December 15, 2012: The December Dilemma (Miqetz)

The Torah is read from start to finish from one Simchat Torah to the next, and meanwhile the year is punctuated by festivals, and there is no apparent connection between the two cycles. So, for example, this week we find ourselves in the middle of the Joseph saga in the weekly Torah portion of Miqetz, even as we happen to be celebrating Hanukkah. Nevertheless, if we scratch beneath the surface, we find that the message of Hanukkah resonates in the Torah as well. One of the major themes of Hanukkah is how to uphold Jewish tradition and maintain loyalty to Jewish heritage against the might of the Syrian army that seeks to impose foreign, pagan behavior, or, more generally, how to combat the syncretism of Hellenistic culture. The challenge of assimilation continues to this day and age, here in Bloomington as American Jews, and it is ironically heightened at this particular season of the year, when we are confronted with what’s known as “the December dilemma.” Right at this season, we have our own version of onslaught, as we are continually bombarded on the radio, on television, on the road, and especially in the shopping malls by the general frenzy of the Christmas celebration.

The story of Joseph can be read as emblematic of the individual’s struggle with his tradition while living within a dominant foreign culture. Joseph is the consummate assimilationist. He is eager to shed all ties, all reminders, that links him to his past. He dresses in Egyptian clothing, he eats Egyptian food, he takes an Egyptian wife, he speaks the Egyptian language, and immerses himself in Egyptain society, climbing to the ranks of the second highest in command in Pharaoh’s court, so that he becomes indistinguishable from any other Egyptian. Joseph’s alienation from his Jewishness is put into stark relief when he meets his brothers. Rashi comments “Joseph acted to them like a non-Jew, in his harsh manner of speech,” and by pretending not to understand them when they speak in Hebrew amongst themselves. (Zornberg, p306) When the meal is served, he eats by himself and separately from them, because, the text reminds us, “the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, because that was an abomination to the Egyptians.” (Gen. 43:32) There are no elements of culture that so distinguish one group from another as food and language.

Most significantly in the Biblical context, where one’s name is a reflection of one’s true identity, Joseph acquires the name of “Tzafnat Paneach.” Despite its obviously Egyptian origins—and it’s fascinating the author of the book of Genesis was apparently acquainted well enough with Egyptian to have actually endowed this name, or else the Joseph legend has an element of historical validity to it—and indeed the Septuagint translates the name Tzafnat Paneach according to late Egyptian as “the sustainer of life,” a label that is apt for Joseph in the context of the narrative—as I say, despite the obviously Egyptian origin, medieval commentators strain to find a Hebrew derivation from the Hebrew word, tzafan, meaning “hidden”, and suggest that Tzafnat Paneach means “the diviner of hidden things” (refering to Joseph’s career as an interpreter of dreams). But to me the folk Hebrew etymology could just as easily point to a meaning that undercuts Joseph’s ties to his Hebrew origins, not that he is the diviner of hidden things, but that he is keeping his past hidden, that he is hiding his true identity.

The ambiguous significance of names continues in the way Joseph names his sons—only this time, in reverse. Joseph names his firstborn Menashe, from the word nasha, meaning “forgot,” because: “God has made me forget completely my hardship and the house of my father.” (Genesis 41:51) Apologists force, in my view, the pious interpretation that the birth of his son lets him temporarily forget the pain of being away from the house of his father, but I think the plain meaning is quite the opposite: Joseph is rejoicing that he is finally free of the house of his father. Joseph’s name for his second son, Ephraim, from the word, parah, “to be fruitful/fertile,” contains a similar ambiguity: “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” Egypt is both the land of fertility and the land of affliction. This of course anticipates the period of Egyptian bondage, when the children of Israel continue to be fruitful and to multiply, even as they become enslaved. So, the name of Joseph’s second son as well seems to embody Joseph’s desire to be fertile and to thrive in a foreign land, coupled with perhaps some guilt for doing so. The greatest irony of all, in the names of Joseph’s sons, as that they are, after all, Hebrew names, Ephraim and Menashe. So even though Joseph asserts the name that he has given to his son that “God has made me forget the house of my father,” the fact that it is a Hebrew name, and not Egyptian, belies that he, in fact, can never forget the house of his father.

In this reading of the Joseph saga, Joseph’ inner identity conflict reaches a head and finally breaks in the great climactic scene, when he reveals himself to his brother: “I am Joseph,” he cries out: “does my father yet live?” And now those words take on a clarion symbolic ring: “I am Joseph! Does my father yet live [in me]?” Meaning, after all these years of living this life of an Egyptian courtier, of hiding my Jewish origins, of pretending to be one of them, doesn’t my father—doesn’t my tradition, doesn’t my Jewishness still live at the core of my being?? And, of course, the answer is yes. One way to read the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers and with his father Jacob is to read it as reconciliation between Joseph and his own Jewishness.

Here’s where we can connect back to the message of Hanukkah, and to the “December dilemma.” We, like the Maccabees in their day, and like Joseph in his, live and interact in a foreign, non-Jewish world. We live American, we dress American, we work in the American world, we play American sports, we consume American culture, we speak English, not Hebrew, and even those of us who keep kosher still by and large eat American food. At the Christmas season especially, the gulf between the world that we live in and our own heritage becomes particularly noticeable. But what lies at the core of our selfhood? Even after perhaps decades of alienation, denial, and rejection, can we come back and say: “I am Joseph, not Zaphnat Paneach! Does my heritage yet live inside me?”