Thursday, December 27, 2007

Shemot 5768: What Manner of Man is the Prophet?

This week we start the book of Exodus and are introduced to the setup for the rest of the Torah. A Pharaoh who does not know Joseph arises and appealing to national security, has the Israelites enslaved. Things get worse. Pharaoh has the midwives try to kill all the newborn boys but they do not heed him. In response Pharaoh then decides to kill all male newborns by drowning, though one baby escapes this by being sent down the river, ending up living in the palace, until he murders an Egyptian task master. The slave who this guy saves rewards him by ratting him out. To escape Pharaoh’s anger, this man flees to Midian where he finds a bride, becomes a shepherd and has a rather interesting conversation with a burning bush. This man is of course Moses. And this week is really his story.

This week has been a challenge to write this. I had an idea and yet I have not been able to figure out what to do with it. So let me start with the idea.

The synagogue I attend is in a northern suburb of Chicago, but I live in downtown Chicago. On the many occasions I go from one to the other, I travel along Lake Shore Drive and turn off at Bryn Mawr Avenue. As I get to the first traffic light, there is a big pink stone building on the corner. My first recollections of this building were of my dad’s former boss and mentor living there. I learned less than a year ago about the time a boss and mentor of one of my teachers gave an address there and made a friend which arguably would change all of American history.

In January 1963, Abraham Joshua Heschel began a speech at the Edgewater Beach Hotel at the opening of the first conference of race and relations, quoting this week’s Parsha.

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord the God of Israel, let My people go that they my celebrate a feast to Me” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed their voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, And moreover I will not let Israel go.”

The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from being completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. [The Insecurity of Freedom p.85]

Closing the conference was a speech by Martin Luther King. Heschel and King left the conference as friends.

Passing Bryn Mawr and Sheridan so often, I don’t always pay attention to the building. Yet this week as I passed the building early Friday morning to attend a class I had the strangest feeling, and a question would not leave me: “What manner of Man is the prophet?” This was the first sentence in Heschel’s Doctoral dissertation which eventually would be translated from German into English by Heschel as The Prophets.

I didn’t understand why this was going around in my head. It seemed like I found what my Shlomo’s Drash would be for the week. Yet this has been very difficult to write without writing another graduate level paper. So most of this week I’ve spent at Spertus’ Asher Library trying to figure out what I wanted to write. I’ve been failing badly at it.

On a fluke I checked the Encyclopedia Judaica on Heschel, and found a rather startling surprise. I was on my way to class on the 12th of Tevet. Heschel’s 35th yartzeit was the 11th.

My original idea was to figure out is Moses was a prophet. However, it pretty definitive since we read in Deuteronomy:

Deut. 34:10. And there has not arisen since in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.

Moses standing in front of Pharaoh makes him the first prophet of the biblical text to approach a king. As I wrote last year, his story parallels Jeremiah, including his reluctance to take on the role of prophet.

A few days before his death, in an NBC television interview with Carl Stern, Heschel summarized his view of the prophet:

The idea of a prophet is complex and consists above all of two things.

Of the message or the substance of what the prophet has to say from some extraordinary claim to an experience which is not given to other men.

In other words there are two parts to the prophet: the message the Prophet gives and the unique way the prophet receives that message, what some might call divine revelation. Heschel continued (bold mine):

Let us ignore the second, let us take the first.

What's so great about the message of the prophet, about the prophet as a character? I would say the prophet is a man who is able to hold God and man in one thought, at one time, at all times. This is so great and this is so marvelous. Which means that whatever I do to man, I do to God. When I hurt a human being, I injure God.

Moses was not one of the prophets that Heschel described in his book. Yet I wonder: how does Moses fit the Heschel’s model of the prophet? How, in this week’s portion, does Moses act the prophet? Does he act the prophet more now than he does in later encounters with Pharaoh? How given Heschel’s model do we become better people?

Those are a lot of questions for which I have no answers. Finding such answers, I could write a dissertation. But I’m not going to.

Instead, I’m going to make an invitation. You give me your answers.

For those of you in the Chicago Area who can get there, I will be leading the Torah Study portion of the service during the Kahal Shabbat Morning services this Saturday at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston. Services start at 9:30. Come with your thoughts and your answers. Let’s discuss these questions together.

