Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” (Genesis 41:15)

Each year around September, I have the same bad dream. I arrive in synagogue to conduct Rosh Hashana services before a full house. And I have forgotten to write a sermon. I stand before the congregation not knowing what to say. Then, thank God, I wake up. In real life I have never forgotten to write a sermon. But dreams are strange and often scary.
Jewish tradition puts great importance on dreams. Who can forget the wonderful scene in the musical Fiddler on the Room where Tevye claims to have a dream. He uses the dream to convince his wife Goldie to allow their daughter Tzeitel to marry the tailor Motel. Goldie, deeply superstitious, is convinced by the dream. But you do not need to be superstitious to understand that dreams have power.
The Talmud (Berakhot 55b) teaches, “Rav Huna bar Ami said in the name of Rabbi Pedat in the name of Rabbi Johanan, One who has a dream for which his soul is distraught should have it interpreted in front of three. Interpreted? Didn’t Rav Hisda say, A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read. Rather, he should find a way to make the dream better before three.” The Talmud was concerned about the power that dreams have over our psyche.
It was Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, who was the most prominent modern thinker about dreams. Born Jewish, Freud rejected religion as an illusion and a mass neurosis. Nonetheless, I find many of Freud’s ideas were deeply influenced by his Judaism. Freud taught that in addition to our conscious self, humans have a very active unconscious. It is like the part of the iceberg below the sea; we are unaware of our unconscious, but it has a great effect on our consciousness.
An important part of our unconscious is our dreams. Dreams often begin in our unconscious minds as wish fulfillment, but these wishes are distorted by disturbing forces deep within our psyche. One of Freud’s most important books was On the Interpretation of Dreams. He believed that through talking out one’s dreams with a psychotherapist, one can have healing of the inner psyche. Freud used the interpretation of dreams to try to cure his patients of various neuroses and anxieties.
Of course, the classical example of an interpreter of dreams is Joseph. In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph leaves prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh had dreamt of seven fat healthy cows that were swallowed by seven sickly cows. Then he dreamt of seven healthy stalks of wheat swallowed up by seven sickly stalks. Joseph understands the dream immediately. There will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of storing food during the years of plenty to feed Egypt during the years of famine. By interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt.
The question is, do dreams have hidden meanings? Were Joseph, the Rabbis of the Talmud, and Sigmund Freud correct, that dreams contain important messages for one’s psyche? Does God communicate with us through dreams? Or are dreams simply the random firing of the synapses in our brains, with no further meaning? Personally, since dreams arise in our unconscious and this unconscious is the hidden part of our minds, dreams must be important. They may be the way our minds try to solve problems while we are asleep.
One of the great mysteries of the universe is how the mind works. I am publishing a book shortly on the role of consciousness in the universe. But part of the mind is also unconscious, below the surface, hidden from our awareness. Perhaps when we are sleeping, that part of our mind is hard at work for us. Perhaps God even communicates to us through our unconscious when we are sleeping. Maybe God is telling me, “Rabbi, Rosh Hashana is coming. Get those sermons written!”

“They replied, We your servants were twelve brothers, sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.” (Genesis 42:13)
During his years in Egypt, why did Joseph make no attempt to contact his father? One can understand when he was first sold into slavery or ended up in prison. But in this portion he becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt. In those days there was no email and no telephones, but certainly there was snail mail (or more accurately, camel mail.) He knew from his brothers that his father was still alive. Could he not have sent a message that he was alive?
Perhaps he partly blamed his father for what happened to him. But it is unlikely that the man who said he was the favorite, who bought him a coat of many colors, would be involved in selling him into slavery. He could not know that his father thought he was torn apart by wild beast. Imagine the comfort to his father to learn that his beloved Joseph was still alive. Of course, the story of Joseph’s brothers in Egypt could not have taken place if the brothers knew Joseph was alive. Nonetheless, it has always been troubling to me. Why did Joseph not contact his father?
Although me to share a painful memory. When I was away from home in college, I learned that my mom had surgery. A few days later my dad called. “You know your mom had surgery. Why did you not call?” There were no cell phones at that time, but I did have a landline. I could have called and should have called. The only excuse is that when I was a young college student, I was too self-absorbed. I hope my parents, long gone by now, forgave me for this transgression. When we are young, too often we are more concerned with our selves than with others.
There is a profound teaching that grows out of our tradition. Each of us is born with two inclinations, the yetzer hatov or good inclination and the yetzer hara or bad inclination. But the bad inclination is present full force when we are young. The good inclination is only there in potential. Our job as we grow up is to control that bad inclination and to develop that good inclination. And for many young people, even if they are old enough to leave home, the bad inclination remains more powerful than the good inclination.
Psychologists say that part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is the last to develop. This is responsible for prioritizing behavior and controlling impulses. It often is not fully developed until the mid-twenties. It is small wonder that teens often participate in risky, self-destructive, or selfish behavior. According to the Torah, Joseph was only seventeen when his brothers sold him down to Egypt. One can understand why his behavior often appears immature.
When we are young, we serve the needs of ourselves. Only as we grow up and mature do we learn to put our own needs aside and serve the needs of others. Perhaps this was best expressed by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Growing up is the realization that we must move beyond ourselves to serve others.
We are in the middle of Hanukkah. I heard a rabbi ask a question (forgive me, but I do not remember which rabbi.) He asked which Hanukkah candle is the most important. Is it the candle of the first night, which begins the festival? Is it the candle of the eighth night, which completes the festival? The rabbi answered that neither of those is the most important. The most important candle is the shamash, the one we use to light all the others. It is a candle we use for service. Without it, we could night light the Hanukkah lights at all.
As humans, we are born focused on serving ourselves, our needs and our desires. Even in young adulthood, we remained focused on ourselves. Maturity is when we stop seeing only ourselves and begin seeing others. Only in next week’s portion will Joseph leave the comfort of the palace to greet his father in person. He had finally grown up.

“He [Pharaoh] had him [Joseph] ride in the chariot of his second in command, and they cried before him Abreck [an unknown word probably meaning chief steward].” (Genesis 41:43)
Many years ago a young man asked me to write him a letter to avoid registering for draft because Judaism teaches pacifism. I turned him down, saying that in good conscience I could not write such a letter. Judaism does not teach pacifism. On the contrary, Judaism does permit and sometimes even require war under certain circumstances. But Judaism never celebrates war or military victories. The festival of Hanukkah makes that point in a powerful way.
When other nations want to demonstrate their power, they use military weapons. When Pharaoh wants to publicly proclaim Joseph’s new role as second in command over Egypt, he dresses him in special clothes and puts him in a chariot. Today he would ride in a tank or even fly over in a fighter jet. The chariot is the symbol of Egyptian military might. That is why the Torah emphasizes how Pharaoh’s chariot was sunk in the sea. God is more powerful than chariots.
Hanukkah began as a celebration of a military victory. It was a civil war, Jew against Jew. Judah Maccabee and his brothers fought against assimilationist Jews and their Syrian-Greek supporters. In the end, the few defeated the many. The Syrian-Greeks and their Jewish allies were driven out of the Temple, which was cleaned and rededicated to the service of God. (The word Hanukkah means dedication.) Judah and his brothers declared an eight-day celebration of their military victory. Many scholars believe the eight days was a postponed celebration of the eight-day festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles).
What is important is the way the Rabbis of the Talmud, over two centuries later, retold the story. They told (perhaps invented) a tale of one day’s worth of oil which burnt for eight days. It became a story of God’s miracle rather than a military victory. We light the Hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) in as public a place as possible to pirsumei neesa (“proclaim the miracle.”) To drive that point home, we chant on Shabbat Hanukkah a verse from Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit says the Lord” (Zechariah 4:6). A festival celebrating a military victory became a festival celebrating God’s miracles.
Judaism allows war and sometimes even obligates war. The Rabbis speak about obligatory wars and optional wars. The ideas are not as developed as in the Catholic tradition, which based on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, has developed a theory of just war. I teach this in my ethics class. In Judaism, obligatory wars are for self-defense or to fight evil (in Biblical times Amalek, in modern times Hitler.) The Rabbis mentioned an optional war like the wars of King David to expand territory. These were only permitted in limited circumstances with the approval of the Great Sanhedrin of 71 rabbis. Judaism may permit war, but it never celebrates war.
What about modern Israel which has fought countless wars for its own survival? Yes, Israel does have military parades and flyover of fighter jets. I suppose this is to strengthen the resolve of Israeli citizens who often feel under siege. Perhaps the Israeli attitude towards war is best reflected in the words of the late Prime Minister Golda Meir, “I can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. But I cannot forgive the Arabs for turning our children into killers.”
Let us celebrate Hanukkah. But let us not forget the true message of Hanukkah, not a military victory but God’s miracle.

