On Parashat Vayeshev, Joseph and the Maccabees, Emancipation and Chanukkah

The way that the Jewish year flows links particular Shabbat Torah Portions with the period of particular festivals. Thus whenever Chanukkah comes around we are always hearing the Joseph narrative on Shabbat in the Torah portions Vayeshev, Mikketz and, in some years, Vayiggash.

Chanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev because that was the day of the re-dedication of the Temple according to the Book of Maccabees. The coincidence of the Maccabee victory being recorded as having taken place on the Shabbat on which we hear hearing about Joseph is just that, a coincidence.

Yet in our time it is quite possible to link the stories of the Maccabees and Joseph together. This is not because they are the same story but because they are the opposite sides of a coin of great value. The Maccabees struggled in the Land of Israel against forced assimilation into Greek culture and religion. The success of their struggle ensured that Israel would once again become the land for Judaism and the Jewish people. The Maccabees also ensured from their base in Modi’in that Jews could worship in their own authentic way, just as the thriving Progressive synagogue in Modi’in does today.

Joseph meanwhile did not grow up in Israel but reached full adulthood in Egypt, as the very first Diaspora Jew. To a great extent Joseph did assimilate into Egyptian culture, taking the Egyptian name Zaphnat Paaneach. As viceroy of Egypt he looked so different from the seventeen year old whom his brothers had sold into slavery that they did not recognise him when they came to him in Egypt to buy food. He now spoke Egyptian. He now behaved and dressed as an Egyptian potentate, hence his brothers’ great shock when he throws off his Egyptian costume and reveals who he really is to his brothers. He was exactly the kind of Jew whom the Maccabees would presumably
have despised – more Egyptian than the Egyptians.

But yet Joseph is also a great Jewish model for our time and for every time since the beginning of Jewish emancipation. There he was able to live as an Egyptian ruler, married to Asenath, daughter of an Egyptian priest and yet Joseph never loses his Jewish identity. Just as the Maccabees fought against the violence which refused them the right to be Jews in their own land so Joseph would not let the temptation to leave off his Judaism and join the Egyptian aristocracy for ever snuff out his Judaism and that of his own descendants.

Joseph, son of Jacob, took his rightful place among the tribes of Israel when his and Asenat’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh were
acknowledged by their grandfather Jacob as equally entitled to take the Jewish heritage forwards. Ephraim and Manasseh took their place as Jewish equals among Jacob’s other sons who had never become Egyptian.

Every Shabbat Jews reflect Joseph and Asenat’s success in bringing up Jewish children in the traditional blessing for boys on Shabbat Evening – “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh”. With this blessing we celebrate the children of a mixed faith family who became the progenitors of a large proportion of the Jewish people through their parent’s choice to bring them up in the tradition of Abraham and Sarah. The traditional blessing for girls is the more obvious “May God make you like Sarah, Rebekkah, Rachel and Leah”, women who built the first Jewish families.

The Maccabees succeeded in ensuring Jewish continuity in the Land of Israel. Joseph succeeded in ensuring Jewish continuity in the
first ever Diaspora. The achievement of both is worthy of celebration this Shabbat and as we head into Chanukkah which begins with the first candle lighting on Monday night, December 3rd 2018.


About the author:

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith has been a rabbi at Alyth (NorthWestern Reform Synagogue) in London since 2006. He gains great fulfillment from working with people of all ages and levels of Jewish knowledge and experience to help them to take new steps on their Jewish journey. Mark’s specialty in Jewish study is business ethics on which he frequently speaks, teaches and writes. Before he entered the Rabbinate he ran a business in the area of natural www.topambienonline.com foods. From 2011 to 2013 he served as Chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK and now chairs the group creating a new Reform Machzor for the High Holy Days.


*The above was reprinted from an earlier essay provided by the author for the World Union’s Torah From Around the World series.

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