The Burden of Peoplehood

Miketz | Hanukkah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 4, 1994 / 5755 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Sold into slavery at the age of 17, Joseph attained the post of vizier of Egypt by the time he was 30. That would have been a remarkable feat by a native; for a foreigner, it simply boggles the mind. Only Pharaoh stood between him and absolute power. Joseph had deciphered Pharaoh’s premonition of catastrophe and urged decisive action on a national scale. And Pharaoh rewarded the messenger by appointing him to carry out his own counsel. He also bestowed upon him all the trappings of power, including an arranged marriage with the daughter of an Egyptian priest.

During the ensuing seven years of bounty, Joseph gathered and stored so much grain that his officials could no longer quantify the amount. The Torah adds a telling aside at this juncture from which our sages would tease a core Jewish value. “Before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons… (Genesis 41:50).”

Resh Lakish, one of the dominant rabbinic leaders of Palestinian Jewry in the third century, saw the timing of the birth of Joseph’s children as an exemplary instance of planned parenthood. Joseph, who knew what was coming, chose to have his children before the famine set in. Implicit in his decision, observed Resh Lakish, was the noble principle that in time of communal distress one ought to refrain from sexual pleasure. As the second most powerful man in Egypt, Joseph would not suffer directly from the famine. Yet he identified with the affliction of the Egyptians, and perhaps with what he knew to be the lot of his family in Canaan, and refrained from self-indulgence. A sense of shared humanity prompted him to reduce his level of personal joy. Hence the Torah reports that his children were born before the famine struck.

The Talmud enlarged on the ethical sensitivity of Resh Lakish. It insisted that a Jew must never divorce himself from the trials of his people. “When the people of Israel is engulfed in sorrow and one chooses to drop out, the two angels that always accompany a person lay their hands on him and declare that `this one who deserts the community shall never witness its moment of consolation.'” The Talmud goes on: “When a community is afflicted, a person should never say that I will go to my house to eat, drink and be merry…. But rather he should join in the community’s suffering.'”

To dramatize the point, the Talmud brings the example of Moses. Soon after the exodus from Egypt, Israel found itself locked in battle with Amalek, soon to become its arch foe. As long as Moses was able to keep his hands aloft, Israel prevailed. But when weariness forced him to lower them, the tide of battle quickly turned in Amalek’s favor. So Aaron and Hur, Moses’ brothers, seated him on a stone and each supported one of Moses’ tired arms. The Talmud asks, “Didn’t Moses possess a mattress or cushion to sit on?” Of course he did, but Moses said to himself “that since Israel finds itself in travail, I shall join them (i.e. symbolically) (B.T. Taanit 11a).”

In short, Judaism has no patience for fair-weather friends. Membership in the community of Israel imposes responsibilities. When its welfare founders, the individual is expected to stay loyal and supportive. Oppression is a fate that calls for self-transcendence and not flight. Individual survival and salvation are not Judaism’s highest values: its deep sense of community and peoplehood moderates our overriding concern with self. The high priority given to charity and the rescue of captives (an all-too common fate in the Middle Ages) bespeaks a lofty communal ethos.

In this spirit, our generation has added a new ha-Rahaman to the end of our Grace After Meals, which reminds us of our on-going obligation to Jews still deprived of freedom and security: “May the Merciful One bless our brethren who are given over to suffering and take them out from darkness into light.” Nor, might I say, has any period of our long history seen Jews do more for their brethren in need than those who have exercised leadership in North America since the Holocaust.

Hanukkah is conducive to thinking about communal values, because the religious persecution which the festival commemorates gave rise to their most extreme expression: martyrdom. The Second Book of Maccabees contains the first instance of Jews dying for their faith – the aged Eleazar and the unnamed mother with her seven sons, who all refused the order to violate Judaism and lead others astray in public. Martyrdom is always a cruel choice inspired by ultimate values, and Jewish history is awash with the blood of those who had the conviction and courage to make it. Unlike earlier oppressors, the Nazis gave Jews no choice, not even those who had long been severed from any ties with the Jewish community.

Integration tends to come at the expense of parochial commitments. The fierce resistance of the Maccabees and their followers to the pressure to eviscerate and abandon their ancestral faith should pose for us the existential question: can we still identify in ourselves core Jewish values for which we might be prepared to face death? Does the intensity of our Jewish convictions still generate the power to compel self-sacrifice, grant inner peace or fire the imagination of our children? In the end, Judaism opens its innermost recesses of meaning only to those who are willing to subordinate their lives to its ancient, holy triad of God, Torah and Israel.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Miketz are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.