grow stronger and brighter, as we inspire the entire world with our good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Chanukah began on Sunday night, December 18, 2022 and continues through Monday afternoon, December 26, 2022.

Wishing all a Happy Chanukah!