The Story of Joseph, Hanukkah — and Finding the Light
Although ancient Egypt and ancient Greece coexisted for well over a millennium, they were different in almost every respect. Egyptian civilization emerged at the dawn of human history and continued until the first century BCE, while Greek civilization began in approximately 1100 BCE, and petered out in the second century BCE — when it was overtaken by Roman civilization.
The disparities between Egypt and Greece are usually assumed to be a factor of their different geographical locations. Mass travel and human migration were extremely limited in those days, and cultural influences were consequently contained. For example, the politics of ancient Egypt emphasized centralized authority, while the Greek political structure was far more diffuse, with power decentralized and distributed to local authorities. Artistically, too, the civilizations were very different. Egypt focused heavily on the creation of monumental structures, while the Greeks devoted themselves to less substantial art, and focused instead on intricate literary works.
There were, of course, areas of commonality — but none so pronounced as the area of religious belief. Although the range and structure of the two pantheons were very different, both systems shared a common theme that is both striking and revealing.
In both cultures, either a deity was good — or it was evil.
In Egypt, for example, the forces of darkness and destruction were represented by a god named Apep — the “Lord of Chaos” — who was the arch-enemy of the sun god Ra. Ra was considered the source of everything good in the world. If Apep gained the upper hand, Ra would be in decline, and Egyptians believed that each evening, as the sun set, Apep — who was lurking just below the horizon — would let off a mighty roar, as his might overcame the influence of the sun god.
The Greek Pantheon featured a totally different set of gods, dominated by Zeus — god of the sky, law, order and justice. But far from being omnipotent, Zeus was forced to deal with threats from other gods keen to steal his throne, not least of whom was his “wife,” Hera, who together with Poseidon tried to stage a coup against Zeus, and almost succeeded. Another deity, Typhon, almost managed to kill Zeus, and the Iliad suggests that Zeus was extremely fearful of Nyx, the Greek goddess of the night.
The similarities between this struggle for dominance between the distinct powers of good and evil, as seen in both Egypt and Greece, is conspicuous.
Contrast that with Judaism’s understanding of an omnipotent God who presides over everything that happens, and who has no gaps in His powers, or weaknesses that expose Him to the danger of defeat. I believe it is this contrast that explains a puzzle in this week’s Torah narrative describing Pharaoh’s dreams.
Although we would like to explain Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams as a sign of Joseph’s remarkable wisdom, the facts demand a more prosaic explanation. After all, correlating livestock and grain with the fortunes of Egypt’s economy seems straightforward enough. This forces the question — why were Pharaoh’s advisors unable to interpret his dreams, and what did Joseph see that they failed to observe?
A number of commentaries suggest that the key lies in the fact that the dreams did not portray seven fat cows followed by seven skinny cows, instead depicting seven skinny cows alongside the seven fat cows. This made no sense to Pharaoh’s advisors, who believed that when good prevails, evil has no place. Had there been seven fat cows without the thin ones, the message would have been clear: Egypt would experience prosperity. Alternatively, had the dream only contained the emaciated cows, it would have been evident that a famine was on the way. What was confounding was the simultaneous appearance of fat cows together with the thin cows.
When Pharaoh called for Joseph to be brought from his prison cell, the verse says (Gen. 41:14):וַיְרִיצֻהוּ מִן הַבּוֹר — “and he was quickly brought from the dungeon.” The Zohar suggests that the root of the word “vayiritzuhu” is the Hebrew word “ratzon,” which means “will” or “desire.” It was at the exact moment Joseph was being freed from jail by royal command that he suddenly realized that his own dreams all those years ago were never meant to unfold from one minute to the next. Each aspect of his tortuous path, and especially the challenges, had been part of God’s will. The bad had combined with the good, so that in the end, it was all good, and no separation existed between one and the other.
Only a monotheist like Joseph could spot that nuance, and it was this exact nuance that helped him see past the image of fat cows and thin cows occupying the same scene, enabling him to interpret the dreams accurately — and to Pharaoh’s satisfaction.
Hanukkah, which always coincides with the Torah portion of Mikeitz, epitomizes this very same message. We light the menorah to commemorate the seemingly minor miracle of oil lasting longer than it should have; meanwhile, many greater miracles have occurred in our history that have not generated annual festivals. More importantly, full military victory against the Greeks would elude the Maccabeans for many years after they had retaken the Temple. In which case, what exactly are we celebrating?
Hanukkah teaches us that life is a patchwork of good and bad, and that bad is not actually always bad. Had the Greeks and their Jewish supporters not tried to Hellenize Jerusalem, Judaism would have inevitably declined into oblivion. And more importantly, our enemies’ plans do not need to be completely thwarted for God’s will to be realized, even if that means that a difficult journey lies ahead. What is imperative is for us to have an appreciation for the miracle of sustained light in an imperfect reality. That is truly a cause for celebration.