And Joseph said to Pharaoh, "Pharaoh's dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do." (Genesis 41:25)
Hanukkah commemorates two events: the military victory of the Maccabees in 165 b.c.e. and the miracle of the small cruse of oil, which burned in the Temple for eight days. The early Rabbis did not regard the Maccabee military victory as miraculous. They emphasized the miracle of the oil to the exclusion of the other, more historical, occurrence. When the Talmud tells us the reason for Hanukkah, the military victory is mentioned only in passing to provide a context for discussing the miracle of the oil. "What is the reason for Hanukkah? Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev begin the days of Hanukkah, which are eight days on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oil therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they conducted a search and found only one cruse of oil that had the seal of the High Priest. That cruse contained only enough oil for one day's lighting; however, a miracle was wrought therein, and they lit the lamp with this oil for eight days" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b).
The emphasis on the miracle of the oil resulted in making candlelighting one of the two major commandments associated with this holiday (the other being the recitation of the Hallel psalms). Lighting candles enabled every Jew to reenact the ancient miracle in his or her home and in the synagogue. The purpose behind lighting candles was called pirsuma d'nisa, literally, "publicizing the miracle." This concept became so compelling to the Rabbis that they prescribed that "even a poor person who is supported through charity must beg or even sell his clothing in order to purchase oil to light" (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Hayim 671).
What is the miracle that we publicize? It is most certainly deeper and more profound than the fact that the oil burned longer than was expected. Lighting that ancient menorah in the Temple while knowing that new oil could not be procured for eight days was ultimately an act of hope in a time of utter despair. It was a statement that the future is not predetermined, that the world can indeed be different. Emphasizing the miracle of the oil more than the military victory is a way of acknowledging the limits of human power and strength. Pirsuma d'nisa, "publicizing the miracle," demonstrates our recognition of God's role in history and affirms that there is an order and meaning to our lives.
In this week's Torah portion, Joseph also seems to engage in a kind of pirsuma d'nisa. When he is brought forth from prison to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh, Joseph goes out of his way to emphasize that the power of interpretation does not emanate from him but is rather a gift from God. In each stage of Joseph's conversation with Pharaoh about his dreams, Joseph repeatedly mentions God's power and sovereignty. In Genesis 41:25, Joseph says that "God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do." When Joseph begins to interpret the dream symbols about the years of plenty that will be followed by the years of famine, he says, "It is just as I have told Pharaoh: God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do" (Genesis 41:28). At the conclusion of his interpretation, Joseph suggests to Pharaoh that he formulate a plan to save Egypt from impending famine and reminds him that "the matter has been determined by God and that God will carry it out" (Genesis 41:32).
Joseph is extremely effective in publicizing his message to Pharaoh. Pharaoh, who is himself regarded by the Egyptians as a god, understands ultimately that Joseph's power comes from the God of the universe. And Pharaoh gets the message: "Pharaoh said to his courtiers, 'Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?' So Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'Since God has made this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you'" (Genesis 41:38-39). In the end, we learn from this week's parashah that Joseph's message-namely, that people are not all-powerful, that the future can be different from the present, that hope can liberate the enslaved, and that there is meaning and order to our lives-can indeed be heard if it is expressed in an effective, sincere, and modest way. Such a message is worthy of publicity. It is a message that even the darkness and cold of winter cannot defeat.
By the Way
Jewish authenticity consists in choosing oneself as a Jew-that is, in realizing one's Jewish condition. The authentic Jew abandons the myth of the universal man; he knows himself and wills himself into history as a historic and damned creature; he ceases to run away from himself and to be ashamed of his own kind.... He knows that he is one who stands apart, untouchable, scorned, proscribed-and it is as such that he asserts his being.... He stakes everything on human grandeur, for he accepts the obligation to live in a situation that is defined precisely by the fact that it is unlivable. (Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hatred)
The Hebrew [a.v.r., the root of Ivri, "Hebrew," means "to pass"] is thus a "passer." For the Hebrew, to exist is to become. He is in a constant becoming, a be-coming that is a future to-coming. The Hebrew person is messianic if messianism is not only the certitude of the arrival of someone who alters history but a way of being for every person in his inscription within the becoming of time. (Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Haggadah)
What has happened to me can happen to you, my child. If you believe that the flame of Israel is extinguished in you, watch and wait; one day, it will burn again. This is a very old story, repeated in every generation: A thousand times Israel, it has seemed, must die, and a thousand times she has lived again. I want to tell you how she died and lived again in me, so that if she dies in you, you in your turn can feel her born in you once more. (Edmond Fleg, 1927)
How might the above thinkers have interpreted the meaning of pirsuma d'nisa, "publicizing the miracle"?
Imagine Joseph in conversation with Sartre, Ouaknin, and Fleg. How is the role of the Jew as they define it similar to or different from the role Joseph played vis-à-vis Pharaoh in Egypt?
Compare the way Joseph is described in this week's parashah with the depiction of Jews in the above sources. Is the role of the Jew presented differently in each scenario?
Rabbi Leon A. Morris is the American vice president for programs at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He was the founding director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.