Parashat Miketz delves into Jewish identity, continuity

Cantor-Rabbi Ronald D. Eichaker serves United Hebrew Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Light.

BY CANTOR-RABBI RONALD D. EICHAKER

In the words and music of Jewish composers, Edward (Eddie) Pola and George Wyle (Bernard Weissman) in 1963, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!” This is true for so many people, but for some, it can be the most confusing and challenging time of the year. This message is not going to delve into the reasons why so many brilliant musical and lyrical Jewish minds wrote Christmas rather than Hanukkah songs, from the late 1800s to the early/middle 1900s — though  a good reason why may emerge from this message as you read further.

Jews have been living in a diaspora for most of its history. Jewish laws, ethics, customs and even rituals have been influenced, on various levels, by the dominant culture in lands not predominantly Jewish; and yet Judaism has survived and thrived to become vital to every country in which the Jews reside. Paraphrasing columnist Bari Weiss, who recently wrote that the health of a country can be measured by the level of anti-Semitism within that country (“How to Fight Anti-Semitism” 2019). 

Anti-Semitism is an expression of subdural conspiracy theories, the mechanics of which are inherent in every society, whether knowingly or unknowingly, since humans began to socialize over 30,000 years ago (the Agricultural Revolution). Spoiler alert to the first chapter in the Book of Exodus. Jews have faced down mass regional extinction many times, and are constantly battling forces that wish to expand this move to extinction beyond countries to include the entire planet. Jews have been able to stem these tides of misguided egocentrism and nationalistic paranoia through tenacious creativity and the pursuit of indispensable excellence in all they are tasked to do.

Parashat Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1 – 44:17) holds some narratives that strike this point firmly on the rock of our existence.  In Genesis 41:14, The JPS TANACH (Bible) translation says, “Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph and he [Joseph] was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” Chapter 41 goes on with the dream interpretation scene and after Joseph had succeeded in achieving the confidence of Pharaoh we see in sentences 40 – 46 that Joseph had gone from the dungeon to the second highest position of leadership in Egypt (with no apparent argument from Pharaoh’s court or advisors). Joseph’s name was changed to that of an Egyptian citizen. He was given an Egyptian wife (the daughter of a priest) and all this in what we can refer today as the millennial age of 30! Later in Chapter 41 (sentences 50 – 52) Asenat (Joseph’s wife) gave birth to twin boys; Manasseh (meaning the Almighty has made me forget my hardship in my ancestral home) and Efrayim (meaning The Almighty has made me fertile in the land of my affliction).

There is a lot to unpack here; more than this space allows.  One significant point is that Joseph was groomed to appear like the Egyptians before he faced Pharaoh.  He was dressed so he did not stand out, removing as many biases as possible so that his interpretations can be heard without external distractions and accepted without prejudice.  His reward for helping Egypt move from what could be seen as an unhealthy period was a deeper immersion into Egyptian society.  He was removed from every indication that he was not born an Egyptian, and I suppose that anyone who would have questioned his “pedigree” would have been silenced in the most corporal of ways. 

Later in Parashat Mikeitz, we see that the blood of Joseph’s family and ancestors is, indeed, deeper and thicker than the water of the Nile River.  At the end of Parashat Mikeitz we read that, while his body was devoted to the Egyptian macro-culture, his soul was still connected to his people.  

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Ahad HaAm (Asher Ziv Hersh Ginsburg 1856-1927), one of the quiet giants in the post-Maskilic Zionist Movement and prolific essayist wrote in 1891: “The secret enabling our people to survive is…that already in antiquities prophets taught it to respect spiritual power and never to admire physical power. Therefore, it has not succumbed, like all ancient people, to a loss of identity when faced with stronger adversaries…”

Singer, songwriter and storyteller Debbie Friedman built a popular Hanukkah song to refract the words of Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might nor by power, but my spirit says the Almighty…” In the hands of our Millennial Generation, we place our fragile history, to guide them and give them a rock on which to build the generation we will never see.  That future may not look like our present, and may not be exactly what the Boomers, Gen X’ers or older self-identified generations would like to see, but it’s the future that this generation will craft with or without the older generations’ approval.  We must trust that their spirit is strong.  We are responsible to ensure strong foundations on which they can stand and provide vision and leadership.  We will demand no more from them than the previous generations; tenacious creativity and indispensable excellence.  Guided by our sacred texts, our rich history, our nurturing nature and loving faith in their future, their strength will be our light when our own strength fails us.

Shabbat Shalom.