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Parashat Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

“Once Joseph had a dream which he told to his brothers and they hated him even more.”
(Genesis 37:5)

Parashat Vayeishev introduces the saga of Joseph and his brothers, the longest narrative in the Torah. It is dramatic and suspenseful. It’s easy to read it as one more cautionary tale of sibling rivalry (don’t the families in Genesis ever get it?), or a statement of God’s hand in history, or as a primer on leadership in a diaspora. Its proximity to Chanukkah this year allows a deeper allegorical reading about how Jews should live.

According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935; first Chief Rabbi of Palestine during the British Mandate) Joseph represents the ideology of being a “…light unto the nations…” (Is. 46:9). This requires interaction with the world to expose the nations to Jewish ideas like monotheism. Judah, on the other hand, represents the ideology of being, “…a nation that dwells alone…” (Num. 23:9). This requires withdrawing and living separately to combat the temptation of assimilation to pagan ways. This is a central (if less known) theme in Chanukkah: the civil war within the Jewish community regarding its engagement with Greek culture.

Judah recognizes the best way to neutralizes Joseph’s influence is to get rid of him. Rather than kill him, though, he suggest to his brothers they sell him to the Ishmaelite traders (Gen. 36:27). It’s a way to “pressure-test” Joseph’s stance: sell him into assimilation and see what becomes of his ideas.

The tension between particularism and universalism continues to this day and may be the defining characteristic of the modern Jewish era. Lampooning and deriding the extremes is easy. The harder work is staking out a sustainable middle ground.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom
A Freyliche Chanike/Happy Chanukkah

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