Parashat Vayigash: We're all brothers

Parashat Vayigash Were

"I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt." (Genesis 45:5) Now that the catastrophic clash between Joseph and his brothers is reaching rapprochement, one major question remains: How could the sons of Jacob have even considered killing their brother? How could they cast him into a pit and sell him as a slave; tearing the family asunder for more than two decades? I believe the brothers had a very cogent argument. The Bible, as well as Freudian psychoanalysis, understood that dreams reveal a dreamer's personality. When Joseph dreamt of sheaves of grain - Egyptian agriculture - he was indicating that shepherding in Israel was too primitive for him. Even Egypt was insufficient for someone who dreamt that the cosmos - the sun, moon and stars - would bow down to him. Hearing this, the brothers believed Joseph was a heretic; they could not allow him to inherit the birthright. The Jewish future had to be saved from Jacob's favored son! Were the brothers justified in their actions? Our reading of the story always coincides with Hanukka. An examination of this festival will help us understand where the brothers went wrong, and give us insight into the proper comportment of our religious community vis-a-vis a currently secular government with whom we might clash over settler rights, IDF discipline or public Sabbath observance. Our talmudic sages noted that there were two miracles associated with Hanukka: The military victory of the small band of Maccabees against the powerful Greek-Syrian armies (emphasized in the "Al Hanissim" prayer), and the religious marvel that the small cruse of consecrated oil found by the Maccabees when they rededicated the Temple miraculously lasted for the eight days necessary to produce more. Why two miracles? And why does the Al Hanissim prayer only mention the military miracle, while the Talmudic passage focuses on the miracle of the oil? A reading of historical sources (The Apocryphal Books of the Maccabees, The Wars of the Jews by Josephus, and Hellenist Civilization and the Jews by Victor Tcherikover) reveals that the Maccabees were fighting two enemies. The first battle was a civil war against the Hellenist assimilationist Jews, including the priestly aristocracy that wished to turn Jerusalem into a Greek city-state (polis), while the second battle was against the Greek-Syrian armies, whom the Hellenist High Priest called upon for assistance. I would suggest that our sages consciously muted the civil-war aspect of the conflict. In Al Hanissim the only enemy referred to is the Greek government. "When the wicked kingdom of Greece rose up against your nation Israel, to cause them to forget Your Torah, and to make them transgress the statutes which You desire, then You stood by their side, judging their cause… You gave the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the wicked into the hands of the righteous…" This account begins only after the Greek Syrians were drawn in. Apparently, our sages opposed any warfare against a Jewish government, no matter how secular; hence they would never eternalize and thereby justify - within halachic ritual - a civil war between Jews. In the Talmud (B.T. Shabbat 21b) the story is recounted differently: "When the 'Greeks' (Yevanim - assimilated Jews rather than the Greek kingdom) entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oil; then, when the 'Hasmonean Kingdom' [sic] was victorious, they searched and found only one cruse of oil bearing the seal of the High Priest…" This source does not mention the military miracle, but does describe the miracle of the oil which lasted eight days. Rabbenu Zerahya Halevi, in his major talmudic commentary, explains that since Jewish Law ordains that "no one can defile an object which is not his," it was the Hellenist Jews who initially defiled the oil, (Commentary to B.T. Avoda Zara 52b). Hence this particular passage is dealing not with the Greek-Syrian external enemy but rather with the internal Jewish assimilationist enemy, the "Yevanim." We dare not lift up our hands against other Jews or Jewish governments; rather we must attempt to convince them with the light of Torah and the menora. Joseph's dreams certainly demonstrated anti-traditional and impudent leanings, but a brother may never be violently pushed away. He may never be sold into slavery, and he certainly may not be murdered by his siblings! Rather, a brother must be persuaded and influenced, inspired and loved. The lesson is clear: Armaments may be used against a gentile army ready to destroy us, but no Jew may lift a hand against a soldier of the IDF or a policeman of the State of Israel. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.