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Joseph's journey: Reflecting on our core values during Hanukkah

December 1, 2019


Rabbi Nathan Martin

This month we begin the Joseph saga at the end of Genesis. Joseph, forced by unforeseen circumstances, immigrates to a new land where he starts off at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder (as a slave) and manages with unseen Divine intervention and some of his own gumption to wend his way into the halls of power. A quintessential “court Jew” (before that term existed) Joseph both mediates and enforces Pharaoh’s power and amasses great wealth in the process. He also marries a local Egyptian and adopts Egyptian customs - including having his body embalmed after his death.

In thinking about this story some point to the parallels of the American Jewish immigrant experience. Many of our families we also forced to leave our homes and homelands in Eastern Europe due to unexpected circumstances (poverty, violence) and found our way to a new land where we too started with low-paying immigrant jobs. Like Joseph, many of our ancestors embraced America and its customs and some also found our way to positions of power and authority in U.S. society, perhaps also occupying kinds of equivalent “middlemen” positions in the process. And, similar to Joseph, we too have sought to integrate with society by also marrying and creating families out of our traditional “tribe” in large numbers.

Additionally, this month of December is also a time when many of us become more conscious of our status as a minority, a month where Hanukkah has gained greater cultural importance as an intentional contrast with Christmas; and a month where we personally encounter in our public and semi-public spaces reminders of the Christmas season. It may also be a time where we navigate Jewish and Christian (or other faith) celebrations in our own families.

I believe that our Joseph story may offer some guidance for us as we engage this moment of the year?

Right before his death Joseph made his brothers promise to bring his bones with them when they leave Egypt: “So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here (Gn. 50:25).” There is even midrash based on this verse that Pharaoh deliberately sank Joseph’s bones in a heavy sarcophagus in the Nile to prevent the Israelites from leaving since he knew that they couldn’t leave without them!

While Joseph had fully integrated into Egyptian society (he even gave his children Egyptian names), he also knew in his bones that he belonged to his original people. The word for bone in Hebrew, etzem, is the same word for core or essential.

Perhaps this month can be a time when we ask ourselves what is core or essential to our Jewish identities that we want to pass on to our children and have them carry this with them in their lives? This might be a set of Jewish practices you have come to know or love such as Shabbat, prayer or singing, or tzedakah. Or perhaps this could be an opportunity to take time for yourself and reflect on something you would like to cultivate during the year?

The framework of Hanukkah can be useful for this. I have heard about the custom where individuals and families will dedicate each day of Hanukah toward a different tzedakah cause and donate to it, sometimes making this a group project in a family. Each day can also be an opportunity to focus on and share one etzem, one core piece that holds up your Jewish identity, and share this with friends and family while the menorah is lit. Whatever direction you go, I know we would love to hear about it! And may our journeys to our essential Jewish selves give us strength and focus for the year ahead.

Thu, November 30 2023 17 Kislev 5784