By: Rabbi Tirzah Ben David,
Congregation Shir HaTzafon
Price of Survival”
It is ironic, or rather, fitting, that this
particular portion of the Joseph story should fall during Chanukah, as it would
be hard to find two more disparate examples of how our ancestors have responded
to the ‘outside’ world during Judaism’s long and complex history.
Joseph is often deemed to be the ideal
prototype of the ‘Court Jew’ (although he’s only a first-generation Israelite),
active and influential in the affairs of the world. His story reflects a
tolerance and pragmatism, a taking-for-granted of the realities of the ancient
world. Joseph himself is essentially an aberration: the nomadic Patriarchs
wander always on the fringes of civilization. And civilization means Egypt.
The authors of the Hebrew Bible have a long
and ambivalent relationship with the great kingdom of the Nile, and it’s not
always a negative one. Here they clearly recognise it as the supreme cultural and
political power of its day. These Egyptians are not villains and Pharaoh is not
an enemy – he’s the god-king of a major empire with a problem on his hands, and
Joseph is the whizz-kid who has the solution. Because we’ve read the Book of
Exodus, we know that all this will eventually end in tears, but neither Joseph
nor Pharaoh knows this, nor is either of them in any way directly responsible
for the unforeseeable future: four hundred years is a long time. What they do
manage in their own time is to save half the population of the Middle East,
including the founding fathers of the Jewish People, from dying of hunger.
But the portrait of Joseph is a subtly
nuanced one; he is Pharaoh’s man, and he’s a hard man. The exquisite malice of
his revenge on his brothers depends on his command of absolute power; their
terror is the terror of the helpless, the suppliant, the refugee. They can only
react with mounting panic to the trumped-up charge of spying (an eerily modern
echo), the demand for a hostage, and, most baffling of all, the purchase money
mysteriously returned to their sacks – are they going to be framed for theft as
well? And Joseph knows how to wait. It must have been at least a year
before his brothers returned with Benjamin, and the second act of the drama
could begin. In the end of course they get off very lightly: nobody dies,
nobody disappears into some Egyptian Gulag; the humbling of his brothers
satisfies Joseph’s thirst for vengeance, as well as his need to gloat. They are
perhaps luckier than they deserve.
Not all our stories have such happy endings.
A few weeks ago Israel marked the 15th anniversary of the assassination of
Yitzhak Rabin – a trauma from which we may never recover. Yet this weekend
Chanukah celebrations are in full swing all over the Jewish world without
anyone apparently doing a double-take.
Because this was a murder worthy of the
The history of the Hasmoneans (‘Maccabee’ was
a nickname meaning ‘Hammer’, which already tells us something) presents us with
a genuine dilemma; their crusade may have been necessary for the survival of
Judaism in their own time, but it exacted a high price: their real enemies were
not so much the Greeks, but those of their fellow-Jews who were ‘seduced’ as
they saw it, by the intellectual and aesthetic attractions of Hellenistic
culture. As we in the Western world have been ever since. These were the people
that Judah Maccabee came charging down out of the hills to murder. This is the
mindset that makes you throw stones at people who drive on Shabbat, and murder
prime ministers who threaten to make peace with your enemies.
Our Jewish Heritage (sometimes it starts to
sound a bit like a theme park) is littered with no-go areas for liberal-minded
Jews; we’re often forced to pay lip-service to deeds and ideologies that would
have us writing outraged letters to the Israeli government if they were perpetrated
today. As they are. And we do.
Chanukah we’ve dealt with by essentially
handing it over to our children; at worst it’s become a Jewish Christmas party,
but even at best the celebrations offer a hopelessly mixed and confusing
message. Were the Maccabees heroes or terrorists (it often depends purely on
your point of view, which is something our children urgently need to learn) And
where does the miracle of the oil originate (not with the Maccabees; the Rabbis
apparently invented it about a century later). Should we be encouraged to believe
in it? And who were these Greeks, who didn’t come from Greece but from Syria?
What, in fact, was the whole thing really about? And whose side might we have
been on? Every year we have the opportunity, even the obligation,
to tackle these questions, but usually we reach for another doughnut instead.
The story of Joseph is an ancient legend
endowed with startling verisimilitude; we find ourselves believing every word
of it. The Maccabean Wars are a well-documented historical event, albeit a long
and complex one, which we have painstakingly transformed into a
brightly-coloured myth complete with candles and a miracle. On that subject,we
might remember that the modern State of Israel, which really can lay claim to
being a miracle in terms of its total unlikelihood, its apparent impossibility,
even 150 years ago, was essentially the dream and the creation of secular
‘Hellenized’ European Jews.
All of which suggests that there is perhaps
more than one way to save the Jewish people.