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Posted By The Stash

Last week I began to discuss the attitudes towards acculturation reflected in this part of the Joseph narrative. I observed that Jacob was concerned that a prolonged stay in Egypt would lead to acculturation at first and ultimately assimilation of his small family into the carefully organized idolatrous cult of Egypt. He was concerned that given the fact that his family were vastly outnumbered, such a scenario would be inevitable and thus he did not complete his journey to greet his long lost son until G-d assured him that his descendants would survive and ultimately return to the Land of Israel.
While some parts of this parasha make it sound as though Joseph is aware of and subscribes to this prophetic narrative—especially his request that he be buried in Egypt so he may ultimately accompany the people when they are released, the majority of Joseph’s life indicates a man increasingly comfortable in Egypt. Immediately after he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, the monarch not only appoints him vizier, but does all he can to Egyptianize Joseph. He is given a new name and, most interestingly, a new wife specially selected by Pharoah; Osnat the daughter of Potiphera, the Priest of On.

This young woman’s identity has been hotly disputed by commentators for centuries. There are two main lines of argument; one which sees her as Joseph’s niece, the daughter of the disgraced Dinah who was raped by Shechem. The other theory regards Potiphera as a variant on Potifar, Joseph’s first master, who sent him to jail after his wife falsely accused Joseph of adultery. We could ask why she would make a suitable match for Joseph. Rabbi Reuben Bulka of Ottawa (a former CJC President) has a brilliant psychologically based argument, but the key here is that a significant number of both classical and contemporary commentators have seen Osnat as a convert, a righteous convert who honestly believed in Judaism. That a woman of this rank would convert to Judaism to marry Joseph certainly seems to present the view that Judaism is a very desirable religion.

 

Continued...

 
Posted By The Stash

Continued from part 1

 

But are these commentators simply putting the best face on what is in fact intermarriage? Would the daughter of an Egyptian priest, a caste that had so much power that Pharoah did not dare take their land during the famine, readily convert to marry Joseph? Stranger things have happened, but the balance of probabilities is slim. The text cites Pharaoh’s intervention explicitly, making us wonder if it took his authority to make an Egyptian woman marry out of her ethnic group and social class. Once established, Joseph outwardly becomes an Egyptian in many ways. He speaks Egyptian all day, and while the names of his two sons reflect his pain at being snatched from his family, he never openly refers to his past. At home, he still eats separately from the Egyptians, but one wonders both how long that practice will persist and how much his children knew about their father’s past. Did he ever tell them more about the origin of their names?

When Jacob dies, Joseph calls upon the Egyptian embalming experts to prepare his body and an extended, Egyptian style mourning period ensues. It requires Royal dispensation for Joseph to return his father to the Cave of Machpelah, and only after a dramatic plea by Joseph and a promise to return. In this light, Joseph’s desire for his burial in Egypt is understandable—while the words “G-d will surely remember the covenant and return you to the land of Canaan” are placed in his mouth, all his actions reflect lip service at best. He is all but assimilated by the time he dies. The last verse of this chapter indicates that the Hebrews had no intention of returning to Canaan: “they settled in the land of Goshen and took possession of it.” The progeny of Joseph and his brothers increase through intermarriage (there were not enough women for them to marry when they first came) though they retain a sense of “Hebrew-ness” strengthened by their separateness from the Egyptians. But as the generations pass, surely these distinctions blurred. Our Sages were perfectly right in pointing out that by the time of the Exodus, the vast majority of “Hebrews” would not have put blood on their doors, and were thus struck down in the plague of Darkness. The Exodus came in the nick of time; one more generation would have left Egypt without Hebrews.

If this scenario is possible, and it rings true both to us and to many commentators, then we must ask: what were the main causes of this loss of culture. The main one is the terribly small size of Jacob’s family. The other is the strength and attractiveness of Egyptian culture and the relatively easy passage into Egyptian society that being Joseph’s family gave the brothers. With these answers in hand, we can then go back to the questions I asked last week: Are we any different? Do all comfortable Jewish exiles inevitably end badly? So far the answers seem to be, not very different, and perhaps yes. But we will use material from Parashat Shmot next week to reach some tentative conclusions.