“The ugly gaunt cows ate up the handsome sturdy cows, and Pharaoh awoke.” (Genesis 41:4)
As the Jewish Sabbath begins Friday night, the festival of Hanukkah comes to an end. For eight nights we have lit the Hanukkah lights, in order to persuma nisa, “publicly proclaim the miracle.” What was that miracle we are proclaiming? A late Rabbinic legend teaches that it was about oil for one day that went on to burn for eight days. But that is not the miracle mentioned in our liturgy, the prayer Jews say each day of Hanukkah.
The daily Hanukkah prayer which begins with the words al hanisim “for the miracles” says, “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the corrupt into the hands of the pure of heart, the guilty into the hands of the innocent.” The miracle was the unexpected victory of the weak over the strong. Perhaps the best image comes from this week’s Torah reading. Pharaoh dreams of seven small sickly cows swallowing seven larger healthy cows. The dream is repeated with seven blighted sheaves of wheat swallowing seven healthy sheaves of wheat. Of course, Joseph is brought out of prison to interpret Pharaoh’s strange dream.
So, what is a miracle? The Hebrew word for miracle is nes, a word that means “banner.” We spin a dreidel with four letters that say nes gadol haya sham “a great miracle happened there.” (In Israel dreidels say nes gadol haya po, “a great miracle happened here.”) A miracle is not a change in the laws of nature. Rather, it is a natural but unexpected event. Something happens that can be explained, but behind it we see the banner of God. A miracle is a totally natural event that points towards divine intervention. And our liturgy teaches that miracles happen every day, “evening, morning, and afternoon.” The victory of the Maccabees over the more powerful Syrian-Greeks is the reason for the festival. The survival of the Jews throughout history in the face of those who would destroy them is the true miracle.
We have this mistaken idea that a miracle only happens when God reaches down and changes the workings of nature – parting the sea, making a donkey talk, or having the sun stand still in the sky. But a long Rabbinic tradition teaches that miracles are not supernatural but natural events. Perhaps this was best described by the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677). He was ex-communicated by the Amsterdam Jewish community, but I believe it is time for Jews to reclaim him. He taught that people look for God’s presence only outside of nature, when God changes nature. But the proper place to see God’s presence is in nature itself. Spinoza was a pantheist who identified nature with God. Einstein, when asked if he believed in God, responded that he believed in “Spinoza’s God.”
A miracle is a natural event. But it is also a nes, “banner,” an event that points towards the presence of God. When the small overcome the strong, that is a miracle. And that miracle is taking place right now. It is our number one news story. The weak is humanity, all of us. The strong is the greatest threat to human life in history – microorganisms. From bubonic plague to smallpox, from polio to measles, from Ebola to COVID-19, organisms we cannot see have threatened human life. Too often throughout history we have been weak, helpless in the face of plagues and pandemics. But as we speak, less than a year after COVID-19 first appeared in China, we humans have found a vaccine to fight back.
Usually, vaccines take years or even decades to develop. But human ingenuity succeeded far more quickly than expected. And if you are a believer, you see in this vaccine the hand of God and divine providence. Of course, human beings developed the vaccine. But the Maccabees were also human beings. They were doing God’s work to overcome those who would destroy our people.
I do not know when I will be privileged to receive the vaccine. But when I do, perhaps I should say the blessing we recite on Hanukkah, thanking God “Who did miracles in those days and in our own day.”


“And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in cloaks of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.”  (Genesis 41:42)

My four-year-old grandson had a minor crisis this week.  He wanted to know why Santa does not come to his home to bring presents like his non-Jewish friends.  “Was I a bad boy?”    Never mind that he had received plenty of Hanukkah presents including a box full we had sent.  Why not Santa?  How do you explain to a four-year-old that Santa is part of how our Christian neighbors celebrate their holiday?  It is a beautiful holiday, but it is not ours.

Of course, we Jews in America have reacted by making Hanukkah into a much bigger holiday than it is.  In Jewish tradition Hanukkah is relatively minor.  But we have made it into a kind of Jewish Christmas, but one that lasts for eight days.  Or as Adam Sandler put it in his wonderful Hanukkah song, “Hanukkah is the festival of lights, instead of one day of presents we have eight crazy nights.”  The strange irony is that Hanukkah began as a civil war by those who wanted to maintain tradition against those who wanted to assimilate into the Greek ways.  Judah Maccabi and the traditionalists defeated the assimilators.  Today we find Jews with Hanukkah bushes speaking of Hanukkah Harry coming down the chimney with gifts.  For some, the holiday that opposed assimilation has become the holiday of assimilation.

In every culture, there has been pressure for the minority to assimilate into the ways of the majority.  Even in ancient Egypt Joseph took on the ways of the Egyptian.  He dressed in Egyptian clothes, took an Egyptian wife, and spoke the Egyptian language.  (If I want to be tongue-in-cheek, I would say he “walked like an Egyptian.”)  He had become so Egyptian in his mannerisms that his own brothers did not recognize him.    Pressure to assimilate is not simply for Jews living in the Christian culture of America.  Imagine being a Christian in a Moslem country like Egypt.  Or imagine being a Moslem in a Hindu country like India.  Or most eye-opening, imagine being a Christian or Moslem in a Jewish country like Israel.

Fortunately, many Jews in America strive to maintain their own identity within the majority Christian culture.  That is why they proudly light Hanukkah candles and display them in the window.  The tradition is to “publicize the miracle,” based on the ancient Talmudic story of the oil sufficient for one day that lasted eight days.  Chabad has made it their mission to publicly light huge Hanukkah menorahs in public places including government buildings.  When I lived in Pittsburgh, the right of Chabad to light a menorah on government property in downtown Pittsburgh went to the United States Supreme Court.  Chabad won the case.

So. we can ask the question on this Hanukkah, is assimilation good or bad?  There was a time when America used the metaphor of a melting pot.  People from multiple religions and ethnicities would discard their unique traditions and become one.  If the American way is to have a Christmas tree, hang colored lights, and celebrate Santa Claus, then that is what was expected of Jews.  Today our metaphor has changed.  We speak of a smorgasbord of multiple traditions, with people keeping their own ways while respected the ways of others.  Hanukkah celebrates Jews maintaining their own ways, lighting Hanukkah lights in a world filled with Christmas cheer.  I am a rabbi who loves Christmas – the lights, the music, and the good cheer.  But I am aware it is my neighbor’s holiday, not mine.

I hope my grandson will grow up to proudly keep our ways while respecting the ways of our neighbors.  Perhaps a famous newspaper editorial could say, “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”  But I know that Santa belongs to a different tradition.  I want to proudly embrace our own tradition.  Let us build a nation where everyone embraces their own traditions while respecting a multitude of other traditions.  It would certainly make America a better place.

