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Bereishit - Miketz

Yosef, Moshe and Chanukah


In the thick of the Torah’s longest story, the Yosef story, there are moments of deja vu where we’d be forgiven for having flashbacks to Moshe’s story. Both Moshe and Yosef have intense relationships with Egypt and Pharoah. Moshe is a child of Pharaoh’s court. Yosef is second in command to Pharaoh. Both balance this with their Israelite identity. But I’d like to show how these two men are mirror images of each other, both in terms of their story’s structure, and in terms of their opposite approaches to identity.


Moshe is born in Pharoah’s palace. He shakes off his Egyptian identity and becomes the voice of Israelite liberation. Yosef in contrast begins his story embedded in the Israelite family and works his way to Pharoah’s palace. He takes on Egyptian identity. He is successful in Potifar’s house and rises to the top of power in Egypt. The mirror image continues: Moshe eventually topples Pharoah. Yosef eventually saves Pharoah from famine.


Both are very close indeed to the top of power in Egypt, but they deal with it very differently. With Moshe, his relationship with Egypt seems to be black and white. As soon as he is an adult, his Jewish identity bursts out against his Egyptian identity. This builds to a creschendo after which he kills an Egyptian and his own life is sought by Pharoah.


Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo’s had a beautiful drash (interpretation) on Moshe looking right and left and seeing nobody there before killing the Egyptian - he reads this as Moshe looking within himself to the Egyptian identity on one hand and the Israelite on the other and seeing that when there is a dual identity, there is “no man” ie no true identity. The Prince of Egypt film depicts what happens next beautifully, with Moses running through the desert, shedding bits of Egypt - his gold breast plate, his headdress, the Egyptian bangles on his wrists. By the end of the scene he looks like any other Jew. For Moshe, identity is a zero sum game, in which only one of Egypt or the Israelites win. It’s life and death, with no livable balance.


There’s no such intense conflict with Yosef. Yosef wears his Jewish identity from the outset of his time in Egypt. He is called a נַ֣עַר עִבְרִ֗י - an Israelite youth from - the moment he leaves prison. The name of God is often on his lips. When resisting Pharaoh’s wife he invokes God as the source of his morality. Later on, both in prison and before Pharaoh, he attributes his gift in dreams to God: ‘Not me! God will speak to put Pharaoh’s mind at rest’(41:16)” בִּלְעָדָ֑י אֱלֹהִ֕ים יַעֲנֶ֖ה אֶת־שְׁל֥וֹם פַּרְעֹֽה׃


This contrast between Moshe and Yosef can bring a rather lovely message for Chanukah. The usual narrative around Chanukah is that of assimilation. Jews are in a battle against Hellenism. It is the idea that we have a black and white choice between our Jewish values and the world around us. This is the Moshe model, which I believe is called for in extreme circumstances. Without it, we’d still be slaves in Egypt.


However, rather than see Chanukah as a time where we choose between our Jewish life and everything else (the Moshe model) reading Parshat Miketz during Chanukah evokes another model - that of Yosef. I believe that Chanukah encourages us to bring our Jewish life fully into our life beyond, and to bring the wider world into our Jewish life. It is a festival of integrity, of being the same person, inspired by Jewish values and inspired by the best the whole world has to offer, wherever we go. So let’s be Yosef this Chanukah - with the name of God never leaving our lips, even as we enjoy the best of the wider world.

Shabbat shalom and Chanukah sameach!



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