Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Chanukah Parshat Miketz 5779

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Assimilation and the Desire for Acceptance

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770

There is one unbelievable verse in our parsha that we generally don’t pay attention to because it is overshadowed by the drama that is playing out between Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph has succeeded in getting Benjamin to Egypt. He lays his eyes upon his brothers for the first time in over 20 years, his emotions are stirred and he can barely hold back from revealing himself to his brothers. Yet he does, escapes to a private room and cries. We are so taken with the drama that we gloss over the next few psukim that detail their meal together.

בראשית פרק מג

(לב) וַיָּשִׂימוּ לוֹ לְבַדּוֹ וְלָהֶם לְבַדָּם וְלַמִּצְרִים הָאֹכְלִים אִתּוֹ לְבַדָּם כִּי לֹא יוּכְלוּן הַמִּצְרִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶת הָעִבְרִים לֶחֶם כִּי תוֹעֵבָה הִוא לְמִצְרָיִם

32. And they served him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, who ate with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.

There were 3 different “sittings” in the room. Joseph sat alone as did the brothers and the Egyptians who were dining with them.

And the verse tells us that this is so because the Egyptians considered it an abomination to break bread with the Hebrews.

We need to ask three questions before the meaning of the verse becomes relevant for us and for Chanukah.

  • Why is it an abomination for an Egyptian to eat with a Hebrew?
  • Which Hebrews are we talking about?
  • Who are the other Egyptians in the room?

Onkelos writes in his Aramiac translation of the Torah that Jews ate meat which the Egyptians worshipped and that is the source of their disgust with the Hebrews.

Rashbam and others argue that it has nothing to do with the meat and everything to do with the Hebrews. The Egyptians saw them as an inferior people would not lower themselves to break bread with a Jew- very much along the lines of segregation.

Now we address the more interesting question? Which Hebrews are we talking about, the brothers or is Joseph also included in this category? Could it be that they would not eat with their viceroy because he was a Hebrew?

Radak, 12th century Spain and many others argue that it would be inconceivable to think that Egyptians would not eat with Joseph who they feared and respected. Rather they argue that Joseph ate alone because he was royalty and it would be improper and undignified to eat with his servants.  Many centuries later the Netziv suggests that eating alone was a way to keep any servants with knives away from the people in power.

Yet the Rashbam and others do not make such a distinction. They believe that the Egyptians would not eat with Joseph because he was a Hebrew.

I will come back to that in a minute but first let us answer the third question. Who were the Egyptians in the room? According to the Radak it was the servants. According to a striking piece in the Meshech Chochmah- the commentary to the Torah of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (19th to 20th century), the Egyptians in the room was Joseph’s own family. Even they would not eat with him for he was a Hebrew.

If we put that together with the approach of the Rashbam, which I think is the more literal read, we have the following: Joseph has ascended the halls of power in Egypt. He has risen to the position of viceroy and commands nearly all of the wealth in Egypt. Despite all of that he is not accepted as an equal in Egyptian society. That is astounding! Despite the power and success Joseph remains a Hebrew, a Jew!

On this Shabbat in 1955 Rabbi Norman Lamm raised the following fascinating question: How did Joseph feel about this state of affairs? A related question one might ask would be- why doesn’t Joseph force the issue? He had tremendous power; surely, he could have forced the Egyptians to eat with him?

I could not find any commentator that addresses the issue. Rabbi Lamm suggests that Joseph was ok with it. He was happy to be the alien and to have a degree of separation between himself and the Egyptians. He did not mind being the other and even saw some value in it. He recognized and appreciated that his traditions and beliefs set him apart and did not feel the need to be an Egyptian.

There is no way for us to know if that is actually true but the sentiment behind such an approach is clearly true and is as applicable today in America as it was 3500 years ago in Egypt. 

The American Jew can and has achieved great financial success and political power. The challenge for that Jew is – is he happy as a financially and politically successful Jew or does he want to be seen as fully American with no difference between the America Jew and other Americans. Are we okay begin different because of our religion and traditions? I am not talking about begin ok with persecution or the like because of that difference. I am talking only about being perceived as different. 

So many Jews in America so badly wanted to shirk the difference and the best way they knew to do that was to get rid of that which made them different, their religious practices and beliefs and so many of those Jews have been lost to assimilation.

The same was true for the Hellenists at the time of Chanukah- some so badly wanted to fit in the bath houses that they attempted to reverse their circumcisions, which I would imagine is pretty painful without an anesthetic. They tried to get rid of that which made them Jewish to fit into the world at large.

That might have been the challenge for Joseph; it certainly is the challenge for us. Can we participate in the world and yet be comfortable with being different and with the religion which makes us different?