If you are not able to attend, then go over to my blog at and write down your thoughts as a comment on this weeks entry.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Winter Solstice 5768: Why We Eat Chinese Food for Christmas

After spending most of Friday wishing people “happy solstice holiday of your choice” The idea for this came about twenty minutes before sunset Friday. Since I was taking my weekly trip to Shabbosville, so I had to wait till today to write this.

My thoughts on one of the beloved Jewish American traditions related to this time of year, Chinese food on Christmas Eve, started actually at work. As a restaurant consultant, I once did a site meeting a few days after Christmas at an upscale Chinese restaurant, one of several restaurants in a chain of restaurants with a variety of cuisines. The chef had just been transferred from an Italian restaurant a few months earlier, and so this was his first Christmas Eve.

“So were you open Christmas Eve?” I asked him.

He looked at me. “Yes, we were the only restaurant in the chain open which I thought odd, until I was shocked at how busy we were” he replied.

Smirking, I asked “A lot of takeout business I suspect, and I bet they were all named Cohen, Levy or Schwartz”

He looked at me like I was a magician. “How did you know that?”

So I explained to him the great Jewish American tradition of Chinese and a Movie on Christmas Eve.

While jokes about Chinese food mandated in the Talmud abound, this curious tradition however does have its roots in the Talmud, In the tractate that describes how a Jew is supposed to live in a idolatrous world Avodah Zarah, there is a Mishnah that deals with the issue of Saturnalia and Kalenda, the Hellenistic winter solstice festivals, forbidding business transactions with idolaters on those days. But in explaining these two festivals, the rabbis provide us with a fascinating passage about the origins of these two festivals:

Our Rabbis taught: When primitive Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world's course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry. [Avodah Zarah 8a]

The rabbis claim the holidays not just for themselves but all humanity, dating back to the time of Adam. And there may be something to this. Primitive man may have seen the days growing shorter and thought the end of the word was coming, and then rejoiced when the daylight began to increase. Besides Kalenda, there was another Roman related festival at this time of year, the birth of Mithras, a sun god prevalent in both the Middle East and the Roman military. Mithras was born (or resurrected depending on your point of view) three days after the solstice, on the 25th of December. The sun was literally born on the 25th, which was a time for some serious partying and feasting, and possibly a few human sacrifices. Most scholars point out that the “tax rolls” of the New Testament that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Jerusalem for had to be one of the harvest festivals, of which are spring and fall festivals. For the early Christians, however, all this festive activity around them made it difficult to get converts or keep converts from celebrating the idolatrous holidays. So they made a simple change: It was not the birth of the sun god Mithras, but the birth of the Son of God -- Jesus.

The Church fathers were not the first to pull this stunt. Several hundred years earlier, someone else did too. Judah Maccabee re-dedicated the temple on the same day of its desecration two years earlier: the 25th of Kislev (I Maccabees 4:52-54). From the texts in I and II Maccabees, it’s likely that the desecration of the Temple which started the revolt may very well have been a Saturnalia or Kalenda festival. The Maccabees celebrated for eight days, claiming that since they were so busy fighting they could not observe Sukkot, and this was a replacement for Sukkot. Coincidentally, Kalenda and Saturnalia were eight days long, and this might have been a ruse to once again get people to celebrate within their religion at a time when the world was very busy partying.

Yet the book of Maccabees is not included in the biblical text, and Hanukkah is an extra-biblical holiday. The Maccabees, later called the Hasmonean dynasty, were extremely violent fundamentalist rulers. What’s worse, they asked for help in their activities from Rome, who would eventually destroy the temple. Neither of these facts enamored them to the Rabbis of the Talmud, who has very little problem banning the books of Maccabees from the Biblical canon. But Judah Maccabee’s assessment that there needed to be a religious cover for the solstice holidays was right on the mark. The rabbis just couldn’t have the military victory be the reason for the holiday. So they told this story:

What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.[Shabbat 21b]
The military victory was replaced with a miracle, using the rest of the story to maintain the tradition. Like the Church fathers, The Rabbis maintained the tradition by keeping the dates and changing the story slightly. Yet the 25th of Kislev provided a problem in this observance. Jewish calendars are of course lunar. The date of Hanukkah tends to wander when compared to the solar calendar. Hanukkah might be celebrated before Christmas, and sometimes even after.

