Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Mi-ketz 5754
Genesis 41:1 - 44:17
December 11, 1993 27 Kislev 5754
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
It is a remarkable tribute to the genius of the Jewish calendar that parashat mikaytz always coincides with Shabbat Hanukkah. The contents of both, I shall argue, deserve to be linked.
But let me start off on a personal note. Hanukkah has always held a special meaning for me and my family. On November 3, 1938, I turned three. Six days later, on the infamous night of Kristallnacht, the Nazis unleashed their fury on the synagogues of Germany, including the magnificent Romanesque synagogue of my father in Hanover. Like thousands of other prominent Jews, he was carted off to a concentration camp, to be released only two weeks later when family in England secured a visa for us with the help of the Chief Rabbi, Joseph Hertz, known to you best as the editor of the Hertz Humash.
We were scheduled to set sail from Hamburg on the first day of Hanukkah. But when the departure was delayed, my parents decided on the spot to leave by plane. Money was of no concern; we couldn't take it with us anyway. My only memory of those fateful early years in my life was of that flight, so extraordinary as to impress even the fluid mind of a small boy. What I quickly forgot was the striking fact, on which I have long brooded, that that year the Schorsch family lit the first light of Hanukkah in Germany and the second in England. For us, Hanukkah had truly become a festival of personal deliverance.
This may be the reason that each Hanukkah, in my parent's home, we always sang with gusto all five stanzas of maoz tzur (in ours we sing a sixth, which is a later addition). If you take a closer look at it this year, you will see that maoz tzur is a song of God's protective role in Jewish history. Each stanza, after the first, recounts an instance where divine intervention put an end to a story of national Jewish degradation by a hostile power - Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek. The first stanza intones a plea for final messianic redemption, an end to the interminable experience of being a victim. Given our own close call, it is a song that informed our sense of Jewish destiny.
And yet years later I would learn from my teacher and predecessor, Professor Gerson D. Cohen, that Hanukkah does not commemorate an instance of persecution from without, but of self-destruction from within. In his provocative way, he would stress that the lure of Greek culture split the Jewish community in Israel. A growing number of Jews felt no compunctions about adopting Greek customs and mores. For them, Greek sports, education and religion posed no threat to Judaism. From the Syrian rulers they purchased the office of the high priesthood and a release from governance by their ancestral laws. They won permission to build a Greek sports arena and educational facility in the sacred precincts of Jerusalem.
All of this dilution of Judaism and elimination of boundaries was anathema to traditional Jews. They were not about to let Judaism be remade into a patchwork without integrity or coherence. When the minimalists and Hellenizers called upon the Syrians for still more help, assimilation became a matter of coercion. It is at this point that the Hasmonean family joined with the traditionalists to resist both the domestic and foreign enemy. At issue in this momentous struggle were the limits of assimilation, a reading of Hanukkah that could not be more relevant to the American Jewish scene.
Jewish identity is also at issue in the conduct of Joseph in Egypt, the subject of our parasha. Some thirteen years after being sold by his brothers into slavery, he rises to the pinnacle of power as Pharaoh's vizier. But the triumph is not a achieved at the expense of his soul. Joseph never denies that he is a Hebrew and not an Egyptian. He is aware that his unerring ability to interpret the predictive content of dreams comes from the God of his ancestors and that he has a role to play in the rescue of his family. After satisfying himself that his brothers are contrite and transformed, he is uninhibited about revealing his identity, bringing them to Egypt, presenting them to Pharaoh, and settling them on the choicest land in the country.
Joseph in essence is the first court Jew or shtadlan, a man informed and directed by a deep sense of responsibility for his people. He understands the culture and society of Egypt without being overwhelmed by either. He affirms his right to be different and gives voice to his pride of origin. In so doing he is not only the prototype of a political figure vital ever since to Jewish survival in the diaspora, but also the model of a self-respecting Jew who knows the difference between a quilt and whole cloth.
In the long run, Jewish survival is not a matter of military might or political sagacity, important as they both are, but an inner resolve that springs from faith. And it is to drive home that fundamental lesson of Jewish history that the rabbis chose to read the words of the prophet Zechariah on the shabbat of Hanukkah: "This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel (the leader of the puny band of exiles who returned in 537 B.C.E. from Babylon to found what would become the Second Jewish Commonwealth): Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit — said the Lord of Hosts (Zech. 4:6)."
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,