“Therefore Pharaoh sent for Joseph and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:14)
Last Friday I saw the miracle of Hanukkah first hand. I am not talking about a cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. I have always believed that miracle of the oil, although I tell it to our children, is not the true Hanukkah story. The true Hanukkah story is the miracle of how we continue to survive as a faith in spite of those who would try to destroy us. That is what I witnessed as my wife, her cousins, and I walked off a cruise ship to spend a day in Havana, Cuba.
My wife’s mother and aunt grew up in Cuba and her grandfather is buried there. We hired a guide to take us on a Jewish tour. This included the usual tourist visits such as walking through Old Havana and buying cigars and rum. But it also included a visit to the Hotel Raquel, originally built by Jews and filled with Jewish art, with a huge mezuzah on the front door. We also saw the flat where my wife’s mother and aunt grew up, and we drove to the old Jewish cemetery to visit the grave of my wife’s grandfather.
The highlight was visiting two of the three synagogues still in service in Havana. (There are two more in other parts of Cuba.) We brought Hanukkah toys for children. In the Orthodox synagogue we spoke to the mother of the only practicing shohet (kosher meat slaughterer) on the island. But the most fascinating visit was with the president of the Conservative synagogue. (We never made it to the Sephardic synagogue which has a Holocaust Museum.)
We met with Adela Dworin, president of Beth Shalom, also known as El Patronato. Her English was perfect as she shared wonderful stories about her synagogue. My favorite was how she approached Fidel Castro and asked why he had never visited their synagogue. He answered that he had never been invited. So she invited him to come on Hanukkah. He asked,
“What is Hanukkah?” Knowing that he was a revolutionary, she answered, “It was a Jewish revolution.” “Then I’ll come.” He came and spoke (for a long time as he usually did.) There is a picture of him on the wall.
We stayed for services and a Shabbat dinner. The entire service was led by teenagers, almost the same as ours except accompanied by a piano. There were over 200 worshippers there. The numbers were slightly larger than usual because three rabbis had come in to do several conversions. A large group of weddings were scheduled for Saturday night. Personally, I was tempted to abandon the cruise ship and simply stay on the island. The synagogue was alive and filled with enthusiasm.
Adela shared with us that there were periods of time in the past, under strict Communist rule, that they struggled. Religion was discouraged by the government and she said that it was often difficult to get a minyan. On the other hand, the government allowed Jews to use their ration cards to buy kosher meat since they would not use it to buy pork like other Cubans. Today it is still not easy to be a practicing Jew in Cuba. But Jewish life is coming back.
That is the true miracle of Hanukkah. When the day is at its darkest, we light candles, increasing the number each day. We move from darkness to light. In the portion, we watch Joseph go from the darkness of the dungeon to the light of Pharaoh’s palace. In Cuba, our family watched a community moving towards the light. Listening to those teenagers sing those prayers with joy and enthusiasm, we knew that Judaism will continue to grow and thrive. As the Prophet Isaiah taught long ago, our faith will become a light to the nations.

“Pharaoh removed his signet ring from his hand, and Pharaoh put in on Joseph’s hand. He had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck.” (Genesis 41:42)
It is conventional wisdom that beautiful people have a better chance at success in life than ordinary looking people, and they certainly do better than homely people. Perhaps this partly explains Joseph’s great success. In last week’s portion we read that “Joseph was well built and handsome” (Genesis 39:6), he had movie star looks. In this week’s portion Pharaoh dresses him in fine clothes, gives him expensive jewelry, lets him ride on a beautiful chariot, and makes him the second most powerful man in Egypt. Of course he could interpret dreams, but did his George Clooney looks contribute to his success? It seems likely.
The Bible mentions other extremely good-looking people. Rachel and Esther were both described as being particularly beautiful. The Bible describes King David as red haired with beautiful eyes and a handsome countenance. The good-looking people achieve success. The Talmud sometimes goes even further. Rabbi Johanan used to sit by entrance of the mikvah (ritual bath) in the evening. He explained that when the women came out from their immersions and returned to their husbands, they would have children as beautiful as him. On the other hand, Rabbi Joshua was known to be particularly homely. The daughter of the emperor said, your Torah is stored in such an ugly vessel. Rabbi Joshua responded how wine in an ugly clay jug does not spoil as quickly as wine in beautiful gold and silver vessels.
How important is beauty and ugliness in Jewish tradition? The book of Proverbs when describing a woman of valor, says “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain” (Proverbs 31:30). For a fuller answer, let us turn to Hanukkah. Hanukkah really began as a civil war between Jews who supported Hellenistic values and Jews who opposed such values. One of the most important Greek values was the worship of beauty. The Greeks and their Jewish supporters wanted to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem where Olympic style athletic contests could take place. Athletes (all male) would compete in the nude, showing the beauty of their bodies. Jewish men, whose bodies had been disfigured by circumcision, could not compete.
Perhaps the best way to describe the disagreement between Hellenistic and Jewish values is with the saying, “To the Greeks beauty is good, to the Jews goodness is beautiful.” It is more important to be a good person than a beautiful person. I rarely read the popular magazines dealing with celebrities and their lives. But I remember once reading an article in one such magazine about the beautiful people. It listed which movie stars have the best reputation for being kind people, people who practiced goodness in their day-to-day lives. Who really treated the ordinary workers on the movie sets, the people who did hair and make-up or brought them coffee, with the most compassion? Who was not simply beautiful but good?
We live in a world which emphasizes beauty. We all want to look like the movie stars, the athletes, the models, the people on magazine covers. And we spend a fortune on plastic surgery, diets, gym memberships, and other products to make us look young and beautiful. Often this quest for beauty is the cause of great depression, particularly among teens. Sadly, it sometimes leads to suicide. The truth is that even the people on magazine covers do not look like that in real life. Pictures are touched up.
Judaism as opposed to Hellenism teaches that goodness, not beauty, is the goal. In fact, if we are to seek beauty at all, it is the beauty of the mitzvot. The Bible says “Behold you are beautiful my love” (Song of Songs 4:1). The Midrash based on this verse teaches, “You are beautiful in mitzvot, you are beautiful in deeds of loving kindness” (Song of Songs Rabbah 4:1). Perhaps part of the message of Hanukkah is that we should try to beautiful not with our looks but by our deeds.

“For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.” (Genesis 42:8)
I just returned from a trip to Maryland, where I was privileged to spend the first days of Hanukkah with my daughter, son-in-law, and one-year-old grandson. Of course, it was also Christmas. We lit Hanukkah candles, ate latkes, spun the dreidel, and then on Christmas Day, did what any good Jewish family does. We went out for Chinese food. Unfortunately, the nearest kosher Chinese restaurant was in Baltimore, an hour away. The one in Rockville closed. But we did the drive anyway.
When I visit my family, I always stay at the same hotel. They know me, the rates are reasonable, a tasty breakfast is included, and the hotel has a workout room and free internet, important to me. The only problem I had on this trip was that the hotel was beautifully decorated for Christmas. But nobody bothered to put up a Hanukkah menorah. It seems petty, but I enjoy that little recognition of my holiday in the midst of Christmas trees and reindeer. They promised me that next year they will have one.
Being a Jew on Christmas has always been a challenge. The easiest solution is to go to Israel for the holiday, where being a Christian in the midst of Hanukkah is also difficult. I have been to Israel during this season. But this year I celebrated Hanukkah in the midst of Christian America. I am aware that there is a major difference between the holidays. Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. Christmas is major, almost overwhelming. So each year I ask the question, how should a Jew living in America react to Christmas?
I see Jews who prefer the “bah humbug” approach of Scrooge, or perhaps the Grinch. Someone wishes them Merry Christmas and they say, “It’s not my holiday!” They wish the whole celebration would simply go away. Some Jews prefer to live in extremely closed communities, cut off from the rest of the world. They ignore the holiday, keeping Hanukkah and celebrating among their own. That is not the world I choose to like in.
I see Jews who prefer the “if you can’t lick ‘um, join ‘um” approach. The will put up the Christmas tree, hang the stockings, decorate their homes with lights, and claim, it is simply a secular celebration. Unfortunately, for a Jew to tell a religious Christian that Christmas is simply a secular celebration can be quite insulting. It is like a Christian telling a Jew that Passover is simply a secular celebration. For Christians, the holiday has deep religious meaning. It celebrates the birth of the man, a Jew, who Christians consider God incarnate. For Jews, God cannot become incarnate.
As for me, I prefer the middle ground of enjoying my neighbor’s holiday while realizing that it is not mine. I wished the staff and workers at the hotel a Merry Christmas. I enjoy the lights, the music, and the good cheer of the season. But I know that it is not mine. I do celebrate Hanukkah fully, realizing that the entire meaning of Hanukkah is how Jews stood up to assimilation pressure in the Hellenistic age. Many Jews gave in and totally embraced Greek culture. But Hanukkah is about the Jews who refused to give in.
The pressure to assimilate into the majority culture is not something new. In this week’s portion Joseph becomes part of the majority Egyptian culture. He dresses like an Egyptian, eats like an Egyptian, and marries an Egyptian. (I do not know if he walks like an Egyptian, as the Bangles put it.) Joseph’s brothers did not even recognize him when they came down to Egypt. In the end, Joseph acts like a Hebrew, rescuing his brothers, allowing them to move to Egypt, and in next week’s portion, helping them maintain their Hebrew identity.
Hanukkah is a holiday about assimilation. In the time of the Maccabees the question was, would the Jewish people assimilate into the majority Greek culture. Today the question is, will Jews appreciate the majority Christian culture while still maintaining their own identity. Let us proudly light the Hanukkah lights amid the Christmas decorations, proclaiming that we are proud to be Jews.

“Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon; and he shaved himself, and changed his garment, and came in to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:14)
There is a popular Israeli Hanukkah song for children. The words begin in Hebrew Banu Hosech Legaresh “We have come to chase away the darkness – in our hands are small lights. … Flee darkness, go forth blackness. Flee before the light.” I believe the words of this simple Hanukkah song say it all. The song tells what Hanukkah is really all about.
The Talmud asks the question “What is Hanukkah?” It goes on to tell the story of the miracle of the oil which lasted eight days when there was only enough for one day. One senses in this Rabbinic legend an attempt to rephrase an old celebration of a military victory by Judah Maccabee. We should celebrate not the military success against the evil Syrian-Greeks but the God’s miracle of the oil. The Rabbis ordained that every Hanukkah we read the verses from the prophet Zachariah, “Not by might and not by power but by my spirit says the Lord.” (Zechariah 4:6) The Rabbis never cared much for the Maccabees or their military victory. Perhaps that is the reason why the book of Maccabees never made it into the holy canon. And perhaps that is the reason why the true history of Hanukkah is so confusing.
So what is the real story of Hanukkah, the story behind the story? I believe that it is no coincidence that Hanukkah falls around the time of the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the calendar year. (The solstice actually falls on December 21; Hanukkah is a bit early this year. I believe it is no coincidence that Christmas, the Christian festival of lights, falls around the same time.) I believe that the true story of Hanukkah is how light can push away darkness. I believe it is a story of how hope can push away despair. I believe it is a story of how, when life appears dark, when blackness seems to overwhelm us, we should not give up. Even a little candle, if that lights another candle, if that lights a series of candles, can push away the blackness.
This idea is central to the portion we read in the Torah. At the beginning of the portion Joseph is languishing in prison for a crime he did not commit. He has been forgotten. Then Joseph is pulled from prison, interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, and is given responsibility for gathering food in Egypt during the days of plenty to feed the people during the days of famine. At the end of the portion Joseph is the second most powerful person in Egypt. Andrew Lloyd Webber, in his Broadway retelling of the Joseph story, has Joseph singing from prison “Close every door to me, hide all world from me. Bar all the windows and shut out the light.” But even from prison Joseph sings of hope.
Hanukkah is about using little candles, little flames of light, to push away the darkness. It is about moving from despair to hope. That is why Hanukkah is so important at this time. We live in dark times. As the poet Yeats wrote, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Radical Jihadists have decided that it is okay to kill countless innocent people in their fight to establish their Islamic regime. Whether in San Bernardino CA, Paris, France, or in the heart of Jerusalem, innocents are being killed. The Angel of Death has been loosened on the world. The darkness seems to be spreading.
The theme of Hanukkah is that we cannot allow the darkness to overwhelm us. We must light candles, candles of hope, and place those candles in our windows for everyone to see. In following the wisdom of the great sage Hillel, we must increase the number of candles each night, adding to the amount of light. We must use one candle to light another candle, spreading the light from person to person. We must react to the evil in the world not with more evil but with goodness, we must encounter the hatred with love. Deep in our hearts we must believe that the darkness will not last forever.
To repeat a quote attributed to John F. Kennedy, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”



“Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:14)

Last week I wrote about the ups and downs of Joseph’s life. By the beginning of this week’s portion Joseph is forgotten, left for dead in a dungeon. At this point he has nowhere to go but up. And up he is going to go. He is brought before Pharaoh, has his hair cut and his clothes changed, and begins interpreting dreams. By the end of the portion Joseph is the second most powerful man in Egypt. Here is the perfect example of going up rather than down, at least physically. But what about going up rather than down spiritually?
This brings me to one of the great themes of Hanukkah. I have often commented that we Jews love to argue. One of the oldest arguments goes back to the Talmud. (Shabbat 21b) The School of Shammai and the School of Hillel disagree about the lighting of Hanukkah candles. The basic Talmudic law is that Hanukkah is simply one light per household. Those who want to beautify Hanukkah should light one light per person. But the beautifiers of the beautifiers should change the number of lights each night. The School of Shammai teaches that they should start with eight lights the first night, then diminish the number until they light one on the last night. The School of Hillel teaches that they should start with one light the first night, then increase the number until they light eight on the last night. Obviously, today we follow the opinion of Hillel, adding a candle each night to our Hanukkah Menorah (Hanukiya).
Why does the School of Shammai say to lower the number of lights each night? For an answer we have to turn to the fall harvest festival of Sukkot. Counting down the candles corresponds to the bullock offerings from the festival of Sukkot. Each of the seven days of Sukkot the number of offerings is diminished. The first day of Sukkot there are 13, the second day 12, then 11, 10, 9, 8, and on the seventh day 7. The total number is 70, representing the 70 nations of the world. On the eighth day of the festival, Shmini Atzeret, there is only one offering. This represents Israel.
What do candles on Hanukkah have to do with sacrifices on Sukkot? According to most original sources about Hanukkah, the original celebration was an eight day delay of the celebration of Sukkot. The Maccabees, fighting a guerilla war against the Syrian Greeks, had to delay their festival celebration. Only after defeating their enemies and rededicating the Temple could they have their delayed eight day Sukkot celebration. Notice that there is nothing here about oil lasting eight days. That is a much later story.
What about the School of Hillel’s approach? We increase the number of candles each night based on the idea that one should always go up in holiness, not go down in holiness. Life is about climbing a spiritual ladder. The goal is to grow spiritually. If the candles signify light, one always tries to increase the amount of light in the world. Religion at its best is about a journey to a higher place. Many years ago I wrote a book, published by the Jewish Publication Society, called Does God Belong in the Bedroom? It was a book about sexual ethics. Today it is somewhat dated, but the main point of the book is still true. I developed a ladder of sexual behavior with the most destructive sexual activity at the bottom of the ladder and the holiest sexual activity at the time. I then encouraged people to climb up the ladder.
Perhaps this is best demonstrated by a story I first heard from Rabbi Robert Gordis of blessed memory. A Hassidic Rebbe was lecturing his students. “Two men are on a ladder, one on the second rung, one on the eleventh rung. Which one is higher?” The students all answered, “Of course, the one on the eleventh rung.” “Wrong,” said the Rebbe. “Which one is higher? It depends whether they are going up or going down the ladder.”
So we have the argument between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel. For Shammai Hanukkah is simply Sukkot delayed. He gives the more historical reason for celebrating Hanukkah. For Hillel Hanukkah has a spiritual meaning. It is about going up in holiness. It is a reminder to all of us that throughout the year, we need to climb this spiritual ladder.

“The chief wine steward spoke to Pharaoh and said I recall my sin today.” (Genesis 41:9)
Let us begin with the portion of the week. Pharaoh is having scary dreams and searching for anyone who can interpret those dreams. The chief wine steward suddenly remembers his sin. He had forgotten about a young Hebrew man in prison with the gift of dream interpretation. Pharaoh brings Joseph before him to interpret his dreams. From a forgotten man in jail, Joseph will become the second most powerful man in Egypt.
It is noticeable that the sin of the wine steward was forgetting. In the Torah remembering is often a commandment. We are to remember the Sabbath; we are to remember Amalek. Four times a year we say prayers called yizkor meaning “remember.” When we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day we wear pins that say Zachor “Remember.” If remembering is a commandment, then forgetting is a transgression. And that brings me to our dual celebration of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.
Bucketfuls of ink have been spilled on the rare coincidence of the two holidays falling on the same day. Although rare, it is not surprising. Both holidays have their roots in the Biblical festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. Sukkot is the fall harvest festival. The Pilgrims, a deeply religious group of people, certainly were aware of this Biblical holiday as they held their first Thanksgiving celebration. They modeled it on Sukkot. And according to the book of Maccabees, Hanukkah really began as a late celebration of the eight day festival of Sukkot. The Maccabees, busy fighting the Syrian Greeks for religious freedom, delayed the festival celebration for two months. (The story of the oil that lasted eight days came much later.)
So the two holidays have similar roots. Unfortunately, they are also sharing a similar fate. They are both being swallowed up in the great materialist spendfest called “The Holiday Season.” Thanksgiving used to be known for the three “F’s” – food, family, and football. Stores were closed as families gathered around the holiday table. The day after Thanksgiving may be the best day of the year to shop, although you will not catch me at a mall on black Friday. But Thursday had another purpose.
Today we are forgetting that purpose. Stores and malls are opening earlier and earlier to lure shoppers on Thanksgiving. And if a store opens at 8 pm Thanksgiving evening, then retail workers must be there at 6 pm. So much for the whole family gathering for dinner! I am glad to see the beginning of a movement to refuse to shop on Thanksgiving. Maybe we can convince stores to delay opening until the holiday is over. We can remember that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, not about shopping.
Regarding Hanukkah, something happened to this simple Jewish festival that falls near the winter solstice. It became mixed up with a major Christian holiday that also falls near the winter solstice. Hanukkah became the Jewish Christmas. I have heard it since I was a child – Christians celebrate for only one day but we Jews get to celebrate for eight days. I believe part of the reason Jews are upset this year is that Hanukkah falls too many weeks before Christmas. By the time our Christian neighbors are opening their presents, our celebration will be long over.
Unfortunately, by swallowing Hanukkah into the shopping season, the purpose of Hanukkah has been forgotten. Hanukkah is about light, and spreading the light by shining a menorah in our windows. Hanukkah is about religious freedom, and the fight by the Maccabees to win back the right to practice their religion. Hanukkah is about miracles, in particular the miracle of Jewish survival. Hanukkah is not about shopping.
According to the Torah it is a sin to forget. Let us remember the meaning of Thanksgiving. And let us remember the meaning of Hanukkah. Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah.