 
Posted By The Stash

In an age where Jews are accepted into North American culture to the point that Christians want to marry them, many Jews still wonder, “Where is the ethnic boundary between Jews and the rest of the world?” We are deeply concerned about “Jewish continuity” though our community—be it based on peoplehood, ethnicity, faith, or a combination of these, —cannot agree on what this phrase means. Nor can the streams of Judaism even agree on who a Jew is according to religious law.

Certainly we Jews have been concerned with continuity from the beginning of our history. This is not surprising given our minority status outside of Eretz Yisrael. This helps explain why Jacob, on his way to visit Joseph, stops near the Egyptian border to ensure that his trip is Divinely sanctioned. This seems strange: has G-d not miraculously spared him so that he can see his son who has experienced a similar level of the miraculous in his escape from death and elevation to the pinnacle of Egyptian power? These facts should have been sufficient testimony to Jacob that this was a providential journey. But Jacob remains rightly worried. Egypt is a prosperous and well ordered society with a sophisticated cult of idol worship. It was easier for a small family of wandering shepherds to ignore the locally based cults of Canaan; religious survival in a more organized and densely populated cultic society would be far more challenging. This explains, according to many commentators, why Joseph chose the relatively remote territory of Goshen; a “voluntary ghetto” would ensure continuity.

Jacob is more doubtful about continuity than Joseph—so he sought G-d’s advice. G-d indeed supported the decision to “go down to Egypt.” The Torah describes this theophany as “visions of the night,” a unique phrase. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin saw this as an allusion to the darkness of Exile which would now dominate most of Jewish history. And what happens in Exile? The precautions of Joseph to insulate his family from Egypt were threatened by a growing Egyptian population that pressed against the borders of the “Goshen ghetto”. Nonetheless the Hebrews weren’t as popular with their neighbours as we are with ours. Some commentators such as Sforno suggest that there still was no danger of assimilation because Egyptians deemed Hebrew food to be “abominable”. This precluded Hebrews and Egyptians from eating together, which was not the case in Canaan. This means, if we accept Sforno’s hypothesis, that Egyptians shunned Hebrews socially, and thus continuity was now not an issue. Presumably, Jacob’s family increased from 70 to several hundred thousand by marrying each other. Perhaps Jacob had been unduly pessimistic?

Events had already proven that Jacob was right. Joseph’s brothers had told Pharaoh that they only came “temporarily because the famine is strong in the land.” But when the famine ended—they stayed. Indeed we read “the the Israelite settled in the land of Goshen and took possession of it” despite the fact that Joseph had promised Pharoah that his family came as “only temporary sojourners”. The lure of a comfortable existence, and continuity, proved powerful. When royal policy suddenly changed, the Hebrews were caught off guard and quickly enslaved.

Are we any different? Do all comfortable Jewish exiles inevitably end badly? So far North America has provided an almost unprecedented run of freedom of religion to Jews. But what is different in this Golden Age is that we are intermarrying at an unprecedented rate. What exactly this may mean will be discussed next week, since the Torah is not yet done with the subject either.

 
Posted By The Stash

Once again, we must turn to an ever fascinating theme: why did the Rabbis arrange the calendar so that, in the vast majority of cases, we read Parashat Miketz on Chanukah. The answers are legion, and, because our people always review and study our sacred texts, more are being added each year. May we continue to add more…

Rabbi Abraham Pam, a famous Rosh Yeshiva who passed away in 2001, observed that people living in the midst of abundance are very unlikely to worry about conserving resources. Joseph’s great contribution was that he understood the psychology presented by his dream. He realized that the Egyptians would not conserve and that when the hard times hit they would suffer hunger and loss of life. To forestall disaster he took the chance of speaking out of turn to Pharaoh. Given Pharoah’s status, this could easily have been perceived as insubordination and punished with death. But instead, Pharaoh saw the 30 year old Joseph’s wisdom and not only accepted his plan but also put him in charge of the project.

