By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
As a mere 17 year old, Yosef was driven from his home into a foreign culture and alien society. For the next twenty years, he lived without any of the basic frameworks through which religious tradition is preserved – he had no Jewish home, Jewish schools, or Jewish institutions. Alone in a spiritually toxic environment, Yosef managed to survive, to the point where he was able to withstand the relentless temptation posed by his master’s wife, who desired an illicit relationship with him.
How did he do it? How could a boy at that age and in those circumstances retain his religious identity and values?
Rashi provides us with the answer in his comments to the beginning of Parashat Vayeshev (Beresheet 37:3). He writes that during the years prior to Yosef’s sale as a slave, Yaakov taught him “all the Torah he had learned from Shem and Ever.” Yaakov had spent 14 years studying in the academy of Shem and Ever, and he shared all the knowledge and wisdom he accumulated during that period with his beloved son, Yosef. Rashi does not elaborate, but in this terse passage he explains for us the secret of Yosef’s spiritual survival in the moral wastelands of Egypt. To understand the depth of Rashi’s comment, we need to understand what exactly Yaakov was doing for 14 years in the academy of Shem and Ever.
The 14-Year Exile Training Course
Yaakov enrolled in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever at the age of 63, after spending his life in the home of his righteous parents, studying Torah. It would be a gross understatement to say that Yaakov was already an accomplished scholar by the time he was 63. What was he looking for in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever? And why did it take him no less than 14 years to find it?
Yaakov went to study with Shem and Ever when he left home to escape the wrath of his brother, Esav, who became resentful after Yaakov had claimed the blessings which Esav had sold to him years earlier. Aware of the vengeful Esav’s desire to kill his younger brother, Rivka instructed Yaakov to relocate with her wily brother, Lavan, far away from Eress Yisrael. But before going there, Yaakov made a 14-year detour, if you will, studying in the yeshiva of the Shem and Ever.
Yaakov understood that there are two Torah’s that one must learn and master. One is the Torah that applies when one lives in a religiously friendly environment, in an observant home, in a strong Torah community surrounded by likeminded neighbors and friends. This is the Torah that Yaakob studied and imbibed in his parents’ home until age 63. But there is also a different kind of Torah, one which a person must absorb before heading out into spiritually hostile surroundings. The dangers posed by foreign influences require a different kind of “strategy,” which one learns through a special type of Torah learning experience. And this is what Yaakov was looking for when he joined the yeshiva of Shem and Ever. He knew he would be spending many years with Lavan, a greedy, corrupt charlatan, and an idol-worshipper to boot. He would be there alone, without the supportive religious framework he enjoyed back home in Be’er Sheva. Yaakov knew he could not enter such a situation without adequate preparation. For this reason, he went to study the special Torah of Shem and Ever, both of whom had mastered, through firsthand experience, how to resist negative influences. Shem was a survivor of the flood, who remained righteous despite growing up in the most corrupt, decrepit generation of all time, the generation of the flood. And Shem and Ever both lived through the period of Migdal Bavel, when the earth’s inhabitants united for the purpose of rebelling against Gd. These two leaders, Shem and Ever, knew about surviving in spiritually hostile surroundings. The Torah they taught was the wisdom needed to withstand negative influences, and this is the Torah that Yaakov needed to learn before moving in with his crooked, pagan uncle. Before embarking on this perilous exile, he underwent an intensive, 14-year preparation course, learning how to avert the potentially disastrous effects of ongoing exposure to opposing values and mores.
As Rashi writes, Yaakov transmitted this Torah – the Torah of resisting negative influences – to Yosef. A child begins studying Torah at the age of three, and Yosef was taken to Egypt at age 17. In the interim 14 years, he studied what Yaakov had learned for 14 years with Shem and Ever – the Torah of withstanding hostile influences. By the time he arrived in Egypt, he was equipped with the “ammunition” he would need to live as a committed Jew in an alien culture.
Sure enough, Yosef needed this ammunition, never more urgently than on that fateful day when he nearly succumbed to the advances of his master’s wife. The Torah (Beresheet 39:11) relates that after the woman’s repeated, unsuccessful attempts to lure Yosef, he came into the home when nobody else was present besides her. The sages explain that Yosef had finally surrendered to his passions and decided to consent to Potifar’s wife. At that moment, however, Yaakov’s image appeared to him, and Yosef immediately recoiled and ran from the house. The image of his father reminded him of all he had learned back home. At that moment of weakness, Yosef heard his father’s voice crying out to him, “Yosef! Everything I taught you for 14 years – it was for this moment!” The teachings of Shem and Ever, which were etched in Yosef’s memory and engraved upon his heart, stepped in to extricate him from the claws of temptation, and he mustered the inner strength and fortitude to resist.
