This Week in Torah
Parshat Miketz / Shabbat Hanukkah 5775
Genesis 41:1-44:17 & Numbers 7:30-41
Three years ago, we wrote about how each generation adds its own layer to the millennial strata of interpretations, lessons learned from both the miraculous mythology and historical complexity of Hanukkah. Whether we read Hanukkah as a watershed in the march toward Rabbinic Judaism (see Ellis Rivkin’s Hidden Revolution) or as an anti-assimilation polemic, whether it be a commandment to restore God’s power in the universe, or an example of the triumph of spirit alone (Zechariah 2:17 & 4:6), we look to Hanukkah as much more than just a study of the past – it must be an inspiration for the present and instruction for the future. In this sense, the sustained miracle of eight lights may not yet be complete. Perhaps there is another light to be added?
Miketz is always read during Hanukkah. Although this may be a mere coincidence of our lectionary there is, nevertheless, a significant message that can be derived by understanding Joseph, whose story is advanced in these weeks, in light of Hanukkah. In the 2nd Century BCE the heroes, or at least protagonists, of Hanukkah struggled, regardless of how you understand the story, to work out the relative influences of their Judean heritage in the presence of an increasingly Hellenistic culture. After a few generations, it would appear that the Hasmoneans built, even unknowingly, the basis of a synthesis between Hellenistic thought and the ethical requirements of the Hebrew Bible. Joseph, the first true “Diaspora Hebrew” inhabits an uncomfortable space between his Egyptian life and his Hebrew origins.
At his most “Egyptian,” in character as Tzafnat Paneah, second only to Pharaoh, Joseph is unrecognizable as our brother. Ultimately, he will become the agent for Pharaoh’s consolidation of wealth and power, but not before, as in this week’s reading, he makes a dubious claim to ethical superiority. The end of this week’s parashah sees Joseph framing Benjamin by having his personal divining goblet planted in his young brother’s saddlebag. After Benjamin’s arrest, when the brothers all offer themselves as slaves, the hidden Joseph insists that he would not commit such an injustice as to punish the innocent along with the guilty. “Far be it from me to act thus! Only the one in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my slave.” (44:17) In this hollow protestation, Joseph manages to disconnect his Hebrew ethic “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” from actions taken out of his momentary superior political power.
In the long run, the Hasmoneans may have been guilty of a similar ethical lapse. In Shabbat 21b, the Talmud teaches the origin of Hanukkah as we most simply teach it, but cuts the story short by proclaiming the miracle, telling us that the festival was established the following year, and leaving it at that. The rest of the Hasmonean history, although better preserved in Greek and Christian sources, crops up here and there in rabbinic literature – usually in a less than favorable light. The Talmudic tradition culminates in the death of Herod’s Jewish wife, accusations of necrophilia and a declaration of the end of the Hasmonean royal house. (Bava Batra 3b & K’dushin 70b) Living without sovereignty, it is understandable that the leaders of Judaism would have suppressed a history of revolts in favor of independence, or at least autonomy. Then again, many stories we have of the Hasmonean dynasty do not cast the, now empowered, inheritors of the Maccabees in the favorable light of a holy menorah, but in the glare of actual government where the goals of rekindling God’s light may not have been the motivating force behind day-to-day decision making.
Zechariah’s words, the Haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah, speak of exactly this issue. They are examples of what an earlier age might have called “Prophetic Judaism” but with a difference. Jeremiah calls to an exiled people and exhorts them to engage in the wellbeing of the places where they find themselves, even though they are neither sovereign nor powerful in those places. Isaiah reminds us that God’s power, love and concern for our behavior is universal. However, Zechariah speaks to a High Priest, Joshua, who is in command and has it within his power to act justly or not. He speaks to a leader of Israel who is definitely in a position to make the choices that bring holiness or disgrace to a people living in its own land and worshiping in their own, restored, temple.
What would Zechariah have said to Joseph who, when given power over his brothers, hesitates to act as ethically as we might like? What would he have preached to the Hasmoneans when, after securing sovereignty, they failed to live up to the ideas for which they, presumably, fought? Could it be that the light Zechariah brought forth was not just the ancient Menorah nor the Light of Torah, but another light – one yet to be achieved – a light that shines forth from Jewish Sovereignty and, carrying with it such true justice and holiness for all, that everyone, our friends and detractors alike, can only call it “Beautiful, Beautiful!”
Shabbat Shalom & Happy Hanukkah
Rabbi Steve Denker