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Who Am I Anyway? Identity and Courage in Times of Challenge

Sermon Shabbat Vayeishev 5779 at Congregation Beit Simcha

My favorite plastic surgery joke goes like this: a woman, Rivkah, has a heart attack and is taken to the hospital. While on the operating table she has a near-death experience. Seeing God, she asks, "Is my time up?"But God says, "No, Rivkah you have another 36 years to go."

Upon recovery, Rivkah decides to stay in the hospital and embrace the life she has now been guaranteed. She gets a facelift, nose job, liposuction and a tummy tuck. She changes her hair color, redoes the style, everything.

While in the hospital recovering, she does some thinking. Since she has so much more time to live, she figures she might as well make the most of it.She arranges to move to Malibu, to buy a convertible, to live a new life.

But as she's leaving the hospital to fly to go to the airport and fly to California, just outside the door in fact, she's struck and killed by an incoming ambulance.Arriving in front of God, Rivkah demands, "I thought you said I had another 36 years? Why didn't you pull me out of the path of the ambulance?"

And God says, "Oy, Rivkah—is that you? I didn't recognize you."

I’ve always liked that joke for its absurdity: who are we really? If we change too much, thinking it’s for the better, what are we really doing?

To put it another way, what does it mean to take pride in your identity? And what would make you hide it, or try to change it until you become unrecognizable, not really you anymore?

It turns out that this is a time of year when we Jews address that question in many ways. This week, as occurs annually, we have a great Jewish linkage, the beginning of the tale of Joseph in our Torah portion of Vayeishev and the coming of the holiday of Hanukkah on Sunday night. Both are famous, powerful stories that have important religious and historical implications. Both Joseph and the Maccabees had to affirm belief, and our heritage, at times of great trial and challenge. Both of these narratives involve complex challenges relating to how we respond to internal dissent, familial and communal. Both Joseph and the Maccabees had to demonstrate courage in the face of brutal persecution, and both rose from doubt and darkness to faith and light. And both epic tales end with positive resolution, great achievement, reunification, dedication and tremendous hope for the future.

But at heart, both the Joseph narrative and the story of Hanukkah revolve around what it means to change identity, and what is gained—and lost—by those choices. And they are centrally occupied with what it means to be proud of being Jewish in places that don’t necessarily encourage that.

Without belaboring the obvious, the Biblical story of Joseph that fills the final four Torah portions in Genesis tells how an arrogant half-orphan boy decides he has been selected by God to be the next leader of the young people of Israel. Joseph’s father, Jacob, doesn’t help, giving him the famous coat of many colors as a sign of his preference for him. When his brothers object to both this favoritism and young Joe spying on them, he will be beaten up, thrown in a pit, threatened with murder and then sold into slavery in a foreign land. There, after a brief upturn, things go from bad to worse: Joseph rises quickly to become head of his master’s household only to experience attempted seduction by his master’s wife, which he resists—which leads to her claiming rape and having him tossed into prison. No contemporary analogies need to be drawn here, they are clear. Once in prison in Egypt—even saying that phrase today can send a chill down the spine—Joseph helps other prisoners, but his aid is soon forgotten. Vayeishev ends with the light of hope apparently just about extinguished.

But in the next couple of week’s Torah portions—spoiler alert—Joseph will suddenly be raised up from these physical and spiritual depths to become a ruler of the rich land of Egypt, powerful beyond imagining. He will have a new name, an Egyptian one, new clothes and hair and make-up—the men wore it, too, in ancient Egypt—a new chariot and an entirely different identity from the Hebrew shepherd he was raised to be.

The Torah documents his emotional struggle to fully accept this transformation—who wouldn’t? Where inside this dictator of all Egypt is the dreamy young lad from Canaan he was not so long ago? Joseph will ultimately be gifted with control of his older brothers’ very lives. Finally, he will graciously forgive them and bring them and his aged father down to live on his own estates, under his own leadership and control. Joseph’s place in history is assured, and the Jewish people’s future is set in motion.

