Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
This week we read Parashat Miketz, which describes Joseph's spectacular rise to power in Egypt and his eventual reunion with his family. We also celebrate Chanukah. So what does the story of Joseph have to do with Judah the Maccabee and the rededication of the Holy Temple?
Let's begin with Joseph. The Torah portion opens with Joseph languishing in jail, one Hebrew slave among the hordes of the superpower of the time, Egypt. How remarkable it is that when Pharaoh was not able to get good advice from his many advisors that he brought in poor, bedraggled Joseph to interpret his dreams.
Even more astonishing is that Joseph not only succeeded where the great ministers failed, but that he had the chutzpah to suggest an unsolicited plan of action to Pharaoh. As if that weren't enough, Pharaoh listened to this Hebrew slave and right then and there – without any background checks – appointed Joseph the de facto ruler of Egypt.
Now, let's fast forward to Chanukah and the plight of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Assyria. The Assyrians, the superpower of their day, had ruthlessly conquered Israel and attempted to Hellenize its people. Antiochus outlawed the practice of Judaism on pain of death, and desecrated the Holy Temple.
The military strength of Israel was fully broken, and the Assyrians were in complete control. How amazing, then, was the decision of the Hasmoneans to do more than hide out in the hills. They were no match for the military power of Assyria, yet they had the chutzpah not only to fight back, but to try to retake the Temple and rededicate it to the worship of God. Even more amazing is the fact that, against all odds, they succeeded.
Compared to our own life experiences, the events of these two stories border on the ridiculous. Nevertheless, they are sublime. As children, we are taught about the great miracle of Chanukah, how the oil burned for eight days instead of one. But I don't think that the oil was the greatest miracle of Chanukah.
Let me explain. From a purely rational point of view, attempting a military operation to retake the Temple was, at best, reckless.
To put it in more concrete terms, how likely do you think it is that Jamaica could take on the United States in battle? The Hasmoneans were overmatched in every way. There was just no way they could possibly have hoped to succeed on their own.
So where is the great miracle of Chanukah? It is simple really: The whole point of the story is that Judah the Maccabee and his courageous band could not defeat the Assyrians, but God could.
In other words, the greatest miracle of Chanukah is that we actually won back the Temple, through God's unspoken but direct intervention. That is why every Chanukah we listen to the voice of the prophet Zechariah: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts."
And if you find it a little incredible that Pharaoh would bring a foreign slave into his inner counsel and then spontaneously make him a major power in Egypt, well, so do I. However, God could make it happen. Joseph's sudden change in fortune is also nothing less than miraculous.
There is one more crucial piece to this puzzle, though. These miracles are not like the grandiose miracles where God acts to interrupt the laws of nature. These miracles require risky action on the part of people in order to reach fruition. Both Joseph and the Maccabees had unshakable faith in God, yet Joseph dared to speak up before Pharaoh and the Maccabees dared to take on the Assyrians.
Herein is the great message of this season, which I hope we all take to heart. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: "Pray as if everything depended upon God; act as if everything depended on you."
With such an approach, who knows what could happen?
Rabbi Gary Pokras is the religious leader of Temple Judea of Bucks County in Doylestown