“And Joseph said to Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s dreams are on and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do.” (Genesis 41:25)
On Hanukkah we say “a great miracle happened there” (the letters on a draidel. On an Israeli draidel it says “a great miracle happened here.”) We all know the story. The newest version is that there was a cell phone but no electricity to charge it. There was only enough charge in the battery to last one day. But the battery lasted eight days until the electricity came back on. 
We have all learned the classical view of miracles. God reaches down from heaven and changes the natural course of events. God causes a special dream to Pharaoh predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. God causes a sea to part so the Israelites can pass through. God causes a small cruise of oil to burn for eight days. A miracle is a change in the laws of nature to fulfill God’s purpose. It is almost like a magic trick performed by a magician on high. But is that the only understanding of miracles.
I came across a wonderful passage regarding a miracle in the Talmud (Shabbat 53b). A man was left with a newborn baby after his wife died. He had no money to hire a wet nurse to feed the baby. Obviously there was no baby formula at that time. So the man cried out to God and a great miracle happened. The man’s breast opened up and he was able to nurse the baby. The Talmud continues with an argument between two rabbis. Rav Yosef says how wonderful this man was that a miracle would happen on his behalf. Abaye responds to Rav Yosef, how awful it is that God must change the laws of nature for this man’s sake. I am fascinated by Abaye’s answer; God changing the laws of nature is a negative thing.
Jewish tradition teaches that we should not depend on miracles. There is another passage in the Talmud that teaches a similar theme. (Avodah Zarah 54b) If a man steals a bushel of wheat and plants it in the ground, should not God stop the wheat from growing to punish the man? The Talmud answers that the world needs to function according to its natural laws. If a man cohabited with his neighbor’s wife, should God not allow her to become pregnant to punish the man? But the world needs to function according to its natural laws. We do not look for miracles but for nature to follow its usual course.
However, this raises the big question – what about the really big miracle, the parting of the Red (or better, Reed) Sea. We all picture Cecil B. DeMille’s vision of walls of water standing in defiance of gravity, leaving a path for the Israelites to cross. But the Rabbis were less influenced by this image of magic. The Torah teaches that God causes a wind to blow from the East, parting the sea. (Exodus 14:21) But the Hebrew word for “East,” kadim, has a double meaning. It also means “ancient.” God caused an ancient wind to part the sea, a wind that goes back to the beginning of creation. The parting of the sea was not a change in nature, but part of nature itself.
Perhaps we need a different understanding of miracle, as something within natural law. The great philosopher Benedict (originally Baruch) Spinoza already suggested this. He taught that most people look for miracles, changes in natural law, to demonstrate the existence of God. They are mistaken. The existence of God is seen in the very laws of nature themselves. Nature itself points towards God. In fact, Spinoza said that nature is God. For such ideas he was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam. But later, Albert Einstein, when asked if he believed in God, responded “I believe in Spinoza’s God.”
On Hanukkah we celebrate a great miracle. But perhaps it is time to rethink what we mean by miracle. A miracle is not an all powerful God changing the laws of nature to fulfill some divine purpose. I believe there is an alternative understanding of miracles. I will present these ideas next week.


“Pharaoh said to Joseph, I am Pharaoh, yet without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:44)
This week Jews throughout the world will be spinning dreidels, little tops with letters that spell out the sentence “A great miracle happened there.” (In Israel the dreidels have slightly different letters – “A great miracle happened here.) Each night as we light Hanukkah candles, we will say a blessing thanking God “for doing miracles for our fathers in those days, and in our own day.” And at every service throughout the festival, we will add a paragraph al hanisim “for the miracles.”
What was this great miracle? Any Jewish child will tell the Talmudic story of lighting the menorah in the rededicated Temple. There was only enough kosher oil to last for one day, but due to a miracle God made the oil last for eight days. It is a wonderful story. But is it true? The original sources of Hanukkah do not mention this story. They simply talk of a military victory, and of a late celebration of the eight day Sukkot festival. Originally the Hanukkah story was about totally natural historical events. There was no story of God changing the laws of nature by making oil burn unnaturally.
To drive this point home, let us turn to another post-Torah festival which Jews will celebrate in a few more months – Purim. Once again we will say a blessing to God “for doing miracles for our fathers in those days, and in our own day.” And once again we will add a paragraph al hanisim “for the miracles” to our prayers. Where was the miracle of Purim? The book of Esther which tells the Purim story does not even mention God. It is a book about the heroic action of Mordecai and his cousin Esther, who became the queen. The whole story is simply history. Where was God’s intervention? Where was the miracle?
Perhaps it is time to rethink our definition of miracles. We tend to see a miracle as an extraordinary event which cannot be explained by natural laws. God parts the waters of the Sea of Reeds, God makes the sun stand still, or God makes a little oil last eight days. We see a miracle as an amazing event which neither science nor history can explain. It is as if God interferes with God’s own laws. And that is extremely problematic.
We need to redefine the word “miracle.” The Hebrew for miracle is nes which simply means “banner.” A miracle is not some magical event. It is more like a banner which waves and which we can see. A natural or historical event takes place; we can explain it. But if we look carefully, we can say that this is the hand of God.
This idea of the hand of God behind the scenes is also in our Torah reading. Joseph is rescued from prison and becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt. He is able to rescue his brothers, the same brothers who were ready to sell him into slavery. A series of natural historical events separates and then reunites the brothers. Yet Joseph in next week’s portion will say to his brothers, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45:8) God is at work behind the scenes.
A miracle is a totally natural event. If it is a miracle of nature such as the parting of the sea, the laws of science can explain it. If it is a historical miracle such as Hanukkah or Purim, historians can explain it. It becomes a miracle when a person of faith looks at the event and sees the hand of God. A miracle is an event that points towards a greater reality, a consciousness beyond the physical or material world.
It is possible to go through life without ever seeing a miracle. As the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism taught, “The world is full of wonders and miracles; but we take our hands, and cover our eyes, and see nothing.” What Hanukkah tries to do is teach us to uncover our eyes, look out at the world, and see the hand of God. On Hanukkah may we learn to look out at the world and declare, “A great miracle happened here.”



“Accordingly let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:33)

