One of my favorite images during Chanukah is that of the face of a child illuminated by the candlelight of the menorah. There is something so beautiful and innocent about that image. The open awe at the flickering flame, the excitement, the pure, unguarded joy of the moment are visible to all in the child’s face. While candlelight is indeed flattering, it is not possible to recreate the beauty of that image with even the handsomest of adults for one important reason: only in children does the inner light shine through, unhindered. Children do not know how to pretend, how to hide themselves. There is no dissonance between their inner and outer selves.
This year, as in most years, Parashat Miketz falls out on Shabbat Chanukah. Miketz tells the story of Joseph in Egypt. We read how Joseph correctly interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams while imprisoned, daring to deliver the difficult and unpleasant message that in the end, saves the Pharaoh and his kingdom. Joseph quickly moves up the ranks in the Egyptian court. He becomes a viceroy, is given an Egyptian name, Tsafnat Panayach, and marries Osnat, daughter of an Egyptian priest. Joseph is so well integrated into Egyptian society that when his brothers descend to Egypt, “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” (Bereshit 42:8)
Joseph was so visibly assimilated into Egyptian culture from his name to his clothes and even his speech that even his brothers, who grew up with him in the same household, did not recognize him (Hizkuni). Be it by the harsh tone of his voice that was incongruent with the child they knew (Sforno) or the use of translators as intermediaries that limited direct interaction between the brothers (Rashbam) or the presence of a royal entourage that would be unfathomable to them, the brothers discount the possibility that even though he may look familiar, that the viceroy could possibly be their brother (Ramban). How could this Joseph be the Joseph the tzadik?
Almost 500 years later we find the story of the Chashmonaim who rose up against the oppression of King Antiochus and his people who passed laws banning religious Jewish practice in an effort to assimilate the Jews into Hellenic society. Sadly, at the time, many Jews were drawn in to the beauty and allure of the Greek culture; a beauty that we do not deny. Indeed, Judaism recognizes its beauty, even allowing a Torah to be written in Greek so that its beauty can find its way into Judaism (Megillah 8b). So where is the difference between the Jews in the time of Yehudah Hamaccabi and Joseph? The Jews under King Antiochus looked the part of a citizen of Hellenic society, spoke the language and adopted the customs and behaviors. Did not Joseph do the same?
The simple answer is no. Just because he looks the part, does not mean that Joseph has abandoned the teachings of his father or his faith. In fact, Joseph remains true to who he is in all he does. In the incident with Potiphar’s wife who tried to seduce him, he demonstrates self-control and integrity, despite having nothing to lose, stating “and I shall have sinned to G-d” (Bereshit 39:10). He credits G-d for having provided the interpretations for the dreams and as the decider of the fate of the Pharaoh. He openly credits G-d for any personal skills or talents he may demonstrate. Rav Kook explains that Joseph’s real talent is that he can succeed in any environment without ever sacrificing his spiritual self, unashamedly “retaining his holiness”.
The word Chanukah means inauguration and refers to the rededication of the Beit Hamikdash following the victory of the Maccabees. It should be noted, however, that the word Chanukah also shares a root with the word chinuch, commonly translated as education. Indeed, following the deliberate assimilation of the Jews into Helenic society, some were so “lost” that a re-education in the ways of Jewish life was needed.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe beautifully teaches that being involved with the world is not a bad thing. Rather it is an opportunity to “imbue the physical with a divine light”. G-d created the world and infused it with holiness. When we hide ourselves, we are not connecting with the world or sanctifying it with holiness, instead we are strengthening the separation between G-d and the world. In this respect, Joseph was a true tzadik-by living in the physical world without losing sight of or hiding his spiritual side.
“The Soul of a person is the candle of G-d” (Tehilim 20:27). On Chanukah we display our chanukiahs and menorahs lefarsem et hanes, to publicize the miracle, making sure that we let everyone see the light. This Chanukah, as we kindle our physical candles, let us take some time to kindle our inner candles as well and allow then to shine through proudly.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach!
Dr. Laura Segall
Head of School