In Torah, Joseph ‘fought’ for his identity, now we must too

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By Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg

Every year during Hanukkah, we read part of the Joseph story. In parashat Miketz, this week’s parashah, Joseph is let out of jail and finds himself in pharaoh’s palace. He rises to power, is given an Egyptian name, an Egyptian wife, and he becomes the father of two sons, Manasseh, and Ephraim. 

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation

The text is specific in giving us the names, Hebrew names, of Joseph’s sons, as they are not given Egyptian names. This is to remind us that no matter how “Egyptian” Joseph becomes, he still recognizes and identifies with the larger family group from which he came, B’nai Yisrael. In many ways, as he becomes “Egyptian,” he is saying, “I’m still Jewish.”

Joseph’s story resonates for us today in America. As Jews, we have found acceptance. We are comfortable, and it is quite easy for many of us to just be American, unlike those in our families, who generations before had to work at being American. Today, it often seems as if we must work at being Jewish.

Hanukkah, although a minor Jewish holiday, holds incredible meaning and power for us as American Jews, and not because of its proximity to the other holiday happening around us. 

Hanukkah celebrates Judaism and Jewish pride. It celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks who sought to get rid of Judaism. Their goal was to Hellenize the Jews and do away with Judaism. Sadly, the fight of the Maccabees was not solely with Antiochus and his army, but also with fellow Jews who had already begun to let go of Jewish practice and Judaism. 

Yes, Jews also fought with Jews. Today, we, too, “fight” the powers of those who want to do away with us, but so do we fight ourselves and the fear of publicly sharing our identity due to antisemitism as well as the power and attraction of assimilation. It is easy for many of us (though not all of us) to hide and/or let go of who we are and that which makes us different from being a part of the larger, majority culture. But when we do, we also let go of thousands of years’ worth of faith and tradition that our people have fought and struggled to hold on to in every generation.

Joseph reminds us that we can survive and even thrive in a culture that is not solely our own, and he reminds us of the importance of holding onto our own unique identity and faith.

As we kindle the lights of Hanukkah, let us ask ourselves, “What is it that I love about Judaism and being Jewish?” 

May the answers to those questions, the victory of the Maccabees, and the memories of the many generations who have fought and struggled for the survival of our people, shine a light on all that is good and holy in our tradition and inspire us to continue “fighting” for the survival of our people, the Jewish people.

May we not only survive but thrive for generations and generations to come. 

Hanukkah Sameach!