On Hanukkah I often like to compare Greek culture to Jewish wisdom. Hanukkah began as a rebellion of a minority of Jews against the imposition of Hellenistic culture on the community of Israel. For example, in past years I have written on the Greek worship of beauty compared to the Jewish worship of holiness. As I put it, “to the Greeks beauty was holy; to the Jews holiness was beautiful.” Today we live in a world far closer to the Greeks than to the Jews. People magazine can issue a best seller year in and year out by describing “The Hundred Most Beautiful People.” I wonder, how would a magazine sell that describes “The Hundred Holiest People” or even “The Hundred Nicest People?”
There is one other area of sharp difference between the Hellenistic and the Hebrew vision of humanity. They held very different visions of fate. To the Greeks, the gods decreed it and so it is written. To the Jews, nothing is written that cannot be changed. The Greeks built an entire literature of tragedy, people caught up in events beyond their control. To the Jews, there is always the ability to overcome or learn from tragedy. Humans are not victims of fate.
Perhaps a way to understand this is to think about two great works of literature, one Greek and one Hebrew. The Greek playwright Sophocles wrote the classic tragedy Oedipus Rex; no Hebrew author could have written such a play. On the other hand, no Greek author could have written the Hebrew Bible. They have two opposite ideas of fate.
Oedipus is a tragedy par excellence. King Laisu and Queen Jocasta learn through an oracle that their son is fated to murder his father and marry his mother. They try to prevent the tragedy by giving their son to a servant to be killed. Instead Oedipus is abandoned in a field, to be raised in a distant land. Oedipus meets his father at a crossroads; unaware of his identity, the men quarrel and Oedipus kills Laisu. He then solves the riddle of the Sphinx and receives his reward, marriage to Queen Jocasta. The oracle has come true, and there was nothing that humans could have done about it. Fate has spoken, and in the Greek world people must stoically submit to that fate. (In fact, Stoicism was an important school of Greek philosophy.)
The Hebrew Bible takes a very different approach. Pharaoh dreams of seven skinny cows swallowing seven healthy cows, of seven blighted stalks of wheat swallowing seven healthy stalks of wheat. The Hebrew Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams – seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. This was the fate of Egypt. But Joseph does not end his advice there. He tells Pharaoh to appoint a man over Egypt to oversee the crops, putting aside surplus during the years of plenty to feed the community during the years of famine. Humans can take action; do not have to be victims of fate.
Perhaps this idea comes across most strongly in the exodus story. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt. But because they were born slaves does not mean that slavery is their ultimate fate. “We were slaves and now we are free,” we declare on Passover. This is the central teaching of the Biblical tradition – tragedy is not inevitable. Out of slavery came freedom. And on Hanukkah, out of religious persecution came the rededication of the Temple and the festival of lights.
The influential nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who proclaimed “the death of God,” saw great spiritual value in the ancient Greek tragedies. He longed for a return to the early Hellenistic view of the world. He had little use for Judaism and less use for Christianity. To Nietzsche the ancient pagans had it right. Had Nietzsche lived, he would have been horrified at how his ideas plunged Europe into the horrible wars of the twentieth century.
The ancient argument between the Hellenistic and the Hebrew way of thinking continues to this day. Perhaps that is why we need Hanukkah more than ever.



“Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:14)

Perhaps Annie put it best when she sang to FDR on the Broadway stage, “The sun will come out tomorrow.” After all, the show Annie takes place at the height of the depression. Or maybe the words left on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany by Jews in hiding best expresses the thought. “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining, I believe in love even when I am alone, I believe in God even when He is hiding.” When everything is dark, there is a deep faith that the sun will shine again.
This week’s portion, which is almost always read on Hanukkah, certainly expresses that idea. At the beginning of the portion Joseph is languishing in prison, forgotten by everybody. At the end of the portion Joseph is the second most powerful man in all of Egypt. Again turning to the Broadway stage, Andrew Lloyd Weber has Joseph sing from prison, “Close every door to me.” But in the end there is a ray of hope. “The children of Israel are never alone.” A bright tomorrow is a theme of Broadway musicals, movies, and books as long as humans have created such works of art.
This theme is far older. According to the Talmud it was a concern of the very first human being. “When Adam, on the day of his creation, saw the setting of the sun he said, ‘Alas, it is because I have sinned that the world around me is becoming dark; the universe will now become again void and without form – this then is the death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he sat up all night fasting and weeping and Eve was weeping opposite him. When however dawn broke, he said, `This is the usual course of the world.’” (Avodah Zarah 8a)
The same Talmudic section tells a similar story about the winter solstice. When Adam saw the days getting shorter, he began observing an eight day fast. But then he saw that they began to get longer and switched to eight days of festivities. He then appointed an eight-day festival. Only later when the pagans began to use that eight-day solstice festival for idolatry did it disappear from the life of Israel. The Talmud says, “He fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the heathens appointed them for the sake of idolatry.”
This seems to be one of the earliest sources explaining the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah. The Talmud already mentions that the pagans celebrated a festival of lights around the winter solstice. Today modern pagans, Wiccans, and other nature worshippers celebrate this period with lights. It is hardly a coincidence that the Jewish festival of lights falls during the darkest time of year, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. And from this we see the importance of increasing day by day the number of lights.
Similarly, in the local newspaper today there was an article about Christmas observance among Christians. More and more Christians are not only decorating their trees and homes with colored lights, but are lighting candles in honor of their holiday. Light as an answer to darkness seems to be the theme of the season.
Nobody can deny that we are living through dark times. I am hearing more and more complaints of people unable to find work, unable to pay their bills, and for some, unable to keep their homes. I read about the banks and financial markets, the housing market, the automobile industry, and even retailers who are truly struggling. People ask whether there is a light at the end of the tunnel. To add to the pain, we now hear the story of Bernard Madoff’s investment fraud. His multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme hit Jewish charities particularly hard. As a rabbi I am particularly saddened to see a Jewish name at the head of such illegal activities. We Jews have a name for it – Hillul HaShem, the desecration of God’s name.
We are living in a time when everything seems dark. There is a popular Hanukkah song that starts, banu hosech legaresh – the darkness tries to push away the light. But in the end the light will triumph. Darkness will flee before the light. That is the theme of this season. For those in despair this Hanukkah, I can only repeat Annie’s words, “The sun will come out tomorrow.”




“Therefore Pharaoh sent for Joseph and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:14)

There are so many worthy issues to discuss on Hanukkah – light pushing away the darkness, maintaining identity in the face of assimilation, “not by might and not by power but by spirit.” But perhaps the central idea worthy of discussion is the conflict between Hellenism and Judaism. After all, Hanukkah began as a civil war between those Jews who had embraced the Greek way of life and those who clung onto the ancient Hebrew ways.
There is a long conflict between the Greek way of viewing the world and the Biblical way of viewing the world. Certainly Western civilization is a combination of the Greek and the Hebrew – Plato’s philosophy with Moses’ theology, Aristotle’s ethics with Isaiah’s passion. They are totally intermingled in Western thought. But there are still major differences. It was the fight over these differences that led to the Maccabee revolt, the defeat of the Syrian-Greeks, and the rededication of the Temple.
What is the difference between the Biblical and the Hellenistic ways of viewing the world? To put it simply, it is the relationship between beauty and holiness. To the Greeks, beauty is holy; to the Israelites, holiness is beautiful. The Greeks put great emphasis on the physical perfection of the body. The Olympics were originally run in the nude as athletes strove for a certain physical ideal. There was no tolerance in the ancient Greek culture for the Jewish practice of circumcision. It was considered mutilation of the perfect human body. There was also no toleration of imperfect children; a baby born with any kind of defect was left to die.
To the Israelites, bodily perfection was absolutely secondary. The goal was to strive for moral and spiritual perfection. Every human being was considered holy, created in the image of God. Certainly the rabbis recognized people who were physically beautiful. There is a wonderful exchange in the Talmud between Rabbi Yohanan and the gladiator who would eventually become a Torah scholar and his brother-in-law, Reish Lakish. Reish Lakish looked at Rabbi Yohanan, an unusually good-looking man, and said, “Your beauty should be used for women.” Rabbi Yohannan answered back, “Your strength should be used for Torah study.” Physical beauty and athletic strength was only useful if used for a higher spiritual purpose.
Unfortunately, we live in a world more influenced by the Greeks than the Hebrews. We worship beauty. Our magazines teach young girls how to diet, exercise, dress, use makeup, etc. in a way that will make them look like fashion models and movie stars. Young boys are influenced by star athletes to use steroids and other drugs to enhance their physical performance. It is clear that beautiful people have a better chance of getting the good jobs, going forward professionally, having influence, and of course, meeting the perfect romantic partner. It is small wonder that many of our young girls are starving themselves to try to be as beautiful as the women in magazines.
The emphasis on beauty even comes out in the story of Joseph that we read this week. Joseph was a very successful man who became the second most powerful figure in ancient Egypt. Joseph had a lot going for him, including a great charisma and the ability to interpret dreams. But he had one other gift. Joseph is one of the few people in the Bible described as being “well-built and handsome.” (Genesis 39:6) He was the Brad Pitt of his generation. When he went before Pharaoh after being in prison, he shaved and dressed immaculately. Pharaoh was certainly impressed by the young man’s good looks. In pagan Egypt people worshipped beauty.
The Greek worship of beauty has taken over our society. It is small wonder that the diet, exercise, and cosmetic surgery industries are surging. It is also small wonder that we so fear aging, when our bodies lose their physical perfection. Perhaps Hanukkah is a time to stop seeing the world through Hellenistic eyes and start looking at it through Hebrew eyes. Perhaps we should stop looking at people’s physical beauty and start looking at that inner beauty, that spiritual perfection the Torah.