Refusing to Melt in the Melting Pot
The story of Yosef’s resistance to foreign influence does not end with his escape from the clutches of Potifar’s wife. It actually continued to resonate for the next two centuries.
The rabbis teach that every missva that we perform – and certainly the missvot performed by the great sadikim – yield profound and far-reaching effects. A missva generates kedusha (holiness) that exerts very powerful influence, analogous to the exponential energy produced by an atomic reaction. There are huge sections of the Ukraine that are still off-limits today due to radiation that originated from a nuclear disaster in a single reactor at the Chernobyl power plant, which occurred over a quarter century ago. In a somewhat similar vein, each and every missva we perform generates a powerful source of kedusha whose impact can be felt for generations.
Understandably, then, Yosef’s triumph over temptation exerted a very strong impact upon the generations of Jews who lived in Egypt after him. The manifestation of this impact was the equally remarkable phenomenon of Bene Yisrael’s retaining their identity and remaining a separate people throughout the period of Egyptian bondage. The nation lived among the Egyptians for over two hundred years, but they did not assimilate. The rabbis teach that throughout this entire period, there was only one Israelite woman who engaged in relations with an Egyptian man. Bene Yisrael’s spiritual standing was far from perfect during the Egyptian exile, but there was no intermarriage. The kedushagenerated by Yosef’s heroism continued to inspire the Israelites over the next two hundred years, and they continued his legacy of remaining separate and distinct.
To put this phenomenon in some kind of perspective, consider the contrasting example of the Jews’ experience in the United States. Over the past two hundred years, we have unfortunately witnessed such an alarming rate of intermarriage and assimilation, that a number of Jewish groups consider it the most pressing crisis facing the Jewish people today. But this dreadful state of affairs is actually quite natural. When we live and engage in a foreign culture, the “melting pot” effect is a perfectly natural outcome. Jews meet, deal with and work with gentiles, and come under their influence. Eventually, they want to fit in and be just like everyone else, and so they abandon their traditions and assimilate. It’s tragic, but hardly surprising.
In Egypt, Bene Yisraeldid not “melt” into the Egyptian “melting pot.” The effect of Yosef’s resistance to Potifar’s wife enabled them to resist the pressures of the host society. Despite the spiritual decline they experienced during the Egyptian bondage, they retained their identity and remained a separate, distinct nation living among the Egyptians.
The Torah says that after the miracle of the splitting of the sea, “Israel saw the mighty hand” of Gd (Shemot 14:31). The Zohar, noting the singular verb form used in this verse (“vayar,” instead of “vayir’u”), explains that the Torah here refers not to the Israelite nation, but rather to Yaakov Avinu, who was also called “Israel.” Yaakov’s soul descended at the time of this miracle to witness his descendants’ safe emergence from exile, and he saw the “yad hagedola – the mighty hand.” The word yadhas the numerical value of 14. Yaakov proudly looked upon the results of the 14 years he spent educating Yosef, which enabled Bene Yisraelto defy the odds and remain separate from the Egyptians throughout the period of exile. As the nation crossed the Sea of Reeds toward their chosen destiny, Yaakov saw the “yad,” the effects of the education he provided his son, which allowed Bene Yisraelto emerge from Egypt as an independent nation.
The Hanukah Connection
This analysis of the Yosef story sheds light on the association between his experiences and the holiday which we celebrate this month – Hanukah.
There are many indications of a close relationship between the story of Yosef and the story of Hanukah. Most obviously, Hanukah is always celebrated during the week when we read the Yosef story in the synagogue. It cannot be coincidental that Parashiyot Vayeshev and Mikess, which tell of Yosef’s experiences in Egypt, are always read around the time of Hanukah. Furthermore, in the Al Hanissim text that we add to our prayers on Hanukah, we mention the great salvation that Gd brought the Jews of that time “kehayom hazeh– like this day” – like the day when Yosef nearly succumbed to Potifar’s wife. Additionally, the work Megaleh Amukotnotes that the numerical value of Antiochus – the Assyrian-Greek ruler whose religious oppression sparked the Hasmonean revolt – is the same as the numerical value of the name “Yosef” (156). Clearly, these two stories – Yosef’s experiences in Egypt and the Hanukah miracle – are closely associated with one another.
The battle of the Hashmonaim was a religious struggle. The Greek rulers sought to impose their beliefs and their indulgent, promiscuous lifestyle upon the Jews of Eress Yisrael. Unlike other oppressors of the Jewish people, like Haman and Hitler, who wished to eradicate the Jewish people, the Greeks sought to eradicate the Jewish religion. This is why, as we recall in the Al Hanissimprayer, the Greeks contaminated the oil of the Bet Hamikdash. The Jewish people are likened to oil because they do not mix with other nations, just as oil does not mix with other liquids. The Greek oppressors waged a fierce battle against the “oil,” against this quality of the Jewish people. They fought to have the Jews “mix” and blend with other people, to fully assimilate within the dominant Greek society.
