Friday, December 26, 2014


“Joseph the Provider”

In this week’s parashah, Joseph at long last reveals himself to his brothers and thereby begins the long-delayed process of reconciliation. During this same period of time, he attains the height of his activity as vizier to Pharaoh, conceiving a plan whereby the Egyptian people can survive the seven years of famine which had been revealed to him in his dreams. Yosef appears here, not only as an interpreter of dreams, but as a master economic planner.

His plan, at heart, is a simple one: during the seven years of plenty, the Egyptian monarchy, under Yosef’s guidance, gathered the surplus of food in huge silos and warehouses. Thereafter, during the years of want, this produce was sold to the people so that they could eat—first in exchange for money, then in exchange for their cattle and flocks, thereafter for their land, and finally, in exchange for their very bodes. Thus, everything and everyone in the entire country would ultimately belong to Pharaoh. In this way the people were able to endure the hardships of famine, but at what a price: “and the land belonged to Pharaoh” (Gen 47:20). A capitalist dream!

Having been raised with principles closer to those of socialism than to those of capitalism, I always found something extremely disquieting and distasteful in this whole story. After all, the land and its produce originally belonged to the peasants, to the little people who cultivated the land with their hard work, harnessing the blessings of the overflowing Nile to grow food. During the good years, they sold their surplus produce at reasonable, but probably not particularly high, prices. Then, as things got bad, they were forced to sell everything they owned—beginning with their flocks and land, and ending with themselves—at terms dictated from above. The central government, guided by Joseph, took advantage of their need, thanks to one simple, fortuitous fact—that they knew in advance that there would be years of famine. Thus, when the famine struck, they were able to sell the surplus produce of the good years back to the “little people” who had themselves grown it, at exorbitant prices.

Joseph could have made the news of the famine known to everyone, and told the people to put aside some of their excess produce against the bad years which were coming. But he did not; he kept the secret between himself and Pharaoh and their immediate circle, thereby benefiting from this “inside information.”

There are those who have compared Joseph’s role in this situation to that of FDR—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American president who guided the United States through the worst economic crisis in its history, the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Roosevelt set up the Social Security system, the works administration which provided jobs (and the dignity that goes with working and from earning one’s own living rather than living off the dole), and a series of other social measures that helped the ordinary people who were hit hard by the Depression. For Americans of my parents’ generation—even those far Left of him politically—Roosevelt was a revered and beloved father figure, larger than life, who saved the common man by introducing the concept of “hands-on” governmental involvement to help protect the ordinary person, insofar as possible, from such economic catastrophes. Many of the measures he introduced are with us to this day.

Some critics have suggested that Joseph may be compared to FDR. Indeed, Thomas Mann, in the final section of his monumental four-part novel retelling the saga of the patriarchs, Joseph and His Brothers, hints at such a parallel. But is it so?

Every year when I read this parashah I am deeply troubled by Joseph’s behavior. Rather than comparing him to FDR, one might compare him to the “Court Jew” of the Middle Ages and of early modern times, who advised the powerful how best to manage situations to their own advantage—and were generously rewarded for these efforts. How then are we to understand Yosef?

Without Joseph’s vision, without his interpretation of Pharaoh’s prophetic dream— which the Torah tells us was a direct message from the Divine—the Egyptian people would have died of starvation. He saved them. But at what price?! And could it have been in a different, more egalitarian, “democratic” fashion?

Hanukkah (Parshanut)

Mai Hanukkah? What is Its Message for us?

From a traditional perspective, grounded in and informed by traditional texts, Hanukkah is not really a holiday at all: it is not a yom tov in any halakhic sense. In the classical halakhic sources, it occupies a distinctly minor role—not as a yomtov per se, but as a day on which one is obligated to perform certain mitzvot—uniquely, lighting candles in the evening, preferably in a prominent, visible place; and reciting “Hallel and Hoda’ah”—i.e., reciting the Hallel each day, and adding the Al hanissm paragraph, containing words of praise of God related to the occasion, to the Amidah and Birkat ha-Mazon. Under this rubric one might add the widespread custom of singing the hymn Maoz Tzur, which presents a panoramic picture of salvific events throughout Jewish history.

