Sorry, it appears that vacation made it harder for me to write than I thought it would. So a day late but I think we all have to think about the fact that it was Hanukah and Thanksgiving so give me a break.
So we read Miketz yesterday. Miketz tells the story of the rise of Joseph in Egypt due to his ability to interpret Pharaoh's dream and the prediction of a coming famine. Joseph becomes an important leader in Egypt, so much so when his brothers come to seek food at the time of the predicted famine, he is the one who bargains with them. He had become so Egyptian they did not recognize them. It is Joseph who not only saves the lives of many but also creates the economic circumstances that centralize power in Egypt.
During that time Joseph adopted a total Egyptian persona and became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. He named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, "God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home." And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction."
These names give us insight into Joseph’s story. Alone in a foreign land and away from his family, he continues to recognize the God of his ancestors, even when acknowledging the pain his family caused him. He embraces his role in Egypt but also continues to hold onto the faith tradition he was born into.
We read this in the middle of Hanukah, a holiday of that speaks of a battle for the Jewish soul between the Greek culture and remembering the past. Today there is another battle in our culture. Hanukah has taken on a very large place on the Jewish calendar because of its proximity to the Christian and more and more the American holiday of Christmas. Hanukah/Christmas has become a pivot point in the new Jewish American identity. It gives us an opportunity to discuss who we are as a people amongst ourselves and with our neighbors.
In places that have few Jews or communities that tend not to interact with Jews, what people know about Jews can be summed up with the 4 Hs. Hasidic Jews seen on TV, Hallah, Holocaust and Hanukah. I don’t want to be defined by any of those but the last one truly shows the complexity of the historic Jewish experience. We are more than the Hasidic community, who are known for their exotic nature, Hallah, while wonderful, reduces us what many people do with ethnic ignorance to a food stuff, while the Holocaust is an important part of our history and the history of the world, Am Israel Chai, the Jewish people survived the events and we are a strong and diverse community. But Hanukah gives us the unique opportunity to acknowledge that there was a time when Jewish people fought with each other over how much we give up our Jewish nature and how much we don’t want to change, just as Joseph had to balance his Jewish nature and his new Egyptian identity.
Joseph as a child who was hurt by his family and became an important member of the Egyptian leadership, however he still connected to his faith tradition in the new land as Torah teaches us from how he named his sons and later he will enact a promise that his bones be taken out of Egypt when the people finally go back to Canaan. While he forgets the pain of his history he connects to God of Abraham, Isaac and his father Jacob. Joseph blends that need and the desire to give up the past and create a new identity while at the same time building that identity on the tradition that taught him by his ancestors.
Joseph gives us a way to see a blending of the desire to be part of the greater culture without giving up our own special identity. Joseph adopted the trappings of Egypt but kept his connection to his past. We can do that with how we express our faith through Hanukah. What’s more is that we can also use it to help others see the importance of the past to us as Jews while allowing us to speak of its complexity. Most of the Jews today would not want to be Maccabees but the other choice was an oppressive culture meaning to stomp out the Jewish faith. Today we have options. Being Jewish can be many things, with different ways of approaching Torah, practice, traditions, and even God. However, the foundation must go back to the heart of what it means to be Jewish. The tree may bear many different kinds of fruit, but the root still is the Torah and what it means to us. We don’t have to give up our Jewishness completely or totally buy into the celebration of someone else’s important holiday to be part of the culture. Jews in the time of the Maccabees were willing to give up all of their Judaism and totally buy into the Greek culture even before they were forced. They had little choice. Today we can choose our own to find our Judaism along side our neighbors. As the days of Hanukah fade we should remember the lights are lights of freedom to be Jews but also lights memory. Like Joseph, we can feel part of the culture we live in, but we can also remember the past with all its warts and create a new identity that builds on who we are and not what others want us to be. It is up to us.