Commentary for Mikeitz

11 Dec

The modern discussion of Hanukkah often centers around two ideas: the miracle of the oil, and the freedom to practice our religion in the face of oppression by a foreign power. While these are both important parts of the holiday, Hanukkah is also a holiday about how we deal with assimilation; not the forceful attempts to make us assimilate like Antiochus’ decrees that Jews could not observe Shabbat or else, but the more gentle assimilation that comes from simply being exposed to a culture we might find appealing. The Maccabees did not only fight against the forces of Antiochus who were telling us that we weren’t allowed to practice our religion, but also against those who met Antiochus’ decrees by shrugging their shoulders and saying “oh well. If giving up Judaism is what it means to be part of Hellenistic society, then I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.”

This is not to say that any level of assimilation is bad. The Bible expects us to deal with non-Jews as neighbors, business associates, and military allies, the Talmud teaches us how to relate to non-Jews as a civil authority, and generations of responsa have expanded on these laws and others to help us relate with non-Jews in all aspects of our lives. Judaism understands the need to participate in outside culture, and only discourages it when there is a conflict between the culture and Jewish values and practices.

Obviously things get murkier when we try to determine what crosses that line and what doesn’t, but one of the major schools of thought in the past century has been the importance of Jewish identity, and the idea that it doesn’t have to be sacrificed in order to integrate ourselves into a society in which the vast majority of people are not Jewish. On this, we can take a lesson from this week’s parshah.

Joseph, after successfully interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, is made Pharaoh’s second-in-command. In order to execute this role, he must become a part of Egyptian society. He is given an Egyptian wife and an Egyptian name and works for the Egyptian government, and despite all of this, he still retains his Jewish identity. His Egyptian name, Tzaphenat-Pane’ach, only appears in the verse where he is given that name (Gen. 41:45), and never again. Throughout the text, he is always referred to by his Hebrew name of “Joseph,” even when the text is directly quoting Egyptians talking to other Egyptians about him (such as in Gen. 45:16). He makes his religion part of his sons’ lives, circumcising them (the Torah would have pointed it out if they weren’t), and giving both of them names that praise God for the things God has done for Joseph.

The name of Joseph’s older son, Menasheh, is explained by Joseph as meaning “God has made me forget completely my hardship and all of my parental home (Gen. 41:51),” is interpreted by the Etz Chayim as meaning that “Joseph is not saying that he has forgotten the circumstances of his coming to Egypt. He is saying that he remembers them but that the memory no longer oppresses him (p. 256).” Joseph, whose miserable experience with his brothers combined with the fact the he has risen to the top everywhere he has been through his own skills should have given him every reason to abandon Judaism, instead embraces and accepts it as an important and immutable part of who he is. Joseph, just like all of us, has been blessed with skills that he can use to make the world- not just the Jewish world, but the world as a whole- a better place. To this end, he understands that he must become part of Egyptian society, but he makes sure that he never has to sacrifice his Judaism to do so. This is an example that we should all follow.

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