Put quite simply, Hanukkah is the least demanding of all Jewish “holidays.” The ritual of lighting candles in the evening is far less demanding in terms of both time and money than the mitzvot of Pesah, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, or even Purim. In fact, nowhere in traditional sources is Hanukkah referred to as a festival, a hag or yomtov; the traditional greeting among Orthodox Jews for these days is A gutt’n Hanukkah, “a good Hanukkah.” Nevertheless, today it is universally referred to as a holiday: here in Israel, people greet one another with the words Hanukkah Sameah and it is referred to as Hag ha-Hanukkah. Moreover, notwithstanding the gastronomic popularity of latkes or other Hanukkah delicacies, Hanukkah is the only special day in the Jewish calendar for which there is no obligation to celebrate by eating a festive meal.

Nevertheless, statistics show that Hanukkah is the most popular, widely observed holiday among American Jews. The questions is: Why? Many would argue that it is so for the wrong reasons. A major part of its popularity is its proximity in time to Christmas (this year, for example, the last day falls on Christmas Eve). The idea, which developed during the years following the Second World War, was that American Jewish children felt “cheated” because they didn’t have a major, child-centered holiday in mid-winter, and that they could feel compensated by Hanukkah. Some Jews have tried to “outdo” the Christian holiday by turning Hanukkah into a kind of of “Jewish Christmas,” giving their children gifts each of the eight nights, rather than only once as is customary on Christmas. In recent years, some people, in a spirit of ecumenism, have coined the term “Chrismukkah” to denote this holiday season, as a kind of mélange of the two (an elegant solution for intermarried families).

In any event, for many Hanukkah has become a time for family gatherings; for eating traditional Hanukkah foods, such as potato latkes and sufganiot, the jelly doughnuts which signal the occasion in Israel. And, as mentioned, there are gifts, and games (dreidl, and in some circles card games and other forms of gambling—traditions that go back to Eastern Europe), and in general it is seen largely as a holiday for children. Indeed, two Jerusalem educators of my acquaintance, colleagues / cohorts, Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre, have compiled a big, thick book, A Different Light (New York—Jerusalem: Devorah Publishing & Hartman Institute, 2000), intended to harness the popularity of the holiday as an educational opportunity to make it more meaningful to American Jews.

It is also treated as major holiday in Israel, for different reasons. Schools are closed for most of the eight days, and there is much to-do on the media and of course by advertisers, but the emphasis is on the military victory, the Maccabees being seen as a kind of forebears of IDF—the “Tough Jew” who fights for his survival and for Jewsh sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael—again, a very different message than that of the religious tradition.

Earlier this week I read an op-ed piece in an issue of this week’s ha-Aretz protesting the celebration and teaching of Hanukkah in all lsraeli schools, even the most secular, as “celebrating the victory of a fanatic religious ideology over the acceptance of Greek universal cultures“—which, to his lights, “we”—i.e., liberal secular Israelis, ought to accept. What follows is, among other things, an attempt to respond to that objection.

So we return to the question of the Talmud: Mai Hanukkah? What, in fact, is Hanukkah all about? Beyond the proximity to Christmas which has led to its popularity among certain kinds of American Jews, it seems to me that we may start with its central symbol: the lighting of candles. Candles, or light generally, may be seen as emblematic of a core Jewish idea. Light serves almost universally as a symbol for Wisdom, for the intellect, for clarity of understanding, for clear-eyed perception of the meaning of human life and the role of humankind in the world. And, for the Jew, this is inextricably tied to Torah, to a certain religious mission and God-centered understanding of the meaning of life. And, indeed, the central event of Hanukkah—the Maccabean revolt—was essentially a religious struggle, an act of resistance to the cultural and political hegemony of Hellenism, to the pressures placed on the Jews in Eretz Yisrael at that time (2nd century BCE) to assimilate or acculturate to the dominant Hellenistic culture, with its pagan adulation of the emperor and its worship of the body.

