Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! We are reaching the end of our joyous 8 nights of lights, celebrating Chanukah. As we know, Chanukah is at its core a holiday about embracing a freedom of religion, a pride in being Jewish, and a refusal to change just for the sake of fitting in with those in power. As modern, progressive Jews, we have changed ourselves a bit to keep up with the times, but we maintain our Jewishness and can still appreciate our ancestors who fought for our right to do so. The emphasis of the miracle of the oil takes on a new importance for our rabbis who lived in ancient Babylonia, at a time when maybe talking about fighting foreign governments didn’t seem like a good idea, ironically further emphasizing from an historical point of view the importance of true freedom of religion.
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, Joseph makes his way out of his jail cell and into the inner circle of Egyptian leadership. The pharaoh himself arranges for Joseph to marry an Egyptian woman of high status, and she bears him two children. The first is Menashe, meaning "God has made me forget my hardship and my parental home," and the second is Ephraim, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." Joseph is ready to fit in with the Egyptians, but there's a level of obvious discomfort in it. He has come from a home where his own family members wanted to kill him, and fled to a place that has (aside from his stint in prison) mostly been good for and to him. He is able to rise to a position of power, but is unable to feel totally Egyptian. I'm not sure exactly what to make of this, but I think there's something worth acknowledging in the need to assimilate for survival. Did Joseph marry his wife because he loved her or because that was the only to keep himself from getting thrown back into the prison cell? Did the Hellenized Jews throw off Jewish observance because they were bored of it or because it felt unsafe to continue to do so? Did Babylonian Jews shift the focus of Chanukah because it felt unsafe to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees or because fire looks cool? When we give gifts for Chanukah now, is it because that feels like it is really the right thing to do, or because we are trying to compete with Christmas?
Rashi offers a Midrash on the story of the famine in Egypt, that the soil didn't stop producing food, but that the food grew and then immediately rotted. There's this sense of intense and immediate terror in this Midrash, that all of what we have may fall apart in front of our eyes at any moment. Joseph, the one in charge of managing the famine, is not only concerned about the physical rotting of the produce, but that all of what he has built for himself may rot. His children, half-Israelite and half-Egyptian, are central to his feeling rooted in the strange land of Egypt, and their names reflect his fear of this new place as well as his desire to assimilate into it, his remembering of home and his desire to forget it, his concern for life, staying alive, giving life, keeping alive. We're all in various ways assimilated Jews, trying to live safely in the broader communities we are a part of, but still feel in some way a pull to our Jewishness. May we find safety and strength as Jews, living by our values and with our traditions in mind, in whatever way that feels honest. May we welcome the stranger, as we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and may we stay alive and thriving, give life and keep alive those around us to the best of our abilities. Amen, Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach.