Rabbi Danny Rich – 15 December 2017
Parashat Mikeitz takes its name from its opening words: Vay’hi mikeitz: At the end of… and refers to a series of dreams by Egyptians which began in the previous parasha when Joseph accurately interpreted the dreams of the royal cupbearer and baker with whom he was sharing a cell.
Two years later it is Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, who experiences dreams, and, recalling Joseph’s previous success, Pharaoh is advised and invites Joseph to comment on the regal dreams. Joseph’s prediction of seven years of agricultural plenty followed by seven years of crop failure and his strategic advice about economic prosperity and adversity leads to his appointment as a – or perhaps the most – senior official in Egypt who presides successfully over the years of plenty and the years of famine.
In Chapter 42, however, the successful immigrant Joseph receives a stark reminder of his more humble Hebrew origins when his own brothers arrive in Egypt seeking food aid following severe famine in Canaan, the ancestral land where their elderly father, Jacob or Israel, still lives. Joseph has not seen his brothers for many years and they, in turn, believe he is dead. Joseph recognises his brothers but, either not ready and/or willing to reveal his identity to them, Joseph undertakes a long drawn out and manipulative series of encounters. First, they are accused of spying; second, Simeon is seized and is told that he will only be freed when the youngest brother (Benjamin) comes to Egypt; and third, they are given food for their money but the money is secretly repaid in the bags of food. The brothers (less Simeon) return to Canaan but further food shortages force them to revisit Joseph accompanied this time by Benjamin. A banquet is held; the brothers are given sacks of food; and into Benjamin’s bag Joseph’s wine cup is surreptitiously placed. On being stopped the brothers genuinely declare their innocence but, on finding the cup in Benjamin’s bag, Joseph informs them that Benjamin will be kept as a slave but the other brothers may depart.
Parashat Mikeitz is always read as the festival of Chanukkah is about to begin. Chanukkah is an eight day post-Biblical festival, the origins of which centre around historic events which are recorded in the Apocryphal Books of Maccabees. Following the death of Alexander the Great in 444BCE his vast empire was divided amongst his military commanders. The near Middle East was no exception and the Jewish inhabitants of that strip of land by the Mediterranean Sea, now the modern State of Israel, found themselves squeezed between the warring Ptolemies in Egypt and their equivalents in Damascus. In 167BCE Anthiocus Epiphanes swept down from the North, subdued and occupied Israel, including desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem. The occupiers sought to impose a Hellenist Greek style of living upon the inhabitants of the area. Indeed Greek thinking had some attractions but the cruelty and lack of sophistication of the occupation led to a resistance. After some years of guerrilla warfare the Syrio-Greek forces were repelled, the Temple was retaken and rededicated for Jewish worship, and the Jewish people established a monarchy (known from Greek as the Hasmoneans) which was to last for a century until during a period of Jewish civil war the Romans under General Pompey entered Palestine (as it was to be known) and ended any idea of an independent Jewish entity for nearly 1000 years until the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.
For reasons of political intrigue in the rabbinic period the bloody reality of the Maccabean Wars is replaced with the legend of the day’s oil lasting for eight. Whilst the festival keeps the name Chanukkah which means ‘rededication’ the major Chanukkah obligation may have more to do with the darkness of winter for which the lighting of chanukiyyot and the consumption of warming oily foods including potato pancakes (latkes), and doughnuts brings some comfort.
The legend of Joseph (the Hebrew who heads the Egyptian court) and the historic fight of the Maccabees (to maintain Jewish culture in the face of an attractive Greek alternative) are arguably more relevant today than ever as all Jewish communities seek to strike a balance between the values and practices of Judaism and a demand by many Jews to embrace the modern world.
There are, it seems to me, four major responses to the challenge of maintaining religious tradition in the face of modernity. The first is the abandonment of religion and the acceptance lock stock and barrel of the passing or new trend. Its opposite extremes is the rejection of that which is challenging and a retreat into a self-imposed ghetto, represented classically by the slogan of the nineteenth century teacher, the Chatam Sofer who declared, ‘Anything new is forbidden by Torah’ and today by various secgts of what are known as ‘Charedim’.
Between these two extremes are the possibilities of what the German nineteenth century scholar, Samson Raphael Hirsch labelled torah im derech eretz by which he sought to (reluctantly) combine traditional Judaism with participation in the then new European culture. Its feature was an ultimate disdain for the modern but a willingness to note it, even if it were to have no practical difference to the way that Judaism was to be understood or practised.
It was Liberal Judaism which welcomes many aspects of modernity and seeks to combine its best with the best of Jewish values and practices. Whilst some modern ideas may, it can be argued, even have their origins in Judaism it was modernity which enabled, for example, pluralism and universalism individual autonomy and equality, to be fully developed. Therefore Judaism can be enhanced by modern thinking whist at the same time modernity it has aspects, such as materialism which may be corrupting.
The task of the Liberal Jew is to ask oneself, as Joseph and the Maccabees did, ‘What is the purpose of maintaining Jewish life and how is it to be achieved in the prevailing conditions of the day?’ It may just be that Judaism has a grand purpose and many of the answers but not all, and the real struggle of Israel is to bring together the essence of Judaism and the lessons of the present.
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