Yet halfway around the world, Chinese civilization influenced the calendar of most of the Asian nations around them. Using both a lunar and solar calendar the post-solstice festival occurs not days after the winter solstice but two new moons after the winter solstice. Chinese New Year usually occurs in late January or early February. The December holidays to most traditional Chinese was meaningless.

All this came together with the immigrant populations of the United States. Because their calendars used lunar dates, The Chinese and the Jewish immigrants had nothing to do on a day where everyone else, who was Christian, had closed their shops. The Chinese had found selling food was a profitable business, and Jews like to eat, particularly a food which was relatively easy to maintain the dietary requirements of kashrut. Thus a tradition was started.

In short, one could say the tradition of eating Chinese on Christmas was started by a bunch of American lunatics.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Parshat Vayechi 5768: The Plan

Seventeen years after Jacob moved to Egypt, he becomes ill and close to death. He first blesses Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons, though oddly changing the birth order around. Later, he blesses, if not prophesizes about all of his sons. Jacob dies, is carried back to Canaan, and then the brothers fret Joseph will finally exact revenge. But Joseph tells them once again it was God who did all this and there is nothing to worry about. Fifty four years later, Joseph makes his brothers promise that when they or their descendants leave Egypt they will take his bones with them. Joseph lives to see three generations and then dies at 110, ending the book of Genesis.

Since last week, I’ve been thinking about something a friend asked as discussion questions in a study session I was at about last weeks portion. I was a little out of it at the time and didn’t answer then, but I thought about my answers, since mine are some of Joseph’s final comments in the book of Genesis:

19. And Joseph said to them, Fear not; do I replace God?

20. But as for you, you meant bad things against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is today, keeping alive many people.

These words are Joseph’s response to his brother’s agitation after the death of Jacob that Joseph will now take retribution on his brothers. They are the words of a wise seasoned sage, not the words of the haughty seventeen year old tattletale. They made me think this week about those discussion questions. While there were several, there was a question that stood out:

Does God have a personal plan for each of us, and if so what does that say about free will?

My answer is yes, I do have a personal plan given to me by God. Indeed we all do. Yet I think it’s important to remember something that seemed to be missing in that conversation last week. A plan is not a script. A script indicates all the actions and statements made. A plan gives the general idea, but not how it will really be implemented. Plans may not end up the way they started. There is room for variation in implementation. For example imagine the plans for a house. You can make a hundred houses from the same blueprints but the furniture, choices of paint, siding, roofing materials etc. could make for a hundred unique homes. Plans and free will are not mutually exclusive.

One problem with plans I mentioned last week. Some want to spite God through sin because an omnipotent God did not interfere with bad events. Most moderns think of the holocaust of course, but in the time of the Rabbis the brutality of Rome and the destruction of the Temple was just as horrific to the people of the time. How could God plan to have something like the holocaust?

Joseph is familiar with such bad things in his life. Joseph was a man who at seventeen was assaulted and almost murdered by his own brothers, sold as a slave, accused and jailed for Sexual assault. He spent thirteen years in the lowest worst conditions anyone could imagine. At many a turn his death looked imminent. Yet he survived and we are told at each of those points that God was with him. God was with Joseph because Joseph was with God. Although told to the People of Israel many years after Joseph’s death, there are words which summarize this plan best of all:

4. Hear, O Israel; The Lord is our God is the Lord is One;

5. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart; 7. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9. And you shall write them upon the posts of your house, and on your gates. [Deuteronomy 6:4-9]

Joseph may not have known the Shema, but he lived it. By living it he kept God close. Bad things still happened to him, but each was a challenge to his character. The obnoxious brat of seventeen would have lost his head in front of Pharaoh. The thirty year old convict knew how to play the game and not only survive the encounter, but end up second in command. The hardship in his life made him a better person. He was given a challenge and accepted it by moving with each experience to a more righteous character. There are plenty of prophets and patriarchs in Torah, but Joseph is the only Tzaddik. All the others heard the voice of God, Joseph never did. Like us, he only got dreams.

Plans change. People perceive the parts of the plan differently, and thus execute them differently. Our perceptions are unique as we are unique. Joseph realized by the end of his life he cannot know the whole plan, nor the plan for anyone else. A good thing for one is a bad thing for others. A bad thing in one’s life may be the entry point for something wonderful. We cannot know. Sometimes a dream, as in both my case and Joseph’s changes everything, but only if you know how to react to the dream. What we can do is change and improve our character and strive towards becoming a tzaddik, a righteous person, loving God and living in the way of God as we go down the path of our life.

One of the reasons I never answered this question last week was that the time of darkness outside reflects the darkness that I and many feel inside at this time of year. I really cannot complain about my life but there are places where it is painfully empty, and December always rubs it in my face a thousand different ways. I therefore was not in the mood to answer. Yet that pain and emptiness I have taken as a challenge. I have grown as a person, and continue to do so, much like the Bill Murray character from Groundhog Day did. A dream helped me realize that last week as well, a dream where much of my life in the last seventeen years never happened. I’ve faced many crises in that time, chiseling and forging me. Today, I’d rather be the Shlomo of 2008 with two masters’ degrees and a lot of charisma, than the agnostic shy computer geek Steve of 1991.

Joseph was very clear he should be grateful for his brother’s evil. Without it not only would they have died but Joseph would never have achieved the success he did. Moreover, everyone in the entire region might have died from starvation. God planned a famine. Joseph’s response to the warnings countered the plan and saved lives.

There is a plan. The plan for each of us is found in the Shema, though we each read it differently. Hardships do exist, some slight some horrible. Yet even those may lead to even greater things for us depending on our actions. We as limited beings cannot know. As Joseph Ha Tzaddik said, we cannot replace God with ourselves. We can only love God, and improve ourselves day in and day out.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Parshat Vayigash 5768: The Five Men

This week Judah pleads for the freedom of Benjamin, and is so moving Joseph reveals that he is their brother in a fearful and tearful reunion. Eventually Jacob and the whole Mishpocha comes down to Egypt. They all live happily off the fat of the land of Egypt at the request of Pharaoh.

When Joseph presents his family to Pharaoh, he does something odd:

1. Then Joseph came and told Pharaoh, and said, My father and my brothers, and their flocks, and their herds, and all that they have, have come from the land of Canaan; and, behold, they are in the land of Goshen. 2. And he took some of his brothers, five men, and presented them to Pharaoh. [Genesis 47:1-2]

The Hebrew text, Targum Onkelos, Targum Pseudo Jonathan and the Socino translation all note five men went with Joseph. Of course this creates two questions: Which five? And why these five?

To understand the rabbinic answer we have to understand their source for this answer: the blessings for the Tribes by Moses in Deuteronomy 33. For some of the tribes, Moses repeats their name as follows:

33:7. And this is the blessing of Judah; and he said, Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah, and bring him to his people; let his hands be sufficient for him; and be you a help to him from his enemies.

33:18. And of Zebulon he said, Rejoice, Zebulon, in your going out; and, Issachar, in your tents.

33:20. And of Gad he said, Blessed be he who enlarges Gad; he lives as a lion, and tears the arm with the crown of the head.

33:22. And of Dan he said, Dan is a lion’s cub; he shall leap from Bashan.

33:23. And of Naphtali he said, O Naphtali, satisfied with favor, and full with the blessing of the Lord; possess you the west and the south.

33:24. And of Asher he said, Let Asher be blessed with children; let him be acceptable to his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil.

Why repeat these six names? The rabbis differ on that question. Midrash Rabbah to Genesis states:

And why did the righteous Joseph take these five of his brethren? Because he knew who were the strong men among his brethren, and he reasoned wisely: If I present the strongest to Pharaoh, he will on seeing them make them his warriors. Therefore he presented these five, who were not mighty men. How do we know that they were not? You find them in the blessing of our teacher Moses. Every one whose name he repeated in his blessing was mighty, while he whose name he did not repeat was not mighty. [Genesis Rabbah - XCV:4]

Using this argument, The Midrash states the brothers who were presented to Pharaoh were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Benjamin, and Issachar, whose names were not repeated. Yet the Talmud and Targum Pseudo Jonathan have a reversed list:

Thus said R. Johanan that ‘they were those whose names were repeated [in the Farewell of Moses]. But was not the name Judah repeated too? He replied: The repetition in the case of Judah was for a different purpose, [Baba Kama 92a]

So If Judah was for a different purpose, we have the five brothers as Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. We can see rabbinic commentary isn’t helping much.