Perhaps, one might say, this can be the quintessential message of Hanukkah for American (and other Westernized) Jews. Even the most hyper-assimilated American Jew, who does little more than light Hanukkah candles, is demonstrating a certain minimal fealty to his ancestral tradition, and a certain desire, however tenuous, to enable it to survive. Hanukkah symbolizes a kind of stubborn Jewish resistance to an all-embracing Western culture. At one time, perhaps even as recently as my own early-post-War childhood, the issue might have been one of resisting Christian hegemony; today, the problem is dealing with the overwhelming hegemony of a secular, hedonistic, materialistic culture, which focuses on the individual and the satisfaction of his own pleasures (with the help of an omnipresent consumer culture) as the greatest good. It is in many ways a cheap and tawdry, anti-humanistic culture: today, for every earnest, morally upstanding, and thoughtful secular humanist (and there are such, whom I admire), there are a score of cheap hucksters.

Vayeshev-Miketz (Parshanut)

Who Was Joseph?

The parashah for these Shabbatot—from Vayeshev to the end of Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis)—have always seemed to me in some ways to resemble a short novel, dealing as they do (in addition to the religious message, foreshadowing future Jewish history, etc.) with the vagaries of human personality, with all the passions, wiles, and dilemmas of the protagonists, including some less pleasant and even ugly manifestations. Vayeshev begins with the tale of hatred, resentment, jealousy and violence involved in the story of Joseph and his brothers; goes on to the story of Judah and Tamar, in which the latter, motivated by an overwhelming wish for children, pretends to be a harlot so as to tempt Judah into a casual sexual dalliance by which he will impregnate her; continues with the intense lust of Potiphar’s wife for the handsome stranger living in her house which, once thwarted, turns to hatred and a desire for vengeance (not entirely untypical of women frustrated in such a way); and concludes with Joseph in prison, where his talents as a dream interpreter, which will later stand him in very good stead, first come to the fore.

It is interesting that in all these stories Joseph appears as a scapegoat of sorts. But he is not only an innocent victim. His character is a complex one. The term Yosef ha-Tzaddik, “Joseph the Righteous,” used in the Rabbinic tradition, is one that many modern people may well find problematic. We often see him acting in ways far more arrogant than the other patriarchs. There is something annoying, vaguely narcissistic and self-righteous, about his behavior. One can at least partially sympathize with his enemies and those who hated him. The brothers must have seen him as acting superior, a “daddy’s boy” (“And Joseph brought their bad report to their father”—Gen 37:2), and one can identify with their feeling thus. He is reminiscent of a schoolboy who is always telling the teacher about the misbehavior of his classmates—the “tattle-tale,” more a term of approbation than of admiration.

Even the story of Potiphar’s wife is problematic. How would any of us react if an alluring, powerfully sexual woman were to proposition us—particularly if this were to happen when we were young and inexperienced, with the powerful sexuality of early adulthood? Would we so easily refuse? Yosef’s behavior seems too “good” to be true. The tradition describes him as a Tzaddik, and even sees this incident as a kind of template for holy behavior—but is he such, or might we, with our modern sophistication about sexual matters, see him as an insufferable prig? Had he gone with her it would clearly have been a sin, not to mention a violation of the trust placed in him by his employer—but was his abstinence a reflection of mature moral conviction, or reflection of an adolescent fear of sexuality?

It is illuminating to compare all this to Judah’s style of leadership. The latter’s position of guidance was based upon a clear understanding of life, and knowing how to be a “khevreman”—a friendly participant in the group, “first among equals,” rather than a smug, superior outsider who seems to know everything better than others. Indeed, it is Judah who is ultimately the leader, and the forebear of the Israelite monarchy. This first appears in his insistence to his siblings that they not kill Joseph, and comes to the fore more clearly in this week’s reading, Miketz.