By the way, the story of Joseph is fantastically well-written, the first great modern novel, filled with literary techniques we still admire: foreshadowing, interlaced narratives, cliffhangers, unexpected plot turns, important minor characters. You can see why it inspired a bad musical and many fine works of art and literature. It reads like a wonderful contemporary novel—and yet it was composed a minimum of 2300 years ago, and could be 1300 years older than that.

Thematically similar, the Hanukkah story documents the rebellion of a small group of Jews, led by the Hasmonean family against the Syrian-Greek oppressors, the Seleucid Empire. There had been tension for over a century between the Jews and their culturally Greek rulers. There was increasing pressure on the young people to abandon Judaism and embrace the lifestyle choices the Greeks saw as mandatory to being a cool, successful person: the gymnasium and the theater, the public bathhouse and the central agora, and the worship of multiple gods. Many, probably most Jews simply went along with these changes, adopting the style and practices of their oppressors, imitating the majority culture of the eastern Mediterranean of that day. Some even reversed their circumcisions—ouch—so that they could be totally Greek and compete in the public athletic games. It all seemed to be going along fine for the pagans, until the King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, decided to take it to the next step: he declared himself a God, and insisted the Jews worship him instead of their invisible one God. Even that, for many Jews, proved to be no breaking point. It was just one more Greek custom they could adopt, one more way they could change their identities a bit more.

But for a few passionate, dedicated Jews that was a step too far. The Jewish rebellion began in 167 BCE when Mattathias and his family, including his sons Judah and Jonathan, revolted against the first attempt in history to destroy our people’s right to worship as we desired. It was a bitter, difficult, protracted fight that began as a guerilla war with many Jewish losses. The armies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes were the most powerful in the world, and the king’s decrees they enforced included banning the study of Torah, making circumcision illegal, preventing the keeping of Shabbat and stopping the regular sacrifices of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple itself was degraded through the placement of an idol of the king in its midst, the sacrifice of unclean animals like pigs and a deliberate effort to eradicate the Jewish character of the place. Partially in response to the rebellion, all Jewish acts became criminal.

It was a truly dark time. But after a very hard war the Maccabees miraculously prevailed over a larger, better-armed and better-trained army, increasing in strength through raid after raid until they could defeat the Seleucid forces in open battle. They recaptured the city of Jerusalem, cleansed the Temple, and two nights from now, on the 25th of Kislev, we will celebrate the anniversary—the 2,183rd anniversary—of the day they rededicated the Temple anew and kindled once more the great menorah. Light shined out again at the time of these shortest days of the year.

But the interesting thing about all this familiar history is that the really challenging choices that we Jews had to make then are not very different from the ones we American Jews have to make today. For in the time of the Maccabees many Jews chose to just become Greek culturally, to fit in and go along with the larger, successful culture in which they found themselves. Just as Joseph, the Hebrew shepherd boy raised to great power and authority in Egypt became the most Egyptian of Egyptians. Just as we can, without effort, immerse ourselves in a world of non-Jewish holiday celebrations. The challenge is to realize that it is actually very, very easy here in America to lose our own identities as Jews, to simply go along with the general culture, get absorbed in the social mores of our time and place.

Yet, ultimately, the story of Joseph and the tale of Hanukkah remind us that in order to keep the light burning we actually must make a personal effort to remember and celebrate our own Jewish identities. Joseph comes back to his brothers and father, embraces them, affirm his religion and original name and heritage. The Maccabees bring the entire nation back from the brink of cultural annihilation to a spiritual rejuvenation, to recommitment and re-consecration.

We too, in our complex times, surrounded by a sea of commercial and other affirmations of another religious tradition, have the capacity to do the same. Over this Shabbat of Vayeishev, and this coming 8 days of Hanukkah, may we do so with energy, integrity and dedication.

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