Looking at this conundrum, I thought of two possible answers. One is a commentary on the commentators, the other on the text. Recently I was in a Talmud study session at my Synagogue, and we were studying a rather bizarre text about the biblical kings not allowed into the world to come. Among their atrocities:

Ahaz permitted incest; Manasseh violated his sister; Amon, his mother, as it is written, For he Amon sinned very much. R. Johanan and R. Eleazar [dispute therein]: One maintained, He burnt the Torah; the other, he dishonored his mother. His mother remonstrated with him: ‘Hast thou then any pleasure in the place whence thou didst issue?’ He replied: ‘Do I do this for any other purpose than to provoke my Creator!’ [Sanhedrin 103b]

The facilitator had one interpretation. This was part of a power struggle with the prophets. The law of Kings was struggling with the law of God. By violating the sacrosanct law of incest Amon tried to destroy the Torah. Our facilitator saw many problems and issues with modernity in his interpretation. Our group discussed, or was lectured to, on that point for quite a while. I never got to give my explanation, but my idea has a lot to do with the problem of which brothers were before Pharaoh.

I am of the opinion one cannot look at a piece of Talmud without understanding the people who were making these statements. In both the Baba Kama piece about the brothers and the Sanhedrin part about the incestuous kings one of the rabbis involved was the Amora R. Johanan. He lived at a time where most of Israel was overrun with Romans, many of them converts to Christianity. Given Roman oppression and increasing pressure to convert, most Jews were either converting or running away to the lands of the East, to the diaspora in present day Iraq. Torah knowledge was waning in Israel, and about 150 years after R. Johanan, scholarly work disappeared completely for close to a thousand years in the land. R. Johanan, seeing the warning signs, was instrumental in preserving that knowledge in the first Talmud, the Talmud Yerushalmi.

Alternatively, The Tanna R. Eleazar ben Azaria lived at a very different time. The time of the Tannaim were the times in the shadow of the destruction of the temple and the time of the massacres in the shadow of the Bar Kokba rebellion. The Jewish world was undergoing radical change, as sacrifice was no longer possible and Jews were severely punished and executed for the slightest offence.

For me, given this historical context, I saw something different in the Sanhedrin piece. This was not a fight between God’s law and Man’s law, but answering a question of why do people sin. For R. Johanan it was forsaking the tradition as a minority people for the majority. For R. Eleazar it was to spite the God who would allow such horrible things to happen to His people. My interpretation of the text was R. Eleazar was talking of the reaction to the Shoah of his day, R. Johanan to the assimilation of his time. After the session I told this to a friend of mine who had an interesting response: “I guess every generation has its answer”

It is these same two generations the Tannaim and the first Amoraim which flip the answers to which of Jacob’s sons appeared before Pharaoh. Both use the same proof text, but come up with different answers. These texts don’t give us enough information to make good assumptions, but there is one possibility I thought of based on the biblical text. With the exception of Zebulon, the brothers who appear in front of Pharaoh are the sons of the hand maids, of slaves. This was a prophetic message: Just as these were from slaves and are now free men, so too will we be free men again. How? Going back to the blessing we read of Zebulon

18. And of Zebulon he said, Rejoice, Zebulon, in your going out; and, Issachar, in your tents. 19. They shall call the people to the mountain; there they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness; for they shall suck of the abundance of the seas, and of treasures hidden in the sand. [Deuteronomy 33:18-19]

It will be by sea split into two so the people can walk on sand the people will go out, and then go to the mountain to offer sacrifices. Zebulon is there as another statement in front of Pharaoh.: We will go out and it will be by sea. For the world of R. Johanan, who saw the Jewish world once again beginning an exile, the five repeated names show a prophecy of exile and redemption as in Torah’s story of enslavement and the Exodus from Egypt we will begin reading in a few weeks. For the Tannaim of the Mishnah, showing your mightiest heroes meant they would get conscripted – or killed.

That at least is my idea. Midrash is more a reflection of the person giving it than necessarily an accurate description of events. Not only in my own mind games with the text, but even in Talmudic times was this true. The redactors of the Talmud, centuries after Johanan, added their own editorializing. Each generation does interpret things differently. In my interpretation, it’s important to remember that every generation has its interpretation.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Parshat Mikkeitz 5768: The Land of My Affliction

This week Joseph gets his “get out of jail free” card, when Pharaoh has two nightmares that no one understands. When interpreting them to mean there will be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, Joseph goes on to suggest collecting the surplus in the seven good years as rations for the famine to come. Pharaoh thinks this plan so good he makes Joseph the second in command of Egypt. He also gives him a wife Asnat, and the couple has two children Manasseh and Ephraim. The years of plenty come and Joseph collects grain for the royal storehouses. When the years of famine begin it appears that Joseph has done such a good job, that not only the people of Egypt come to Joseph for grain but also the people of foreign lands come for grain, and Egypt actually makes a hefty profit on the whole disaster. Among the foreigners are Joseph’s brothers. Joseph decides to jerk their chain by imprisoning one brother, Simeon, and finally threatening to imprison Benjamin after framing him for stealing Joseph’s goblet.

