Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayeshev
Efrat, Israel: “And it came to pass after these things that his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said: ‘Lie with me.’ But he refused, and said to his master’s wife: ‘Behold, my master, having me, knows not what is in the house, and he has put all that he possesses into my hand” (Gen. 39:7,8).
The great historical event of Hanukkah, the victory of the few Hasmoneans against the mighty Greek-Syrian empire, culminated in the return of the Judeans to the Holy Temple, the purification of the sacred menorah (Al HaNissim Prayer), and the miracle of the small cruse of pure oil – sufficient for only one day – which lasted for eight days, enough time to produce as much pure oil required for the continual ritual kindling of the seven menorah lights.
If so, why do all future generations celebrate the victory by lighting candles in our homes, “ner ish u’veito,” in the language of the Talmud (B.T. Shabbat 21). Ought not we commemorate the miracle of the discovery of the pure oil in the desecrated Temple by lighting the menorah in our synagogue, “miniature Holy Temples,” rather than in our homes?
Moreover, the Al HaNissim prayer opens with the following words: “In the days of Mattathias the son of Yohanan High Priest the Hasmonean and his children, - when the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your nation Israel to make them forget Your Torah…” Why does the prayer focus on the children (sons) of Mattathias when it seems more appropriate and logical to list the fellow priest warriors of Mattathias who fought alongside him?
Let us first answer the second question, and once we do, the first question will also be answered.
Generally one thinks of revolutionaries, and especially religious reformers, as being young, the more modern cultural rebels pitted against the elder, more conservative, traditionalists. The Greek Hellenists wanted to turn Judea into a Greek city-state, adopting and inviting the ostensibly more enlightened Greek philosophy, theatre and literature into the more ancient and, supposedly, outmoded Biblical religion. The Al HaNissim prayer, by mentioning “his children”, wants us to understand that the rebellion against Greek-Syria, against Hellenist assimilation, was led not only by the aged scholars but also by the young warriors. Critical is the fact that the younger Hasmoneans clung to the eternal truths and values of our G-d-given Torah and national life-style, together with their elders; the fathers and sons fought side by side to purify our menorah. And when the traditionalists seemed to be emerging victorious, the Greek-Syrians troops were brought in by the assimilationist ruling class of priests in the false hope of turning the tide.
This special religious relationship between father and son is poignantly expressed by a famous Talmudic commentary on a critical moment in the life of Joseph in Egypt, described in this week’s Biblical reading. The young and handsome Joseph, having been sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers, is purchased by Potiphar, the Egyptian Minister of Culinary Arts, who quickly appoints the Hebrew his steward, in charge of all internal and household affairs. The minister’s wife, attracted by Joseph’s charm and physical beauty, attempts to seduce him. “And [Joseph] refused” (Gen. 39:8), cries out the Biblical text – but with the drawn out and multi-trilled cantillation known as the shalshelet. In his classic 19th century Biblical commentary, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this cantillation implies that Joseph – a stranger in a strange land - took a long time in refusing, that it was difficult for him to resist the advances of such a beautiful and powerful woman. What gave him the inner strength to resist? “The persona of his father (Jacob) appeared to him in his mind’s eye”, suggest our Talmudic Sages (Rashi on Genesis 39:11, citing B.T. Sotah 3).
Rav Haim Sabbato, well known Talmud teacher and author, recounts that once during a lecture to members of a non-religious kibbutz his description of the father’s face that restrained the son –Jacob appearing to Joseph - was met with cynical disbelief. His audience insisted that at such an intense, erotic moment, the least likely image in his mind would be Joseph’s aged father. Rav Sabbato’s response was an ingenious interpretation of the narrative. In Biblical times only the very rich had mirrors, and then only in the bedroom. Hence Joseph, a shepherd and the son of shepherds, had never had the opportunity to see how he actually looked since no mirror was available to him. Rav Sabbato directed the imagination of his questioners in the kibbutz audience to imagine that when Joseph entered Mrs. Potiphar’s boudoir and for the first time in his life he came across a mirror, the image that faced him shocked him. Since Joseph was the exact physical replica of his father Jacob (Rashi on Genesis 37:3) and he obviously knew what his father looked like, Joseph thought he was seeing his father in the mirror when in actuality he was seeing himself. No doubt this unexpected encounter with his father’s ‘image’ gave him the moral strength to resist temptation.
Beyond the highly descriptive and imaginative scenario of Rav Sabbato, the picture suggested by Rav Sabbato is a metaphor for each of us. Indeed, we do see our parents in the mirror – and they see us.
We are our parents and our parents are us – genetically, historically and culturally. If it were not so, there would be no historical continuity, no palpable tradition. This is the real reason why we give our children ancestral names. Jacob’s blessing to his grandchildren, “…they shall be called in my name and in the names of my ancestors,” refers not merely to a name but also to a lifestyle, not merely to a calling card but also to a set of immutable values. This indelible relationship between the generations is the deepest expression of our eternal covenant.
In this way, we also understand even more profoundly the commitment of Mattathias the son of Yohanan High Priest Hasmonean and his sons “to fight unto death for a Jewish future based upon a Jewish past.” The entire focus of the Jewish family has always been the transmission of our sacred tradition of values and life-style from generation to generation, father to son, mother to daughter.
And now we also understand why we celebrate the miracle of the pure cruse of oil within the context of the Jewish home rather than the Jewish synagogue. The major guard against assimilation is by a completely traditional Jewish home wherein parents communicate their values and their lifestyle to their children and the children, in turn, reflect the values and lifestyle of their parents in their own lives. Hence, “ner ish u’veito” “a candle is to be lit by each individual within the familial home.”
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