Parshat Vayeshev/Hanukkah

“Joseph, Judah, and Hanukkah”
By Tamar Frankiel, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Liturgy

This week’s Torah reading begins the Joseph saga, which will take us to the end of the book of Bereishit.  We begin with Jacob “settling” (vayeshev) but, as the midrash says, no sooner did he think he had settled than the “troubles with Joseph” began.  Joseph’s story, from the tension with his brothers to being imprisoned in Egypt, occupies most of the parsha.


But the story line is interrupted by the tale of Judah, who “went down” away from his brothers, set up a business partnership, married a Canaanite woman, and had three sons. He marries one of them to Tamar, but the son dies.  In accordance with levirate marriage, he marries her to the next brother, who also dies.  The text makes clear that both the brothers died because of their own evil deeds, but Judah nevertheless will not allow her to be married to the third son. The ultimate outcome is that Judah himself is enticed by Tamar to have relations with her. She becomes pregnant and Judah is about to kill her, when she reveals that he is the father of her unborn twins.  Tamar is therefore the ancestress of the Davidic line that comes from Judah.


Both Judah and Joseph are separated from the other brothers, though Judah later on rejoins them. This distinctiveness hints at their future destiny, to be revealed in the prominent deathbed blessings of Jacob. But the Sages also note another feature:  Joseph becomes the prince in exile, in Pharaoh’s court; while Judah becomes the prince in the land of Israel, and ultimately ancestor of the Messiah of the Davidic line.


These two strands manifest in the two rabbinic holidays, Hanukkah and Purim. Purim is the holiday of exile in a strange land, where Jews struggle with the temptations of idolatry and the barbs and threats of antisemitism. Joseph is Pharaoh’s court is like Mordecai and Esther in the court of Achashverus.  


Hanukkah, on the other hand, is a holiday that points to Judah – to the independence of the Jewish people on their own land, under the leadership of one of their own.


However, as our Sages have observed, Hanukkah is not merely political. The long-term struggle was and is about the inner corruption of Jewish ideals. Often “the Greeks” are blamed, but it was the peculiar attraction of Hellenistic culture that tugged at Jewish hearts and souls and turned them against one another.  Ultimately the post-Maccabeean era became civil war.


This relates to the story of Judah.  Whereas Joseph is tested and has to prove himself in Pharaoh’s court, Judah is tested in his family and in himself.  He cannot be a leader unless he passes those tests.


Rashi says that he separated himself from his brothers because they blamed him for Jacob’s grief:  “You said to sell him!  If only you had said to return him, we would have listened to you” (Rashi on Genesis 38.1).  Given the brothers’ history of complaining about Joseph’s favored position, this rings a bit hollow.  They had left him to die in a pit, after all, and Judah appears to have been ameliorating the situation by suggesting they sell him instead so that “our hand will not be on him, for our brother is our flesh.”  However, his comment immediately before reveals another dimension:  “What profit is it if we kill our brother… Come, let’s sell him…” (Gen 37:26-27). As Rashi points out, betza, profit, means money. Judah sees an opportunity here.


Judah probably was angry at his brothers’ blaming him, but the deeper reason for separating himself was to discover the errors in his own perspective. What happens to Judah after he leaves and establishes his own family? He finds himself again close to murdering someone, his dead son’s wife.  She had put herself in a dangerous situation, a “pit” to speak, to try to save herself from a humiliating situation. Following a momentary impulse, he purchased her services on a pledge of money, with the arrogance of a man who believes he is in control.  Only his final confession saves him from his own evil: “She is more righteous than I.”


The story of the brothers is horrifying – their jealousy, their conspiratorial attitude, their willingness to murder even their own family members.  Judah’s role is shameful as well, opportunistic and arrogant. They have all caused their father Jacob suffering so terrible that the midrash compares it to Job’s. In the end he tells Pharaoh, “Few and bad have been the years of my life” (Gen 47:8). The only saving grace is that Judah, in the end, brings the family’s pain to light in his encounter with Joseph (in Vayigash, Gen 44.18).


The struggles of Judah that opened him to humility, the honesty of Judah that cracked open the harsh façade of Joseph – these are like the “crack in everything – that’s how the light comes in.”  This, more than external leadership, is what connects the archetype of Judah to the spiritual potential of Hanukkah. This is the role of the ancestor of the Messiah:  to heal the wounds of the people Israel, to help us come together.  

This year, let’s remember Hanukkah in its inner dimensions, and light the lights for other Jews to illuminate our deeper connections to one another.

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