US Marines light Chanukah candles aboard MCAS Miramar in 2013. (Wikimedia Commons) (Wikimedia Commons)
US Marines light Chanukah candles

Joseph and his dreams are discussed in this week’s Torah portion, “Vayeshev,” which always either precedes Chanukah or falls during the holiday. 

A lot has been written about the connection between Chanuka and the story of Joseph. To give but one example on how they are connected, it is noted that in the middle of discussing the laws of Chanukah, the Talmud interrupts to discuss the pit into which Joseph was thrown into by his brothers. How and why is Joseph connected to Chanukah?

Here is one interpretation on the connection between Joseph and Chanuka that I saw recently.

When Joseph related his first dream to his brothers, about the sheaves of wheat [representing his brothers] bowing down to him, they became angry and jealous. They said (Gen 37:8): “Do you think you will rule over us?”

Everyone knew that monarchy and kingship were to originate in the tribe of Judah, not Joseph. They considered Joseph’s dreams to be a rejection of this Divinely decreed monarchy. As an aside, the brother’s weren’t so wrong; one of Joseph’s evil descendants,Yerovam, rebelled against King David’s grandson and established a breakoff kingdom — the kingdom of the ten northern tribes.

However, it was never Joseph’s intention to rebel, nor was he trying to interfere with the monarchy descending from his brother Judah. Rather, Joseph and Judah represented different ways of serving God. Joseph was merely explaining his approach (albeit in roundabout way). What are these different approaches?

The name “Judah” is made up of God’s Four Letter Name, plus the letter “dalet”. The Talmud teaches that the letter dalet represents one who has nothing. (“Dal” means “poor”). When Judah was born, his mother Leah said, “I thank God.” She recognized that all comes from God, and she gave Judah a name that reflects that (“Judah” = “I thank God”). This was always Leah’s attitude. Likewise, Judah’s descendant, King David, despite his great accomplishments, took no credit for himself. He recognized that all is from God.

In contrast, Joseph’s approach was that a person was more in control over his spiritual standing. As such, he demanded and strove for perfection.

Both Judah and Joseph faced similar challenges. Judah seemingly failed his test with Tamar, but he confessed and moved on with his life. Likewise, Judah’s descendants, David and Menashe, both sinned and repented. This was not Joseph’s view. Joseph told Potiphar’s wife,  “If I fail, I shall be considered a sinner.” The Talmud tells us that his father Jacob appeared to Joseph at that moment and told him that if he succumbed to Potiphar’s wife, he would lose his portion among the other tribes.

Joseph’s brothers felt that Joseph’s approach was dangerously close to the approach of the Greeks, the villains in the Chanukah story. The Greeks also preached self-improvement and perfection, but unfortunately, it was associated with rejecting God. However, Joseph also focused on God and spiritual improvement. Nevertheless, Joseph’s brothers felt that any philosophy that attributes too much importance to man’s accomplishments is heretical.

It was in fact Judah the Maccabee who led the Chanukah victory over the Greeks.

It is ultimately Judah’s approach that won the day, which is one of the reasons we are called “Jews.”

Chanukah articles

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