Divrei Torah

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December 3, 2021 - Parashat Mikeitz 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Mikeitz
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

This Shabbat is a three Torah Shabbat. We will read the weekly parasha of Mikeitz, then the reading for Rosh Hodesh and then for Hanukkah. Though it may be a stretch, let’s see if we can weave together the common themes of these three.

The story of Hanukkah is captured in the conflict between Hellenists, those Jews who embraced much of Greek culture (sometimes to the exclusion of core Jewish rituals and values) and those Jews who saw Greek culture as the defilement of Torah and the holy Jewish way of life. Obviously the Greeks themselves fought on the side of the Hellenists, which made the Hasmonean victory nothing short of miraculous.

Parashat Mikeitz tells the story of the rise of Joseph from prison to become the viceroy of Egypt. At the age of thirty, having been in Egypt already for thirteen years, Joseph is given an Egyptian name, an Egyptian wife, and he takes his place in the Egyptian palace. For the first time, a Jew is living in, working for, and thriving with a foreign power.

The cultures of Egypt and Greece were indeed remarkable for their art, science and literature. It is hard to imagine that Jews were not drawn to participate in such glorious lifestyles. And yet, Joseph remained a Jew. He gave his children Jewish names and trained them in the ways of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He made sure to separate his family from the mainstream Egyptian life when they joined him. And, in the end, he made his family swear that his bones would be taken to Israel.

Similarly, Hanukkah celebrates the victory of Jewish life and practice over the culture of the Greeks. Judaism would not be defined by the local altars or by the gymnasia in the neighborhood. The rededicated Temple would remain God’s home and the central focus of Jewish ritual and spiritual life.

All well and good. But reality is never so black and white. Yes, Joseph remained a Jew. And yet he surely participated daily in the reality of Egyptian political and cultural life. In fact, he demonstrated overwhelming loyalty to his Pharaoh at the end of the famine.

And the Maccabees – the history of their rule informs us the extent to which they were enmeshed in the political and cultural world of the Greeks. Yes, they remained Jews, and devout ones at that. But their worldview was surely influenced by the larger society that surrounded them.

And us? The story of parashat Mikeitz and the story of Hanukkah is our story. All of us walk the same tightrope as did Joseph and Judah. We are dedicated to the celebration and the future of Judaism. And yet we are deeply involved and influenced by western culture and values. Are we Jews involved with American society or are we dedicated Americans who happen to be Jews. Are we Hellenists or Maccabees?

When I was a USYer in High School and an advisor in college, we often engaged in conversations, debates actually, concerning whether we were American Jews or Jewish Americans. Those debates were a force in establishing my identity.

But it was when I was in rabbinical school that I learned an important distinction in this regard.

We speak in the psalms about worshiping God “b’hadrat kodesh” – in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29:2). When asked what exactly that meant, my revered teacher, Rabbi Dr. Simon Greenberg z”l replied that to properly understand it, we need to compare it to the philosophy of the Greeks – the philosophy upon which western civilization is based. In Greek culture, it is not the beauty of holiness that is primary. Rather, it is the holiness of beauty. This is what sets Greeks and Jewish worldviews apart. The Greeks worshiped the holiness of beauty and the Jew worshiped the beauty of holiness.

Perhaps this is a distinction that can help us understand ourselves and keep us steady on the tightrope we walk between being dedicated Jews and proud Americans. When we take a good look at ourselves, an honest look – do we see that our priorities and our actions reflect our concern for the beauty of holiness or the holiness of beauty?

Which brings us to Rosh Hodesh. Truthfully, I would love to hear your connections. But for the moment, here’s what I’m thinking. The light of the moon is reflected from the sun. Sometimes that reflection is very full and bright and it lights up the night. Other times, like on Rosh Hodesh, it is barely visible. The midrash teaches that Joseph was brought up from prison to the palace on Rosh Hashana – a moment when the moon was reflecting almost nothing. The Maccabees rededicate the Temple for eight days beginning on the twenty fifth day of Kislev, those days when the night is longest and darkest. Sometimes we find that the light of God, Torah and Jewish life is not reflected so well though us and in our lives as we confront the larger culture. And yet, we know that if we never give up, as Joseph and the Maccabees never gave up, then the light will again shine. It will shine on us and through us. And when it does, darkness will be cast on the holiness of beauty and light will shine on the beauty of holiness.
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Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.