These chapters also deal with dreams, centered around the figure of Joseph. They opens with Joseph’s own dreams of power and domination—first that of the sheaves bowing down to him, taken as a symbol of the ten brothers (Benjamin was too small to be included among them and, as Joseph’s only full brother—i.e., a child of the same mother—was never a rival or enemy); thereafter, in the dream of the stars and the sun and the moon, he is even seen as dominant over his parents as well. A modern reader might well see these dreams as reflecting a kind of megalomania. At the end of Vayeshev, Joseph is imprisoned alongside the baker and the cup bearer, for whom he plays the role of dream interpreter. They ultimately recommend his talents to Pharaoh, whose disturbing dreams are revealed to be of portentous national significance.

What are dreams, anyway? Are they a form of revelation of cosmic secrets, or an expression of the unconscious? Either way, they have been seen by mankind, in ancient times as well as modern, as significant messages, outside of the regular order of “real” knowledge, bringing us awareness of things that would otherwise be unknown. In a religious worldview, in which there is Divine revelation, they are not on the same level as “God spoke all these things,” but are seen as meaningful and deserving of careful consideration. They belong to another, mysterious—well, “dream-like”—realm, containing strange, surreal truths that need to be unraveled and interpreted.

As we turn to Miketz, the reading for the present Shabbat, other aspects of Joseph’s character come to the fore. Here we see him in a position of leadership in Egypt, the most powerful empire of the day. After deciphering Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph was elevated to the position of vizier, second only to Pharaaoh, overseeing a program of national relief in face of a calamitous famine—a circumstance which ultimately leads to the reuniting of his family. We are reminded—and we shall see this more clearly in Parashat Vayigash, in his economic policy—as the forebear of all those brilliant Jews, like Benjamin Disraeli, who played crucial roles of economic leadership and policy making in Western regimes in recent centuries.

Here we see another aspect of Joseph’s character, which has been an endless subject for discussion among commentators and stam Jews reading these chapters: the game of “Hide and Seek” or concealed identity that he plays with his brothers, who have perhaps long given him up for dead. The perennial question here is: Why did Joseph conceal his identity from his brothers? Why didn’t he say, “I am your long-lost brother Joseph” as soon as they arrived to buy grain in Egypt? And how could he torture tem, and his own father, with the demand that they bring Benjamin down to confront whom they perceived as a powerful and dangerous stranger?

We can well imagine the ambivalence he felt: on the one hand, hostility and even hatred for the way they treated him as a youth; and, on the other hand, love and closeness tom these men, who were after all his only true family. He had lived for years as an Egyptian, and eve had an Egyptian wife, Osnat bat Poti-fera, but one gets the feeling that those ties were not as deep as those to his elderly father and to his brother Benjamin, and even his highly ambivalent feelings towards his older brothers who had cruelly mistreated him. Thus, he concealed or least did not overtly display his Hebrew origins to the Egyptians (again, like the classic “Court Jew” of modern times), meanwhile marrying and raising his own family—but his deepest ties were surely to his father, and perhaps this younger brother Benjamin. This ambivalence, a mixture of love and suspiciousness, is hinted at explicitly by the biblical text when, one two occasions during the meetings with his brothers, “his mercies are aroused” and he turns aside and weeps (42:24; 43:30-31). We thus have a tension between deliberate, controlled, calculated action and his own spontaneous, inner emotions. This conflict reaches its climax in next week’s parashah, at 45:1 ff.

We mentioned earlier Judah and his sterling qualities as leader. It seems that his innate nobility again comes to the fore in this chapter, in the manner in which he acts as spokesman for the brothers, considering and weighing the effect of all these things on his father, and in his concern for the young Benjamin. This, too, reaches its climax and denouement at the beginning of next week’s Parashat Vayigash; It would seem that the fathers of the tradition showed a keen sense for the dramatic when they decided to cut off this week’s parashah where they did, leaving the listeners in the synagogue to wait a week to hear the dramatic confrontation between Joseph and Judah for the start of next week’s parashah.

Vayishlah (Parshanut)


Vayetze (Parshanut)


Toldot (Parshanut)


HAyyei Saah (Parshanut)


Vayera (Parshanut)


Lekh Lekha (Parshanut)


Noah (Parshanut)


Bereshit (Parshanut)


Hagei Tishrei (Modernity)


Sefer Devarim (Modernity)


Sefer Bamidbar (Modernity


Sefer Vayikra (Modernity)