Hanukka: time to come home
Miketz | Genesis 41:1-44:17
One of the laws of Hanukka is that the hanukkia, the special eight-branched menorah used on the holiday, should be placed in a window so passersby will see it and be reminded of the miracle. But what miracle does the halacha mean? Is it the victory of a small group of guerrilla fighters over the Syrian Greeks or the small jar of oil that burned for eight days? Or perhaps it is something else entirely.
In parshat Miketz, Joseph is brought from prison and asked to interpret Pharaoh’s disturbing dreams. Because he is able to foresee seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine and to devise a plan to save Egypt, Joseph is quickly elevated to the position of viceroy, charged with storing food and then distributing it when the famine arrives. As the famine continues into a second year, Joseph’s brothers arrive from Canaan to purchase food for their families.
Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, 1194-1270, Spain) asks what should be an obvious question: “After Joseph had been in Egypt for many years and had become chief and overseer in the house of a great lord of Egypt, how is it possible that he didn’t send a single letter to his father to inform him of his whereabouts and comfort him, since Egypt is only about a six-day journey from Hevron?”
As steward in Potiphar’s house, as trustee in the prison, he should have been able to get a message to his father. Certainly, as viceroy of Egypt he could have done so, and a visit would not have been beyond possibility.
But Joseph chose not to do so. Ramban suggests that Joseph was concerned that his dreams — of the sheaves and of the sun, moon, and stars — should be fulfilled, and to do so he understood that he could not go to his family; he had to wait for his family to come to him.
I think the explanation is much simpler. Joseph didn’t contact his family because he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to be burdened by his past and his heritage. He had “made it,” he had succeeded in Egypt, and he wanted to cut his “old country” ties.
What had Joseph become? The midrash tells us that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt because they held on to the traditions of their ancestors. They did not change their names, they did not change their manner of dress, and they did not change their language. And what about Joseph? He was now called Tzafnat-paneach. He was dressed in fine linen and the golden accoutrements of royalty. He spoke to his own brothers through an interpreter. He named his first-born son Menasheh because, “God has made me forget completely (nashani) my hardship and the house of my father. Joseph had become an Egyptian of Israelite extraction, the first assimilated Jew.
And so, meeting his brothers after all those years creates a tremendous conflict for Joseph. His first impulse is to hold fast to his Egyptian identity — “Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he behaved as a stranger toward them.” But the pull of his past and his heritage is too strong. He remembers his dreams and that his fate is inextricably bound up in that of his people. He longs for his younger brother and his father. The viceroy of Egypt weeps because he finds he is not so completely assimilated as he had believed.
It will take him a little longer, but Joseph will reclaim his family and publicly proclaim his origins to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. A Jewish soul is reconnected to its source.
So place your hanukkia in the window. Perhaps a disaffected Jew will see its light and realize that it’s time to come home.