Monday, December 7, 2009

Living Apart and Living Among / Vayeishev & Chanukah

Rav Avraham Isaac Kook pointed out a prescient connection between the conflict between Joseph and Judah, and the festival of Chanukah, which begins this shabbat. The brothers are emblematic of differing ideological schools of thought concerning the mission and meaning of Judaism. Joseph promoted the vision and mission of Am Yisrael (the People Israel) as an or ha-goyim liheyot yeshuati ad k’tzei ha-aretz “I will also make you a light unto the nations that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6) and hence encouraged interaction between Jews and other peoples and nations to expose the latter to the teachings of Judaism. Judah sought to protect the distinctiveness of the Jewish people and encouraged hen am l’vadar yishkom u’vagoyim lo yitchakhav “There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).

These ideologies arise in every generation, from the Hasmonean and the Hellenists to our own day. Do we seek openness, interaction, and assimilation, and to share our ways with others? Or do we seek distinctiveness and cultural intensity to preserve our values and traditions? Perhaps more realistically: how to do we achieve a balance between two competing yet legitimate ideologies? Joseph and Judah, after all, are brothers. Just as they live in the same family, these two ideologies co-exist among one People. Judah recognizes this when he says, “What profit is there if we kill our brother?” (Genesis 37:26). And perhaps this is why Jacob sends Judah ahead of him to Joseph l’hotrot lefanav Goshna “to point the way before him to Goshen”(Genesis 46:28): to point out the way to him that Jacob’s clan would live among the Egyptians, as well as separate from them, in Goshen.

We worry about Jewish survival but we are also committed to our mission. Without maintaining our distinctiveness and our traditions, our mission will fail. How do we find the balance needed?

When the Temple stood, each Sukkot 70 bullocks were offered over the course of the seven days of the festival. In the Talmud (Sukkot 55b) Rabbi Eleazar asks: “To what do those seventy bulls correspond?” He answers his own question: To the seventy nations (which for the Rabbis represented all the other nations of the world). Rabbi Yochanan thereupon comments: “Woe to the idol-worshippers, for they suffered a great loss but do not even know what they have lost! While the Temple was standing, the altar atoned for them, but now who shall atone for them?” On Chanukah, we ponder our national survival – we came frighteningly close to perishing in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes – but the Rabbis remind us that our survival is not solely for the sake of survival. Israel (the Jewish people) lives with and for others. The only way to do that is to remain distinctly Jewish.

Chag Urim sameach -- may your Chanukah be a light-filled and joyous festival.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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