Weekly Torah Commentary — Miketz November 28, 2013

Beresheit 41:1 – 44:17

Parshat Mikeitz overlaps this week with the celebration of Chanukah. Interestingly, it brings up an issue that defines the very essence of the holiday — Trust in God.

Joseph, released from prison, interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and then offers a wise bit of unsolicited advice:

[And Joseph said to Pharaoh:] “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed and let him appoint overseers over the land and he shall prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance.” (Genesis, 41:33-34)

Where does courage end and presumption begin? Why did Joseph presume to offer Pharaoh unsolicited advice and thus jeopardize the grace he had gained with the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams?

If Joseph was not punished for his apparent presumption, this was obviously what he was supposed to do. How did he know? What made him think that it was the will of God that he suggest to Pharaoh that an advisor was needed? How can we learn from Joseph when to have TRUST and forge on (as he did in this instance) and when to question our actions (as he should have earlier)?

Two of the times in history when the Jewish people were threatened are commemorated as holidays: Chanukah and Purim.

Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek army of Antiochus — a victory in the face of hopeless odds, the victory of “the few over the many and the weak over the strong.”

Knowing in advance that there was no natural way they could possibly win, the Maccabees placed their faith in God, went to war, and succeeded in destroying the superior enemy. While there is no arguing with results, nevertheless, the decision to attack a vastly superior power could well have appeared foolish and suicidal at the time.

By contrast, when Haman issued his edict of genocide against the Jewish people, whose abolition we commemorate and celebrate with the festival of Purim, the Jews did not engage in war. The Book of Esther records public fasting and prayer and repentance as the method of resistance adopted by Jews. They did not attempt a war against hopeless odds. They called out for God’s help.

How can we account for the difference in the policy adopted by the Jewish people in the Chanukah and Purim stories, in the face of situations that appear so alike on the surface? Which policy was correct, and if they were both correct how do we explain the difference?

The Chofetz Chaim taught that the reaction of the Jewish people in each case was correct according to Jewish law because it was tailored to suit the sort of danger they faced.

Haman was threatening them with genocide. He was not offering clemency to anyone who would abandon his Judaism. All Jews were to be slaughtered no matter what.

Antiochus was offering clemency to anyone who was willing to abandon the practice of Judaism. All a Jew had to do, to gain the rights and privileges of all Greek citizens, was to adopt a Greek lifestyle.
Antiochus was not out to harm Jews at all. He was out to destroy their religion.

Because God commands Jews to keep His Torah at all times and not abandon it, resistance was required. Therefore, the people went to war and God favored them and granted them victory. The mismatch between the power possessed by the Jews and that wielded by their enemies was merely an indication of the great self-sacrifice that was being demanded. As God wins wars, not man, military power had no bearing on victory.

A war against Haman, however, would have been considered an act of suicide. As Haman’s edict was directed against Jews themselves rather than against their religion.

To demonstrate how strongly He backed the policy Israel adopted against the Syrian Greeks, God sent the Jews a most unusual miracle. Generally, miracles are not provided as gestures of pure affection and approval. But the miracle of the Chanukah lights was an exception.

In the absence of ritually pure olive oil, the Maccabees could have, under Jewish law, used tainted oil for the lighting of the menorah. But in appreciation of Jewish self-sacrifice God miraculously provided Israel with ritually pure oil. The purity of the oil was symbolic of the clarity of vision that was required of the Jewish people to decide to engage in this apparently hopeless war.

How can we apply this to situations we find ourselves in today?

The clash of cultures that Chanukah commemorates was over the willingness of the Jewish people to live in a practical but purposeless world, or to insist to the point of self-sacrifice on leading lives of significance and meaning, remaining true to their identity and destiny.

In Tune with Torah this week = learning to balance the ideal with the practical is a lifelong task. But when it comes to moral values and Torah commandments, there is no negotiating. Yet sometimes we find ourselves compromising. Let us be encouraged by the TRUST in God which the Maccabees demonstrated so that when “the right thing to do” is at stake, we have the moral courage to stand even alone, if need be, and do what is right rather than compromise ourselves for the sake of comfort.

Shabbat shalom

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