This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Mikeitz, always falls out on Hanukkah. So rabbis every year look for ways to discuss both the Torah reading and the holiday in their sermons, and inevitably they discover connections — some ingenious, and some rather strained. But surely the most obvious is to be found in the figure of Joseph himself.
We find ourselves this week deep in the heart of the Joseph narrative. We witness his meteoric rise to power, as he is taken out the dungeon jail we left him lingering in last week and quickly placed in charge of the entire Egyptian government, second only to the Pharaoh.
In the process, we see Joseph dressed in Egyptian clothes, given an Egyptian name and married off to an Egyptian woman. He becomes fully transformed, that is, into an Egyptian — so much so that when he meets his brothers again, they do not recognize him. And this transformation is not merely external, as we see when Joseph names his first child Menasheh because, he says, “God has caused me to forget [nashani] all my suffering, and all my father’s house” (Genesis 41:51). He seems to have let go of some part of his identity, some internal sense of where he once belonged.
Joseph, in other words, is reckoning with what will be the central theme of Hanukkah: assimilation. The Hanukkah story is not just about a military battle against the Greeks, but a culture war between Hellenized Jews and those who wanted to preserve a pure Jewish identity. And in one sense, Joseph seems more like the assimilationists than the Maccabees. More than any other character in the Torah, he learns to adopt a foreign culture and to succeed in a non-Jewish society. Just as Jews in the Hanukkah story were becoming Hellenized, so Joseph might be said to have been “Egyptianized.”
Yet Joseph reveals in various ways that he never fully left his Israelite identity behind. First and foremost, his constant reference to God shows that he maintained his faith while in Egypt; indeed, even Pharaoh recognizes “the spirit of God” in Joseph and admires him for it. He seems also to have adhered to a dietary separateness from the Egyptians, as we see when he and his brothers eat away from the Egyptians, and we are told that “the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, for it would be abhorrent to them” (Genesis 43:32), which many commentators assume refers to some kind of proto-kosher diet.
Then there is Joseph’s final request, in the last lines of the Book of Genesis. As he is about to die, he says: “When God has delivered you, carry my bones up from here” (Genesis 50:25).
Here is a man who has spent his life acculturating to Egypt, mastering the ways of this new country and even rising up in its ranks. Yet, tellingly, his final request is to return, if only in death, to the land of his people.
This side of Joseph seems much more like the heroes of the Hanukkah story, the Jews who maintained their separateness even in the face of an encroaching cultural force. Perhaps Joseph was a “Maccabee” after all.
But I think the truest reading of Joseph’s identity is that it was a complex one, informed by both his deep attachment to the place he came from and by the strange new land that he embraced and made his home. Joseph was Egyptianized, but that did not mean that he gave up his claim to being a Hebrew.
Joseph is a lot like many of us, struggling to maintain a rich Jewish identity even as we strive to succeed in, and be enriched by, the culture that surrounds us. In playing out the tension between Jews who were entranced by the wonders of Greek civilization and Jews who fiercely clung to the faith of their ancestors, Hanukkah is really our holiday. And though we root for the Maccabees to win, surely there is a part of us that identifies with those Hellenized Jews, as well.
In that sense, our real hero is Joseph, a man who managed to live in that delicate balance — to forsake neither the world around him, nor the faith that formed his core.
Rabbi David Kasher is the senior rabbinic educator at Berkeley-based Kevah. Follow his blog on the weekly Torah portion at www.parshanut.com.