And their plan nearly worked. The overwhelming majority of the Jews of the time fell prey to the powerful influence of the Greek rulers, and embraced a Hellenist lifestyle. The Hashmonaim represented the small minority of Jews who remained faithful to Torah tradition, who refused to assimilate and abrogate their spiritual heritage. Rambam writes that if not for the miraculous Hasmomean victory, Torah would have been forever forgotten, Gd forbid. The tsunami of Greek culture that flooded Eress Yisrael, along with the harsh decrees issued by the Greek rulers, nearly eradicated Jewish tradition. But there remained a small jug of pure oil, a small group of Jews who, like Yosef, refused to mix and assimilate. They stubbornly and steadfastly remained separate, different and distinct, committed to preserving their ancestral faith. The unrelenting battle of the Hashmonaim continued the heroic struggle of Yosef to spiritually survive a tidal wave of anti-Jewish culture. And they defeated the Greeks “kehayom hazeh,” just like Yosef heroically resisted the powerful influences exerted upon him in Egypt.
The Hellenization of Hanukah
It is a tragedy, and a crime, that this message of Hanukah has been lost upon many contemporary Jews, who have turned this holiday upside-down, into a time to resemble the gentiles as closely as possible. In many circles, Hanukah has been reduced to the Jewish equivalent of the major holiday observed by our gentile neighbors during the same season – a time of gifts and decorative lights. Worse, the Maccabees – who fought under the banner of “Mi l’Hashem elai – Who is to Gd, follow me” – are now portrayed as mighty, muscle-bound thugs and warriors, rather than pious, Gd-fearing Torah scholars fighting for the Jewish religion. The holiday that celebrates Jewish separateness has been grossly distorted into a secular American holiday; the season that should remind us of the need to resist foreign influence has become a time to embrace contemporary secular culture.
Satan is very clever, and knows precisely where to attack. Understanding the importance of Hanukah as a model of resisting assimilation, he infiltrated this holiday and succeeded in bending it out of shape into a troubling display of modern-day Hellenization.
It must be clearly and unequivocally stated that Hanukah is not just about latkes, candle lighting, dreidels and gifts. Hanukah is about recommitting ourselves to resist the natural tendency of assimilation. It is customary to use oil lamps specifically, for the Hanukah lights to symbolize this quality of separateness. Hanukah is a time to reinforce our distinction from general culture, not a time to embrace it.
When reflecting upon what has happened to Hanukah here in America, I am reminded of the story of a young rabbi who, on the first Shabbat in his new job, spoke to the congregation about Shabbat observance. Afterward, members of the shul board approached him and explained that many members of the community did not observe Shabbat and might be offended by such a sermon. The rabbi promised not to speak about Shabbat from the pulpit, and so the next Shabbat, he gave an impassioned speech about kashrut. Once again, the synagogue leadership came and said that many members eat out with their non-Jewish associates, and kashrut is thus a sensitive topic. The rabbi agreed, and so on the third Shabbat, he spoke about the importance of family purity. Sure enough, the congregation’s leaders came to him to ask that he avoid this topic, as well, which could easily offend many members who did not observe this area of halacha.
“Well,” the rabbi said, “if I can’t speak about Shabbat, kashrut or family purity, then what do you want me to talk about?”
The board members replied, “Just talk about Judaism, rabbi!”
Sadly, many people view Judaism as a matter of cultural intrigue, rather than a binding commitment to our laws and traditions. In their view, Judaism is more about kibbehand lahmaginethan about Torah obligation. And this is what has happened to Hanukah, as well – but in the case of Hanukah, it is especially disturbing because the holiday is specifically about steadfast commitment to Torah in the face of external pressure.
Hanukah is among the only areas of halacha that involve a window. And this is no coincidence. When we see the Hanukah lights by the window, we are reminded of our patriarch Yaakov appearing to Yosef through the window in Egypt, reminding him of his heritage. On Hanukah, Yaakov appears to us in the window in the form of the Hanukah lights, imploring us to remain faithful to our traditions, to continue to shine brightly despite being engulfed by the darkness of secular culture.
The Hanukah miracle is still unfolding before our very eyes. Every time a Jew recites a beracha, opens a siddur, sits down with a sefer, or does any other missva, the miracle repeats itself. After two millennia of living among gentiles, Jews still study their ancient texts and follow their ancient traditions. The miracle of Yosef and the miracle of the Hashmonaim are still in progress. And it is up to us to ensure that it continues, by reinforcing our commitment to withstand foreign influence, thereby sustaining the flame of Torah that has withstood the tests of time, persecution and assimilation, and allowing it to continue illuminating the earth.
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