“And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me; God shall give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Genesis 41:16)

Many years ago, when I served in my first pulpit in Nyack, NY, I was properly chastised by a member of my synagogue. I had spoken about the Joseph story. I tried to describe the essence of this great epic that takes up the last third of Genesis. “It is the story of a man who rises from prison to become the second most powerful man in Egypt, who then puts his brothers through a test to see if they have changed, and who eventually reconciles with the brothers who sold him into slavery.”
After services a man cornered me. “Rabbi, you missed the whole essence of the Joseph story! It is far more than a family story about feuding brothers. The whole point of the story is that God is working behind the scenes. Events happen, perfectly natural events. Then Joseph tells his brothers, this is the hand of God. The point of the Joseph story is to see the hand of God in history.”
The man was absolutely right. But maybe I needed another twenty years of being a rabbi to see it. Perfectly natural events take place in history. Then we step back to gain some perspective and see the hand of God. We do not need a burning bush or a sea dividing to see how God acts in history. All we need is a long term view of perfectly natural events. Suddenly we can say there is more going on here than we think.
In a sense, this is how the Rabbis understand the festival of Hanukkah. Hanukkah began as a civil war between assimilated, Hellenistic Jews and the traditionalist Maccabees who fought both the Syrian Greeks and their Jewish allies. The traditionalists, despite being small in number, were successful in the battlefield, and were able to rededicate the Temple. They declared an eight day festival, a totally secular celebration of a military victory. The Rabbis later totally reenvisioned the festival. It became a celebration of a great miracle. “A Great Miracle Happened There” spell out the letters on the draidel, the small top used by Jewish children on the festival. On Hanukkah we look at perfectly natural events and see the hand of God.
God works in history. Events take place and we humans, being close to those events, often lose the greater picture. Only when we step back can we truly focus on the greater role that God plays in the unfolding of events. In Jewish thought, we call it redemptive history. God’s redemption works its way through the natural course of history, but often we fail to see God’s role. Biblical tradition teaches that history has a purpose and a direction. Events are not mere happenstance. Like the story of Joseph and the story of Hanukkah, historical events are the working out of some kind of divine plan.
When I want to demonstrate this idea to my congregation, I often turn to the work of the French impressionist artist Georges Seurat. His most famous painting, which I know you have all seen, is called Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. When you look at his paintings up close, they seem like a lot of random little dots. There appears to be no pattern and no purpose. Step back for perspective and you get a beautiful picture of picnickers by a river. And so it is with history. We see the world from a very limited human perspective; sometimes all we see is the random little dots. We must step back to receive a God’s eye vision.
The congregant in my first pulpit was right. We read the story of Joseph in order to develop a God’s eye view of the world. We celebrate Hanukkah in order to see the hand of God in history. As a young rabbi in my first pulpit, I often did not understand that. Over the years, I have been able to step back and look at the big picture. More and more I can say about events, “This is the hand of God.”



“Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:14)

All Jewish children have heard the basic story of Hanukkah. But to look at Hanukkah as an adult, we see three separate stories.
Story #1 – What really happened? Hanukkah actually began as a civil war between two groups of Jews – those attracted to the Hellenistic way of life, and those faithful to the ancient traditions of Israel, led by Judah Macabee and his brothers. The traditionalists, in a surprising victory, triumphed over their assimilationist brethren and the Syrian-Greeks. They went on to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by the Hellenists.
Judah Macabee and his brothers celebrated an eight day victory celebration, probably a delayed celebration of the festival of the Biblical festival of Sukkot. They had been unable to observe the eight days of Sukkot while the battles were taking place. According to the Torah, on Sukkot the number of offerings is diminished day by day; similarly, the sage Shammai declared that the candles should be diminished day by day. The first day eight candles were to be lit, seven on the second day, and so on down to one candle.
Hanukkah became a celebration of a military victory, with the Macabees (known as the Hasmoneans) coming into power. They became both the high Priests and the political leaders. And sadly, as so often happens in history, the Hasmoneans became hopelessly corrupt. The Rabbis of the Talmudic period, facing a popular eight day celebration of a military victory, felt the need to reconstruct the festival.
Story #2 – The Rabbis’ version. Jewish tradition teaches that war is sometimes a necessary evil. But we do not celebrate military victories. Even when we are victorious, it is God’s children who were defeated. Even our enemies were created in the image of God. We remove wine from one of our cups on Passover to diminish our joy for each plague suffered by the Egyptians. According to the Midrash, God stopped the angels from singing from singing hymns of praise while the Egyptians were drowning in the sea. We shorten the Hallel on the final days of Passover in recognition of the Egyptian suffering.
Perhaps the idea that we do not celebrate war was best put in a famous line by the late Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir, “I can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. But I cannot forgive the Arabs for turning our children into killers.”
For the Rabbis, Hanukkah as a military victory was unacceptable. Hanukkah became instead the story of a miracle, of God’s presence in the rededicated Temple. Hundreds of years after the original events, a new story developed, the story of enough oil for one day that burned for eight days. Hanukkah became a celebration of God=s miracle, not man’s military might. And to drive the idea home, every synagogue in the world chants on Hanukkah, “Not by might and not by power but by my spirit says the Lord.” (Zachariah 4:6)
Story #3 – I met a young woman who is a practicing pagan, keeping ancient Wicchan and Celtic traditions. She was about to celebrate Yule, an all night vigil lit by candles during the night of the winter solstice. The whole pagan ritual reminded me of a Midrash regarding the first man Adam. When the sun went down on the sixth night of creation, Adam starting to weep and fast. “The world is darkening for me.” When the sun arose the next day, Adam offered special offerings. “Such is the way of nature and I did not even realize it.” (Avoda Zara 8a)
The idea is universal. On the darkest night of the year, in the pagan world, they lit lights. Our Christian neighbors decorate their trees and their homes with lights. And we Jews light lights each night, following the dictate of Hillel to go up in number and not down in number. We light one the first light the first night, two the second, right on to eight.
The real story of Hanukkah is a universal human story. When things look darkest, we humans need to light lights. When we are down in a pit as Joseph was, we will someday be lifted out to stand before Pharaoh. The darkness is temporary.
Hanukkah is the story of the light chasing away the darkness. The days will get longer and the nights shorter. The particular story may be Jewish but the theme is universal. That is why we light our lights in a public place, so passers-by of all faiths can see them. Hanukkah is about faith and hope. It is a story we humans need to retell over and over.



“Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh.”
(Genesis 41:14)

A wise person once said that everybody should carry a card in his or her pocket with one saying to take out at the appropriate time.
When things are going well, when we are facing good times, in order to avoid taking these events for granted, in order to appreciate what we have and to better prepare for the future, in order to gain perspective, we should take out a card which says, “This Too Shall Pass.”
And when things are not going well, when everything appears bleak and hopelessness overwhelms us, in order to avoid despair and regain our faith, we should take out a card, which says, “This Too Shall Pass.”
Life is a cycle of good times and bad times. Happiness does not last forever and neither does sadness. This portion, which most years is read during Hanukkah, teaches this lesson in a powerful way.
At the beginning of last week’s portion Joseph was on top, the favored brother, haughty as he paraded in his coat of many colors. Then suddenly he found himself in an empty pit, soon to be sold down to Egypt as a slave. In Egypt he went from being a slave in Potiphar’s home to being second in command, highly respected and lacking nothing in his master’s household. By the end of last week’s portion he was back in the pit, a forgotten man languishing in the dungeon.
Then from the heights of despair, Joseph was removed from the pit, allowed to shave and change his clothes before he was brought to Pharaoh. He would soon become the second most powerful man in all of Egypt. Frank Sinatra put it well: “That’s life (that’s life), that’s what all the people say; You’re ridin’ high in April, shot down in May.” Every life has ups and downs, heights and depths. It helps to keep perspective when we read “This Too Shall Pass.”
In this week’s reading, Pharaoh dreamt of seven fat cows symbolizing seven years of plenty. Then seven scrawny cows came out to swallow the fat cows, symbolizing seven years of famine. Joseph told Pharaoh to use the years of plenty to set aside crops for the years of famine. So it is, when things are going well, we must prepare for the harder times. Preparation is more than simply financial, setting aside money, buying insurance, saving for the harder time. Preparation is also a spiritual preparation. We use the good times to learn to pray and express gratitude, hoping that these spiritual disciplines will help us during the hard times.
This week’s portion is usually read on Hanukkah. (This year it is the second Shabbat of Hanukkah.) Hanukkah comes during the darkest, gloomiest time of the year. Days are short and nights are cold. We light one light in our window, and then following the dictate of the great sage Hillel, we increase our light each night. When the dark times come, we push aside the darkness with light. This symbolizes the prayer that happier, brighter times are ahead
Life is a cycle of good and bad, joy and sorrow, happy times and sad times, success and failure, hope and despair. At the happy times, let us prepare spiritually as Joseph did in Egypt, because we know that “These Too Shall Pass.” So too, when we are overwhelmed by the gloom of despair, we should allow a light to shine in our soul with the thought that “This Too Shall Pass.”



