For the week ending 12 December 2009 / 24 Kislev 5770

Parshat Vayeshev

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Yaakov settles in the land of Canaan. His favorite son, Yosef, brings him critical reports about his brothers. Yaakov makes Yosef a fine tunic of multi-colored woolen strips. Yosef exacerbates his brothers’ hatred by recounting prophetic dreams of sheaves of wheat bowing to his sheaf, and of the sun, moon and stars bowing to him, signifying that all his family will appoint him king. The brothers indict Yosef and resolve to execute him. When Yosef comes to Shechem, the brothers relent and decide, at Reuven’s instigation, to throw him into a pit instead. Reuven’s intent was to save Yosef. Yehuda persuades the brothers to take Yosef out of the pit and sell him to a caravan of passing Ishmaelites. Reuven returns to find the pit empty and rends his clothes. The brothers soak Yosef’s tunic in goat’s blood and show it to Yaakov, who assumes that Yosef has been devoured by a wild beast. Yaakov is inconsolable. Meanwhile, in Egypt, Yosef has been sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s Chamberlain of the Butchers. In the Parsha’s sub-plot, Yehuda’s son Er dies as punishment for preventing his wife Tamar from becoming pregnant. Onan, Yehuda’s second son, then weds Tamar by levirate marriage. He too is punished in similar circumstances. When Yehuda’s wife dies, Tamar resolves to have children through Yehuda, as this union will found the Davidic line culminating in the Mashiach. Meanwhile, Yosef rises to power in the house of his Egyptian master. His extreme beauty attracts the unwanted advances of his master’s wife. Enraged by his rejection, she accuses Yosef of attempting to seduce her, and he is imprisoned. In prison, Yosef successfully predicts the outcome of the dream of Pharaoh’s wine steward, who is reinstated, and the dream of Pharaoh’s baker, who is hanged. In spite of his promise, the wine steward forgets to help Yosef, and Yosef languishes in prison.


Joining The Ivy League

“And Yosef had been brought down to Egypt…” (39:1)

In North-West London where I grew up it was not uncommon to find a Jewish home at this time of year that had a menorah at one end of the living room and an Xmas tree at the other.

Chanukah comes at a time of the year where the bombardment of the season to be jolly is unremitting; where renegade reindeers threaten to leap from behind the holly and the ivy and the fake snow of every shop window.

And I have my suspicions that the Jewish custom to give money to children on Chanukah (Chanukah gelt) may well be a method of distracting the eyes of the young and the restless from gorgeously over-stuffed Xmas stockings.

Even though the Maccabees managed to overcome the Greeks and rededicate the Beit Hamikdash (“Chanukah” comes from the root meaning “to dedicate a building”), the war is far from over.

Chanukah always falls during the Torah portions of Yosef. What is the connection between Yosef and Chanukah? Another question: Why was it that Yosef was sent into the exile of Egypt and not one of the other brothers? And why specifically was it the Maccabees, who were kohanim, who overpowered the Greeks?

The prayer “Al Hanissim”emphasizes the role of the kohanim in the defeat of the Greeks. Even more than their role in the Beit Hamikdash, the kohanim were responsible for disseminating Torah to the Jewish People. We see this in Parshat V’Zot Habracha, where Moshe first blesses the tribe of Levi that they will “teach laws to Yaakov and Torah to Yisrael.” And only afterwards he says, “They will place before You the ketoret and the offerings of the Altar” (Devarim 33:10). The role of the kohanim as the teachers of Torah precedes the service in the Beit Hamikdash.

Yosef too represents the power of Torah. Yosef was the brightest and most diligent Torah student of all the sons of Yaakov (Targum – Bereshit 37:7). It was for this reason that he was sent to Egypt, for he alone had the spiritual survival kit to withstand the withering decadence of Egypt.

When Pharaoh elevated Yosef to the greatest position in the land, he applied great pressure on Yosef to make him abandon his faith and become an Egyptian. And so it has been down the ages that apostasy has been the entry fee into gentile society. In every generation there is another Egypt that tempts Jews with the glittering prizes of secular success, only demanding of them that they should break with the outdated and quaint customs of their forbears.

Every Chanukah we commemorate the rededication of the Holy Beit Hamikdash. However in our own lives the real rededication is to Torah learning and careful observance of the mitzvot — for that is the only thing that will keep the Xmas tree out of the living room.

  • Source: Based on an essay by Rabbi Shlomo Tanenbaum

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