Chanukah and Joseph

A Torah Commentary
Parshat Vayeshev
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

The holiday of Chanukah begins this coming Friday night when we light the first candle.

Once a minor holiday Chanukah has risen in prominence and importance because of the proximity of the holiday to Christmas and Jews not wanting ever to be second class citizens, have elevated their own holiday in importance. The themes of this holiday are quite important even if this is a holiday not found in our Bible. The historical time period, 165 BCE comes too late in history for the Bible. It happened long after our Bible was finished being edited and completed. The story of the Maccabees and the history of the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks and assimilated Jews really did happen. The zealous Mattathias and his sons mobilized a small army to fight against those Syrian-Greek army and those Jews who wanted to assimilate into the majority culture. And when the King, Antiochus ordered the temple trashed and turned into a pagan temple this was the last straw and fueled the Maccabees in their fervor of fighting against this hillul Hashem, this desecration of God’s name and holy Temple.

The Maccabees prevailed after a long three year battle and rededicated the Temple to the worship of our God. They established a new kingdom, the Hasmonean Jewish state. And in remembrance of their victory and rededication of the Temple we observe this holiday, dedicated to light, and freedom of worship.

What isn’t true about the holiday of Chanukah is the story of the oil that lasted for eight days. This is a later story found in the Talmud, in Shabbat 25a. It reflects a later time when the Romans controlled the world and oppressed the Jews greatly. The rabbis had to recast the story of Chanukah because celebrating a historical moment when the Jews rebelled successfully against the ruling power would have put them in great danger. But we are heirs to that inspired story of light and oil and endurance. That is indeed the message the Rabbis of the Talmud wanted to convey; that we as a people can last and endure beyond all odds. In their time that was Roman oppression of the Jews. In our time we are still inspired by the story of the Maccabees fervor and the story in the Talmud. Endurance and overcoming oppression are still themes that resonate with the 21st century Jew.

Even this week’s Torah portion echoes that theme. We meet young Joseph who is sold into slavery by his brothers. Even though he seems a smug teenager, full of himself, Joseph over the course of time relies more and more on his faith in God to help him endure. We learn from early on that God is with Joseph and blesses the work of his hands but more importantly Joseph is also loyal to God. Even as he is imprisoned in Egypt because he resisted the advanced of Potiphar ‘s wife, (Potiphar bought him out of slavery and he worked in Potiphar’s house) Joseph knows his faith sustains him.

While imprisoned he interprets dreams of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker. Joseph attributes this skill and talent not to his own expertise but turns to God. “Surely God can interpret! Tell me your dreams.” (Gen. 40: 8). Joseph endures his imprisonment with God by his side

Endurance and hope that God is with us and blesses us are the themes of this week’s portion in the story of Joseph and in the story of Chanukah. As this week unfurls focus on the enduring and ongoing nature of the Jewish people and how you are a part of that and what do you contribute to ensure that ongoing strength of our people. In the light of the chanukiah this coming Friday night, see the glow of that hope and take strength from the light so that you can endure and thrive as Joseph did.

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