Posted by: Subway Conductor | December 18, 2020

A Derasha for Parshat Miketz

Although Hanukkah has just concluded, this week’s Torah portion is very often read during Hanukkah. Miketz continues the Joseph story and we read about the two dreams of Pharaoh. Pairs of dreams are a leitmotif – a recurring feature – in the Joseph narrative. Joseph had two dreams, the butler and baker ech had a dream in prison and now Pharaoh has two dreams.  Pharaoh’s dreams are of particular significance. Interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams is the springboard that launches Joseph’s rise to power and makes him second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. 

Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing at the Nile and up from the river came seven healthy sturdy cows. After them came seven ugly and gaunt cows. Pharaoh says he had never seen such ugly scrawny cows before in Egypt. The seven scrawny cows swallow up the seven healthy ones. In his second dream, which is really a repetition of the first dream, as Joseph points out, seven ears of grain came up full and healthy. Seven other ears came up after them, thin and withered. The seven thin ears of grain consumed the seven full ones. What is striking about these dreams? Why do they trouble Pharaoh so much?

It is because they go against nature. The weak do not swallow up the strong in nature. This is also true in human society. In the normal course of affairs, the weak do not prevail over the strong. Yet this is what Pharaoh saw in his dreams. It is also the theme of Hanukkah. As we read in the addition to the shemoneh esre, “You gave over the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.” The miracle of Hanukkah is not just the fact that the single cruse of oil lasted for eight days, rather it is that the weak were able to prevail over the strong and the few over the many. Certainly, the military might of the Syrian army was superior to the rag-tag fighters of the Hasmoneans. And it is probably the case that the majority of Jews were in favor of assimilating to Greek culture. This is the real miracle of Hanukkah. It is also the story of the Jewish People throughout history. We have lived as a small minority group, dispersed all over the world. We have faced a constant pressure to assimilate to the cultures which surround us. And we have persevered despite repeated attempts to destroy us.

Over the centuries, there have been many philosophers and religious thinkers who have attempted to offer a proof for the existence of G-d. They have attempted to come up with a logical argument that would persuade even people who did not believe in the Bible. These attempts have not generally succeeded, nor stood the test of time. But, there is one argument that I think is compelling – the continued presence of the Jewish People.

Without a belief in a divine influence in history, how does one explain that we are still here? We were exiled from Israel almost two thousand years ago. Since then, we have lived in all corners of the world and mostly under adverse conditions. It is not only that we have managed to survive, but we have flourished in every age, continuing to contribute to human culture in all its aspects. And this, despite the numerous pogroms, expulsions, persecutions, and disabilities we encountered. Jews were forbidden to enter into most trades and occupations, were forced to live in specified walled-in sections of cities, and faced a pervasive threat that their very existence was precarious. We also prevailed over constant attempts to convert us.

Today, in the State of Israel, there are Jews from well over a hundred countries, from such far-flung places as Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, South Africa, and the United States. The miracle is that despite this dispersion over many centuries, Jews still recognize one another as being the same people. A Jew from Afghanistan and a Jew from Poland see each other as belonging to the same Jewish People. And Judaism has survived and remained one religion. The same two Jews from Poland and Afghanistan can sit in the same synagogue and they understand that what they are doing is the same Judaism. Yes, there are differences, of course. This community eats rice on Passover, and this one does not, Jews from one place wait six hours between meat and milk and Jews from another place wait only three. But Judaism is basically the same religion. It is the fact that we have preserved a unique and unified identity which is the real miracle. How can one explain this fact without seeing the hand of G-d in Jewish history? This is the miracle of Hanukkah.

Good Shabbos!


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