Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
Shabbos Parshas Vayeshev often coincides with Shabbos Chanukah, and it is always instructive to look for a connection between the holiday and the parsha. The main protagonist of the parsha is Yosef HaTzaddik who endures terrible ordeals brought on by his brothers’ hatred and lack of understanding who he really is. He faces all of this with patience and fortitude emerging from all of his suffering and mistreatment as the powerful viceroy of Pharaoh. Indeed, the animal used to symbolize Yosef’s virtue is the ox, a patient and powerful animal that plods on and is unstoppable.
Chanukah is the celebration of our nation’s emergence from the darkness of Yavan, the Hellenist culture which dazzled the world and indeed is still one of the greatest influences in the culture of modern civilization. We consider it to be darkness, not because it is all bad. Actually, Noach blessed his son Yefes, the progenitor of Greek culture, with beauty. There is no question that the Greek civilization brought the world to a new and highly sophisticated aesthetic which enhances life to this day. The darkness of Yavan lies in its absolute opposition to divine wisdom and subjugation of our intellect to the intellect of Hashem. While the Greeks had many deities, they saw them as gods which needed to be cultivated and allied with, not sources of wisdom and understanding. This created a society that built magnificent buildings, produced moving theatre, engaged in groundbreaking philosophical inquiry all while being hedonistic, cruel and depraved. This paradox is the reason we refer to it as extreme darkness because it is confusing and difficult to navigate.
When the Greeks began their rule in Eretz Yisrael there wasn’t much friction. Alexander was busy with his military conquests and he didn’t focus on the Jews. As the years progressed and the Seleucid Greeks came to dominate our land, things changed. They wanted to establish the supremacy of their beliefs and way of life and impose it upon us. They saw the Torah and its morals as the antithesis of their culture. Our emphasis on subjugating ourselves to Hashem’s will and seeking divine wisdom from his Torah as benighted and threating to their world order. The rest, as we say, is history. Things became very bad as our people went through a terrible period of shmad, religious persecution, often orchestrated by our own brethren who had gone over to the other side as Misyavinim, Jewish Hellenists. This led to widespread despair and the Jewish community of Eretz Yisroel came to the brink of total collapse. It was only the heroism and sacrifice of the Maccabim that turned the tide and restored the national spirit to resist this cultural and religious onslaught and after many years of fighting and casualties, we finally prevailed.
This encounter and struggle with Greek culture has not ended. As a wise and devout people, we seek truth and beauty wherever it is found. We have adopted some of the best aspects of Greek culture in our language, math and sciences and even some aspects of their classic philosophy. However, we totally reject the morals of this culture, its disbelief in a Creator and, most importantly, the belief that human behavior is predetermined by fate.
Yosef HaTzaddik is the only one of the Shevatim who lived in the deeply religious world of his father Yaakov who was thrust into a completely alien culture, also immoral and deterministic. He didn’t just reject it and isolate himself from it; he engaged it on his terms. While he always invoked the name of Hashem and showed tremendous self-restraint when faced with temptation, he managed the affairs of his master’s house, later his prison and eventually the affairs of the whole Egyptian empire. He was able to synthesize and use that which was useful and good from the prevailing culture and reject all that was corrupt and immoral. He also showed enormous faith and trust in Hashem in the darkest of times, with a solid trust that the light will come after the darkness.
Perhaps this is why the story of Yosef’s saga coincides with our national story of encountering an aggressive and confusing culture. Yosef as an individual was the model of how to respond to this threat, not by complete rejection, rather with a selective engagement while maintaining complete clarity about what being a Jew is.