The Harm of Passive Exposure
You’re likely familiar with the Chanukah (Hannukah) story: The Syrian Greek tyrant, Antiochus, outlaws the practice of Judaism and forces our ancestors to worship the Greek gods and subscribe to the prevailing philosophy of Hellenism.
What many don’t know is that Hellenism originally took root in the Jewish community during the second Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) era through simple exposure to other people’s culture and belief system. Yes, it ended up being imposed upon us, but before that, Jews under Greek rule were giving up Judaism on their own.
Yosef – A Proud Believer in God
In Parshat Vayeishev, we learn the story of Yosef (Joseph), who was sold into slavery and imprisoned. He then is fetched from jail and brought before King Pharaoh to interpret his dreams. Instead of begging and pleading for his freedom, Yosef invokes Hashem’s name, and to Pharaoh of all people. When Pharaoh tells Yosef, “‘They say you can explain people’s dreams,” Yosef responds: “It is not me; rather it is Hashem (God) who interprets dreams” (Bereishit 41:16). After Pharaoh then relates his two dreams, Yosef again responds: “what God is going to do he has already told Pharaoh” (ibid, 41: 25). A few verses later Yosef says: “what God is going to do He has already told Pharaoh” (ibid, 41:28).
Yosef does not hide who he is or what he believes. He stands before Pharaoh in polytheistic Egypt and invokes his belief in the one and only Hashem. In all the time that Yosef lives in Egypt, he continues to identify and to live as a Jew, as the son of Yaakov (Jacob). Our Sages teach that Yosef kept the “dmut d’yuknu shel aviv” – the image of his father Yaakov, and the traditions of his family, alive.
The Source of Success
And it never seemed to hold him back. On the contrary, the more Yosef invoked God’s name, the more successful he became. To this day, we bless our sons on Shabbat to be like Yosef’s two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, the first Jews to be raised in exile and in a foreign land, but who were raised in a uniquely Jewish way. Our Sages teach that when Yaakov and Yosef were reunited, Yaakov studied Torah each and every day with his grandsons, and so we bless our children that they grow up the same way, even as they are exposed to different cultures and ideas.
When we look at Yosef’s life, we see someone clearly involved in the outside world, who contributed to the greater good outside of his own people. Yosef saved thousands of lives in Egypt and the surrounding areas by predicting a famine and executing a food-saving and distribution plan. Throughout this time, he maintained himself as a devoted Jew by being proud of who he was and not being ashamed of his roots and heritage.
At the end of the day, King Pharaoh made Yosef viceroy because he saw great talent. The fact that he had a different belief system didn’t impede his success. On the contrary, people saw him as a person of conviction, which developed even more respect for himself. Yosef’s life teaches that we can be part of the greater society and still maintain our distinct Jewish way of life; that to remain faithful to our observances we do not have to seclude ourselves from outside influences.
Display Your Jewish Pride!
But it’s not easy. Living in both the secular and Jewish worlds poses serious challenges, and if there’s any time that highlights this challenge here in America, it’s at the end of December – during the Chanukah time.
“Maccabi” is famously known as the Hebrew acronym of “Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Hashem (who is like you among the gods, Hashem).” For the Maccabim were proud of what they believed in and weren’t afraid to pronounce it to the world. That’s why we place our menorahs in the window of our homes, facing the world, to demonstrate our pride in being Jewish. Jewish pride is ultimately what saved our people then, and it is what is so desperately needed today.
Wishing you a happy Chanukah!
By Devora David