A few weeks ago I talked about Isaac. A friend of mine noted that my description of Isaacs was parallel to the thought of Elie Wiesel, who though Isaac the first Holocaust survivor. This week every year in the Jewish calendar, and very appropriately the week every year where identity is challenged the most, we read Parshat Mikketz, the story of Joseph, the first Diaspora Jew.

42. And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in cloaks of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; 43. And he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, Bow the knee; and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. 44. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without you shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt. 45. And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnath-Paaneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On. And Joseph went out over all the land of Egypt.[Gen 41:]

A few verses later, the good life continues:

50. And to Joseph were born two sons before the years of famine came, whom Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On bore to him. 51. And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh; For God, said he, has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. 52. And the name of the second called he Ephraim; For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.[Gen 41:]

If anyone is living the dream, it’s Joseph. He’s #2 in Egypt, got Pharaoh’s chariot in his garage, dresses for success, and has the wife and two kids. It can’t get better than this. His old life in Canaan seems to be a thing of the past, a dream itself.

But there is tension in Joseph, and in many of his actions, the old world is still there. The tension shows in the names of Joseph’s two sons:

51. And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh; For God, he said, has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. 52. And the name of the second he called Ephraim; For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.

Manasseh is named because Joseph forgets his past. Ephraim is named for Joseph’s being successfully the land of my affliction. What has Joseph to be afflicted about? Interestingly is the verse from Exodus:

And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows [Exodus 3:7]

The affliction which we refer to in Exodus is of course slavery. Joseph was still a slave. Maybe he was in a very gilded cage, but he still could not leave Egypt. As we find in the case of burying Jacob, Joseph was accompanied by a large Egyptian military procession, not just for his protection or honoring Jacob, but also to make sure Joseph came back to Egypt. Joseph either dead or alive was bound to Egypt until the time of the Exodus. While there were things Joseph would rather forget, Joseph still had his identity in Canaan, as evidenced by his Hebrew naming of his sons, and the idea that this was about what God did, not what man did. Joseph kept his identity and God even in Egypt.

It is hard as a minority to keep an identity, the majority pulls at you. The Targum Pseudo Jonathan tells us he was not completely alone however. Asnat his wife was really his niece, the daughter of Dina and Shechem. But as a minority of two, it would be hard to cope with a world which does one thing, and the other one Joseph wanted to teach his two boys. There is the tension, one we feel between tradition and the secular world every day, but more acutely at this time of year.

There are parts of memory and of identity which are deep core beliefs, ones that don’t change at the whims of the majority. It’s surprisingly easy to slip into the person you were decades ago, as Joseph did with his skill at dream interpretation. That was something that was part of his early family life. He really didn’t think and ponder; he just came out and said something. There are parts of Joseph which was as natural as breath. No matter how much you forget in your conscious memory those stay with you.

I find that appropriate given Mikketz always falls around the 25th of Kislev. For some, Hanukkah might be about your kids keeping up with the Jones’ kids getting toys, or you keeping up with the Jones’ toys. Yet I think it’s more than a commercial holiday issue. Too many candles are lit for that to be the only thing. According to the National Jewish population survey 2000-01, roughly Three quarters of the American Jewish population light Hanukkah candles compared to roughly a quarter lighting Shabbat candles. Hanukkah is about American Jewish identity even when we forget the practices of that identity. At a time where the world shows itself as non-Jewish, with every loudspeaker in every public place chanting the virtue of another religion, that core identity has to express itself. Lighting one candle for the Maccabee children, for religious freedom, seems as right as breathing.

Joseph did not light candles, but he did do something even more permanent: He gave his sons not only Hebrew instead of Egyptian names, but named them in way that everyone would remember that were still slaves. While the problems of the past are forgotten here, the ways of their family were not accepted in this new, foreign land.