“The ugly gaunt cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows, and Pharaoh awoke.” (Genesis 41:4)

There are two stories of Hanukkah. One is the story we have all learned since childhood. The other is the real story.
The real story is about the war of the Maccabees, which began as a civil war between two groups of Jews. One group preferred the Hellenistic ways of their Syrian-Greek rulers. The Maccabees were those Jews faithful to the traditions of their ancestors. What began as a war of Jew versus Jew became a war of Jews faithful to their tradition versus their Greek rulers.
The victory was the few against the many. Like the seven skinny scrawny cows who swallowed the seven fat healthy cows in Pharaoh’s dream, a small band of guerilla warriors overcame an army much stronger than themselves.
After their victory, the Maccabees cleaned the Temple in Jerusalem which had been defiled by their Syrian Greek rulers. They then declared an eight day celebration, most likely a belated celebration of the festival of Sukkot which they were unable to observe at the proper time while on the battlefield. This eight day celebration of an unexpected military victory became a popular celebration among the Jewish people.
The real Hanukkah story is about a military victory, the rededication of the Temple, and an eight day belated celebration of Sukkot. The miracle was the defeat of the many by the few, the strong by the weak.
As children we all learned a second Hanukkah story. The military victory was downplayed. The miracle took place in the Temple in Jerusalem. There was only enough oil for the Menorah with the proper seal of the High Priest to last for a brief period of time. The oil continued to burn for eight days, until replacement oil could be procured. The Menorah kept burning, because God did not allow the lights to go out. The story became one of God’s light burning without oil.
To drive home the non-military emphasis of the festival, the Rabbis chose a portion from the Prophets (haftarah) to be read in every synagogue on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. It contains the words, “Not by might and not by power but by my spirit says the Lord.” (Zechariah 4:6)
The message of the Rabbis is clear. Hanukkah is a celebration of a light that would not go out; of a God who will not desert His people. The military aspect of the holiday was downplayed or ignored altogether. The entire focus of the festival shifted from the battlefield to the lit Menorah in the Temple.
There is a powerful lesson for today as both America and Israel go to war against their enemies. We do not celebrate military victories. Sometimes war is a necessity. When our enemy comes to slay us, we must rise up and slay them first. But during a war, even an obligatory war of self defense, innocent people are slain. There is a sadness in war and an ongoing dream of peace. Even when we are victorious, it is with an overwhelming sense of relief, not with celebration.
So at this Hanukkah season, let us celebrate. But the emphasis is not on the defeat of our foes, but rather a celebration of God Who does not let the lights go out.



“Their father Jacob said to them, it is always me that you bereave. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me.” (Genesis 42:36)

We begin this portion with Joseph lingering in prison. We end this portion years later, with Joseph the second most powerful man in Egypt. All this time, Joseph’s father Jacob thought he was dead. Years had gone by, and Joseph made no attempt to contact his father.
One hears the plaintive cry of Jacob. “Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more.” Both sons were alive when these words were spoken. Still, they were out of touch. There are few things more heart rending for parents than for their children to cut off contact.
How often have I dealt with this issue here in Florida. Parents come to me crying that they have lost all contact with their children. I remember calling a man to inform him after years of no contact that his mother died. His words to me were chilling, “Rabbi, thanks for calling. But I am not interested.” Occasionally parents are so abusive, so destructive, that children have no choice but to cut off contact for their own survival. But those cases are relatively rare. Most of the time children cut off contact, it is due to petty fights over money, over family, over parents’ attempts to control their children and children’s attempts to break away from their parents.
The Torah teaches that there is to be a link between generations. “Honor your father and mother.” (Exodus 20:12) was so central to the Biblical outlook that it became part of the Ten Commandments. The mitzvah to honor parents is not only for those who have wonderful loving parents, but even those who have difficult, controlling parents. We are not commanded to love our parents, nor are we commanded to obey our parents. We are commanded to honor them.
Why should there be a link between the generations? As I have written before, the Torah wants us to rise above the animal kingdom and live as beings created in the image of God. In the animal kingdom, the role of a parent is biological. When a baby animal is conceived, the role of the father is finished. When a baby animal is weaned, the role of the mother is finished. There is no link between generations beyond procreation. Animals live as independent agents with no connection either to those who came before or those who will come afterwards. Not so human beings!
For humans, parenting is far more than biological; it is a spiritual link. Each generation builds on the wisdom of the previous generation. Each stands on the shoulder of the ones who came before. There is a chain that stretches back to our ancestors and reaches forward to our descendants. When we honor our parents, we are recognizing that we are part of that chain. There is something greater than our individual existence.
We humans are created in the image of God. And it is over the course of generations that God’s work is done. As the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.” We are obligated to maintain that link, to learn wisdom from our parents and grandparents, and pass on wisdom to our children and grandchildren.
Why did Joseph not contact his father? Surely, in his position of power in Egypt he had the means. Perhaps he was angry with his father, blaming him for the events that led to his slavery in Egypt. Perhaps he felt his father should have stopped the brothers. Or perhaps he was comfortable in his new setting, and contacting his father was too much bother.
Whether from anger or complacency, too many children cut off contact with parents. They bring immeasurable pain to the people who raised and nurtured them, and increase the sadness in the world. If you are in this position, I urge you B pick up the phone and call.



“And the ugly gaunt cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows, and Pharaoh awoke.” (Genesis 41:4)

Hanukkah and Christmas seem to fall on top of one another. Is it all just a coincidence of the calendar, or is there something more?
Why is Hanukkah in December? Actually, historically, Hanukkah was originally a late celebration of Sukkot. The Maccabees, unable to properly celebrate the eight day festival of Tabernacles, delayed it two months. Rather than on the full moon of Tishrei, they moved it until after the full moon of Kislev. Therefore, at the start of winter, we have an eight day celebration. The story of the oil that miraculously burned for eight days came much later.
Why is Christmas in December? We do now know historically when the man named Jesus was born. Nonetheless, I do have a theory. It has to do with lights. Both Hanukkah and Christmas are festivals of lights.
I admit, I love the lights of Christmas. I will sometimes drive through Christian neighborhoods looking at the decorations. I can appreciate the beauty, even if it is not my holiday. And of course, on Hanukkah we celebrate light. We light the candles in the window in order to publicize the miracle.
What do these two festivals of lights have in common? They both fall at or around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. As December 21 approaches, it is becoming darker and darker. It is also becoming colder and colder. We may think that the days will become dark and cold forever, that the future will be dimmer and dimmer. So we celebrate with lights.
There is a famous midrash. Adam had never seen the sun go down. When it went down the first time at the end of the sixth day of creation, Adam became very frightened. What if it never comes up again?! What if the world will now be dark and cold? Adam began to weep and mourn. Then the sun came up the next day, and Adam said, “Surely this is the way of nature, and I did not realize it.” Adam then offered a sacrifice to God. (Avodah Zarah 8a)
Both Jews and Christians pick the darkest days of the year to celebrate their festival of lights. We human beings seem to need the message that the future will be brighter. Or, as Annie sang in the hit musical “The sun will come up tomorrow.” And as a Jew in hiding wrote on the walls of a cellar in Cologne, “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I am alone. I believe in God even when He is hiding.”
How easy when it is dark to forget about the light. In the Torah reading Pharaoh dreams about seven fat, healthy cows and seven skinny, scrawny cows. The seven skinny cows swallow the fat cows, but no one even knows that they were there. Of course Joseph interprets the dream. Seven years of plenty will be followed by seven lean years. During the lean years, no one will even remember the good years. Despair will take over. It is so easy to give up when things look bad.
That is why Jews and Christians light lights on their darkest coldest nights. Light is a symbol of a joyous future. The days will get longer and warmer, better times will come. It is the light of faith and hope. It is not a Jewish nor a Christian message; it is a human message.