Hanukkah: Our ancestors’ legacy

When we examine Joseph’s personality in light of Scriptures and Midrash, we can discern different traits.

The sphinx at the Great Pyramidsof Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo. (photo credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS)
The sphinx at the Great Pyramidsof Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo.
This Shabbat, we get to the story of Joseph and his brothers, which will continue until the end of Genesis. It’s a complicated story with much sadness. We will read about the struggles among the brothers that leads to them sell their younger brother into slavery. We will accompany Joseph from being his father’s favorite son to becoming a slave, then watch as he gains status in the house of his master from where he will be thrown into an Egyptian prison. We will follow as Joseph suddenly rises to greatness, and as Jacob and his family are brought to Egypt when Joseph, a powerful Egyptian minister, becomes a patron of his extended family.
When we examine Joseph’s personality in light of Scriptures and Midrash, we can discern different traits in which he excelled. One was loyalty to the education bequeathed to him by his father. Even when Joseph was rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery in a foreign land and culture, he courageously maintained the ideological legacy he brought from home. We see this throughout several events in Joseph’s life in Egypt.
When Joseph rose to relative greatness in the house of his master, “who all he had he gave into his hand,” the master’s wife tried to seduce the handsome young man. She tried to tempt him day after day, but Joseph stubbornly rejected her.
“Behold, with me my master knows nothing about anything in the house, and all he has he has given into my hand... and he has not withheld anything from me except you, insofar as you are his wife. Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39, 8-9)
One day, the wife waited for him alone at home, and when Joseph came to the house to do his work, she pulled him toward her. The Talmud describes this situation at its climax, as Joseph breaks in the face of her pleas, but suddenly, “The image of his father appeared to him in the window.” (Tractate Sota, 36) Joseph recalled the education he had received, summoned up his courage and escaped from the house.
Later, in the Egyptian prison pit, Joseph was attentive to the other prisoners. When he noticed two prisoners who felt depressed, he did not ignore them. He asked them, “Why are your faces sad today?” It was a question that ultimately led to his release from prison.
Joseph was unique in his strong ideological stance in the face of an impressive Egyptian culture. He was loyal to the values he absorbed in his father’s home, the homes of the forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Joseph did not adopt the values of his surroundings. He understood that he was different, and that he carried a special legacy that he had to implement in his life.
This year, Parashat Vayeshev falls on Shabbat Hanukkah. Hanukkah symbolizes Jewish ideological independence. The Maccabees, who fought the Greek-Seleucid conquerors, not only demanded sovereignty. They opposed the conqueror’s attempts to impose the Hellenistic culture on the Jewish nation. The independence they fought for expressed more than national ownership of a piece of land. It expressed the right of the Jewish nation to live a spiritual life, with loyalty and devotion to the values inherited from our ancestors.
This devotion does not come out of nowhere. It is the result of countless generations being willing to make sacrifices for Judaism, in better or worse circumstances, with the deep acknowledgment that Jews have no other life that can be suitable for them. We look upon this long tradition that began with Joseph, continued with the Maccabees and continued with countless Jews throughout the generations, and we cannot help but be amazed by the courage, the devotion and the loyalty. The historical narrative of the Jewish nation calls upon us to learn about this impressive devotion and join the glorious chain of generations of the Jewish people.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.