Rabbi Pam argues that the failure to perceive that conservation is necessary in times of abundance also applies to Chanukah. Olive oil is so abundant in Eretz Yisrael that no one thinks twice about its value. That is, until there was no consecrated olive oil available to light the Menorah in the Temple. Suddenly, shockingly, the true value of the specially prepared oil became evident.

When we think of the latkes, sufganiyot, and other foods traditionally consumed on Chanukah, all created using abundant amounts of oil, we would do well to think of the virtues of conservation. National debt averages of 174% of income, the leveraging of low credit to finance excessive lifestyles, and the fallout of the “credit boom” are discussed almost daily in the news. Are we any different from the Egyptians during their years of plenty?

And what of the virtues of simple conservation of electricity, gas, and water? Even as rates rise our consumption rises apace. We must enlarge our power grid, at an expense the government does not even want to fully report, continue to draw on the Great Lakes for water, and continue drilling for more natural gas and oil. Certainly Canada is in the fortunate position of still being resource rich, but once again in the spirit of Rabbi Pam’s question, we must wonder: at what point will we be confronted with the spectre of the skinny cows that ate the fat ones, and yet remained so emaciated that “one would not know that they had eaten.”

Chanukah is about using light in a very controlled way. One can argue that light symbolizes the growth of technology, which began when humans harnessed the power of fire. We cannot light more than eight candles because, even with the miraculous help of G-d, there is a limit to how long a fire can burn. The miracle was that the fuel burned more slowly, not that there was combustion without fuel. The Earth is full of resources, but at some point we will reach their limit. How much more so is this true of our limited finances? Better to conserve so we will always have something, than to live for the moment and waste through conspicuous consumption in the time of abundance. This is a very Jewish approach to the world and to life in general.

 
Posted By The Stash

Just over 38 years ago, Rabbi Norman Lamm shared a powerful insight about the Al HaNissim prayer, which we will begin saying at Ma’ariv tonight as Chanukah begins after Shabbat. The prayer first outlines how the Maccabees fought the Seleucids and drove them from Eretz Yisrael. This war, announces the first part of the text, was the miraculous victory of the few against the many and the weak against the strong. After outlining the miraculous nature of the military victory, the prayer continues: “and afterwards your children came into Your Holy House, and cleaned Your Sanctuary, and purified Your Temple, and kindled lights in Your sacred court...” Rabbi Lamm observed: “What this prayer is telling us is that before all else, the very first item on the national agenda is survival against a common foe.”

The Rabbi went on to point out that he had just returned from a meeting of the Synagogue Council of America, a representative council of the rabbinic and lay arms of the Modern Orthodox (Yeshiva University version), Conservative, and Reform movements. At this meeting he had convinced the Orthodox group not to secede. His reasoning was simple: Jewish survival was at stake in America—unity was mandated. After the common foe of assimilation and decreased Jewish knowledge had been defeated, there would be time to discuss smaller issues—as Al HaNisim taught.

But Lamm’s intervention marked the beginning of two decades of increased fractiousness as a rapidly revitalizing Orthodoxy turned right, while Conservative Judaism turned left. While Reform became more traditional, Orthodox Judaism could only see a movement whose Rabbis didn’t keep kosher, drove to shul on Shabbat, and allowed—and this was the final blow—either matrilineal or patrilineal descent to determine who was a Jew. The Synagogue Council of America disbanded in 1994; which makes one wonder, what would Lamm say today, all things considered? The answer seems clear. The sermon of December 7, 1974 is found in Derashot L’Dorot—Commentaries for the Ages, a collection of Lamm’s sermons published In September of this year!! Obviously, the President of Yeshiva University still wishes to make the case for inter-denominational conversation.

As Jews around the world light the Chanukah candles tonight, we should pause and think of Lamm’s observation. The mitzvah of Chanuka is not completed by merely lighting the candles. They must then be placed in a window where they are visible in order to “proclaim the miracle.” What side of our religion are we advertising? Our fractiousness, which we can afford even less than when Lamm spoke for the first time. Or should we advertise the fact that Chanuka is one of the most universally observed mitzvoth of Judaism? We come together to celebrate our survival against external foes over the millennia. Let us pray that our internal divisions do not in the end become more powerful than our external enemies.

 

 

 
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