Parashat Vayeshev: In his father's image

The indelible relationship between the generations is the deepest expression of our eternal covenant.

parashat vayashev 88 (photo credit: )
parashat vayashev 88
(photo credit: )
The great historical event of Hanukka, the victory of the few Hasmoneans against the mighty Greek-Syrian empire, culminated in the return of the Judeans to the Holy Temple, the purification of the sacred menora (Al Hanissim prayer), and the miracle of the small cruse of pure oil - sufficient for only one day - which lasted for eight, enough time to produce as much pure oil as would be required for the ritual kindling of the seven menora lights. So why do we celebrate the victory by lighting candles in our homes (B.T. Shabbat 21)? Shouldn't we commemorate the miracle by lighting the menora in our synagogues - "miniature Holy Temples" - instead? Moreover, why does the Al Hanissim prayer open: "In the days of Mattathias the son of Yohanan High Priest, the Hasmonean and his children, when the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against your nation Israel…"? Why "and his children"? Let us first answer this second question. Generally one thinks of revolutionaries, and especially religious reformers, as being from the younger generation, modern cultural rebels pitted against the elder, conservative traditionalists. The Greek Hellenists wanted to turn Judea into a Greek city-state, and substitute the more enlightened Greek philosophy, theater and literature for the out-moded and ancient biblical dogma. The Al Hanissim prayer, by mentioning "his children," wants us to understand that the rebellion against Hellenist assimilation was led not only by aged scholars but also by the young warriors. It was also the younger Hasmoneans who clung to the eternal truths and values of our God-given religion and national lifestyle; fathers and sons fought side by side to purify our menora. And when the traditionalists seemed to be emerging victorious, the Greek-Syrians were brought in by the assimilationist ruling class of priests in the hope of turning the tide. This special religious relationship between father and son is most poignantly expressed by a famous Talmudic commentary on a critical moment in the life of Joseph in Egypt, described in this week's biblical reading. The young and handsome Joseph, having been sold into Egyptian slavery, is purchased by Potiphar, the Egyptian minister of culinary arts, who quickly appoints the Hebrew his steward, in charge of all internal and household affairs. The minister's wife, obviously attracted by Joseph's ability and charm, attempts to seduce him. "And [Joseph] refused" (Gen. 39:8), cries out the biblical text - but with the drawn out and multi-trilled cantillation know as the shalshelet. This is explained by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his 19th-century commentary to imply that Joseph took a long time in refusing, that it was difficult for him - a stranger in a strange land - to resist the advances of such a beautiful and powerful woman. What gave him the inner strength to resist? "The persona of his father [Jacob] appeared to him in his mind's eye", suggest our sages (Rashi on Genesis 39:11, citing B.T. Sota 3). Rabbi Haim Sabbato, a well-known Talmud teacher, recounts that once, when lecturing to a non-religious kibbutz, he mentioned this incident, and the response was cynical disbelief. At such an intense, erotic moment, the very last image in Joseph's mind would be his aged father, his audience insisted. Rabbi Sabbato countered with what I believe was an ingenious interpretation. In biblical times, only the very rich had mirrors, and then only in the bedroom. Hence Joseph had never known how he actually looked. When ushered into Mrs. Potiphar's boudoir, he saw his image for the first time - and Joseph was the exact physical replica of his father Jacob (Rashi on Genesis 37:3), for Joseph did know how his father looked. So when he looked at his own reflection he thought he was seeing his father, and immediately recalled his teaching of morality and ethics. There is a great literal truth to this picture. We do see our parents in the mirror - and they see us! We are our parents and our parents are us - genetically, historically and culturally. If not, there is no historical continuity and no palpable tradition. This is the real meaning behind giving our children ancestral names; Jacob's blessing to his grandchildren, "they shall be called in my name and in the names of my ancestors," refers not merely to a name but also to a lifestyle, not merely to a calling card but also to a set of immutable values. This indelible relationship between the generations is the deepest expression of our eternal covenant. In this way, we also understand even more profoundly the commitment of Mattathias and his sons to fight unto death for a Jewish future based on a Jewish past. The entire focus of the Jewish family has always been the transmission of our sacred tradition from generation to generation, father to son, mother to daughter. And that is why we celebrate the miracle of the cleansing of the menora first and foremost within the context of the home rather than the synagogue, "a candle lit by each individual within the familial home." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.