And so we begin the Joseph story. In parashat Vayeshev, we read of Joseph the Dreamer, who annoys his brothers to the point where they do him bodily harm. He gets sold to Egypt, resists the amorous advances of his boss’ wife, and though innocent, gets thrown into jail. In prison, he correctly interprets a few dreams for other inmates, the baker and the royal cupbearer. Joseph predicts that the cupbearer will be freed, and when he is, Joseph implores the cupbearer to remember him to the Pharoah, so he can get pardoned. The cupbearer forgets all about Joseph, and so he remains in prison.
Joseph is embarking on more than a journey into a new country, and facing more problems than being wrongfully imprisoned. For the first time, a Hebrew who identifies as one who believes in Israel’s God is sent to, and must now live in, a foreign land all by himself. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had their families and entourages, or they were actually living back in Canaan itself. Joseph, on the other hand, is a lone and lonely traveler, one who finds himself in Egypt through no intent or desire to be there. It is a foreign land in every sense of the word.
Quickly, Joseph learns to rely on the talents he has. Potiphar, the one who bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites, recognized that God was with Joseph, and gave him “authority over his household and over all that he owned.” (Gen 39:5) All went well until Mrs. Potiphar’s advances were rebuffed. The innocent young Joseph was no match for the enraged husband, so Joseph was thrown in jail. Even in jail, though, Joseph impressed the right people. And all the time, like Dorothy who kept saying, “There’s no place like home,” Joseph kept acknowledging that his faith in Israel’s God hadn’t wavered.
It seems, at first, Joseph was trying very hard to maintain his Hebrew identity. As with all immigrants, whether they arrive on foreign land by choice or not, Joseph was presented with the immigrant’s dilemma: the balancing act, the tension between maintaining one’s home identity and becoming part of the new land. To survive, it seems, Joseph chooses Egypt.
As the story progresses, Joseph becomes fairly acculturated into Egyptian society. He gets an Egyptian job with the Egyptian Pharoah, who gives him an Egyptian name. He marries an Egyptian woman, raises his sons in the Egyptian culture, and the Torah gives us no indication that he maintained any Israelite identity throughout any of these years. The process of Israelite assimilation into Egyptian society has begun.
This week, we celebrate Chanukah, and one aspect of the holiday is the issue of assimilation or acculturation into a larger, non-Jewish, dominant society in which the Jewish community is forced to exist. The Syrian Greek rulers had outlawed much of Jewish practice, and at the same time, the Priests of the Temple became more and more associated with the surrounding Greek culture, which was attracting the wealthier and more urban Jews. The traditionalists were mostly found out in the countryside, and were deeply concerned about not only the restrictions on Jewish life, but on the outwardly assimilated wealthier class which didn’t seem to care about leaving behind traditional Jewish practice. Eventually, the traditionalists revolted against the occupiers, led by Judah and the other Maccabees. They routed the Greeks from the Temple, cleaned it up and rededicated it for Jewish use.
Chanukah is a many-layered holiday. There are civil, religious, historical, military, political and social lenses through which to see it. But the story of Joseph, the intrepid immigrant who makes his way in a new society, is always linked to Chanukah, because we always read his story at this time of the year. His journey is ours, as we also make our way, balancing our identities, our past, and our future.
May your Chanukah lights burn bright and strong, may the lights of the holiday bring light into the darkness of the winter, may your latkes be crisp, and may your dreidl always land on gimel.