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Hide and Seek with Jewish Identity

Temple of Karnak, Thebes, Egypt

Torah Talk on Mikets 5779

In this week’s Torah portion of Mikets we are in the midst of the fabulous story of Joseph, now shorn of his Technicolor dreamcoat and locked away in an Egyptian prison.

Dreams play a central role—not for the first time in Genesis, and not for the first time in the Joseph story. In Mikets, Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, dreams a famous dream: seven fat cows emerge from the Nile River, and then are eaten by seven skinny cows; then seven fat ears of grain are devoured by seven lean ears of grain. What does it all mean?

None of the Egyptian king’s brilliant advisers and counselors can help him. In desperation he turns to a forgotten Hebrew prisoner who once helped his chief wine steward—his bartender—when he was in jail with him.

Joseph is dragged from prison, cleaned up, and brought to the Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world at that time. The young Hebrew hears the dream, and correctly interprets it, prophesying seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Giving full credit to God for being his only source of insight, Joseph helps the Pharaoh to save Egypt, and things go well for both him and Egypt. He rises to great prominence—second in command of the whole country—and the Pharaoh’s power is multiplied while his people are saved from destruction.

Joseph marries and has two children. But oddly, his great success, his fame throughout Egypt, and his new family aren’t quite enough for him. He misses his father, left behind in Canaan, and pines for his younger brother Benjamin, the only living reminder of his dead mother Rachel. He never expects to see his father and full brother again. Joseph misses his Hebrew identity, too: you can take the boy out of Canaan, but you can’t really take the Canaan out of the boy.

And then, in a plot twist worthy of our finest novelists, his brothers are compelled by famine to come down to Egypt to buy bread. Suddenly, the same characters who beat him and sold him into slavery are completely in his power.

What an amazing opportunity for revenge! Joseph seems primed to take advantage of that. He teases and torment his brothers—he, fully aware of their identity, and they, completely ignorant of his.

What will happen? As the Torah portion concludes we are left wondering just which way it will all go. Next week we’ll get the answer.

This week, however, the issue is clearly delineated: how will an assimilated Jew respond to direct pressure to hide his identity? Just as the Jews in the days of the Macabees struggled with tremendous pressure to accept cultural subjugation and give up their Judaism, so Joseph struggled with hiding his identity or admitting it in public.

In a season in which the majority culture can overwhelm us with its songs, foods, and religious trappings, we Jews, too, sometimes struggle to assert our pride in our own Jewish identities. May we learn from the lessons of Joseph and the Macabees that Jewish identity must be asserted proudly and with commitment, in all times and seasons.

Happy Hanukkah!

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