Sunday, December 18, 2011


The parsha begins with Yosef’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams and his subsequent rise to power in Mitzrayim. On close analysis of the dialogue between Pharaoh and Yosef we can discern fundamental differences in their hashkafas hachaim. Pharaoh was an idol worshipper and in particular he, like all Mitzrim, worshipped the River Nile, their most vital source of sustenance. In describing his dream, Pharaoh says that he was “standing over the River. ” The simple understanding of this passuk is that it is telling us Pharaoh’s physical location with regard to the Nile. However, the Medrash says that it also teaches us about his attitude to his god - the passuk stresses that he was standing over the Nile in a position of superiority, this does not seem to be a respectful way in which to relate to ones god. It symbolizes that Pharaoh’s worship of the Nile was not for the benefit of the Nile, it was for his own gain - he needed the Nile so he appeased it with worship, but ultimately the Nile was serving him, not the other way around. The Mitzrim’s attitude towards their god is even more starkly demonstrated by the behavior of the Pharaoh that lived in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu. He used to go out to the river in the early morning in order to fulfill his bodily functions in it , hardly a great show of respect for one’s god! Chazal go even further and say that he believed that he actually created the Nile ! These sources indicate that the Mitzrims’ avoda of their gods stemmed from a desire to get what they needed from them - the Nile was ultimately there to serve them.

Pharaoh’s attitude stands in stark contrast to Yosef Hatzadik. He demonstrates tremendous subservience to Hashem in his response to Pharaoh’s request to interpret the dreams. His first words to Pharaoh are, “this is beyond me, it is Hashem who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare. ” Every year we read this passuk and give it little thought, but with some reflection we can begin to fathom how incredible Yosef’s words are; he has been imprisoned in a hell-hole for 12 years and is finally given a golden opportunity to attain freedom. If only he can appease Pharaoh he can have a new start in life. He knew that Pharaoh did not believe in the Jewish G-d, he believed that he himself was a god and that his arrogance was unmatched: What would a person say in such circumstances? Yosef would have been justified in thinking that now was not the right time to attribute everything to G-d and that he would surely be justified in selling himself and his talents as much as possible. Yet Yosef did not hesitate to attribute all of his talents to G-d. This is a remarkable display of subservience and bittul atsmo, which stands in stark contrast to the arrogance of Pharaoh with regard to his god. Yosef’s mida of subservience to G-d was inherited from Avraham Avinu. Whilst Pharaoh stood over his god, Hashem says to Avraham, “Go before me. ” The emphasis here is that Avraham placed himself under G-d, not standing over Him. This symbolizes that Avraham was not serving G-d because of a selfish desire to attain what he wanted, rather he nullified his own desires and only wanted to fulfill Ratson Hashem. Consequently, he followed Hashem’s instructions even when he did not understand them, to the extent that when he was commanded to kill his son, he did not hesitate to do so.

This dichotomy of hashkafos is also a strong feature of the clash between the world views of Klal Yisroel and the Greek Empire. The Greeks worshipped many gods but idol-worship was not the central focus of Greek ideology. They most emphasized the concept of the perfection of mankind - they believed in a man-centered universe in which the purpose of the gods was to serve the desires of man. Many Greeks, including Aristotle, propounded the belief that the Earth was the centre of the universe, a reflection of the superiority of mankind. They emphasized the beauty of the human body and the domination of human reason over any other form of wisdom. This philosophy stood at clear loggerheads with Torah - they saw Judaism as the antithesis of their cherished beliefs, because it above all stressed man’s subservience to G-d and his imperfection. This understanding helps us appreciate why they forbade the Jewish people from observing Bris Mila and learning Torah: Bris mila is a reflection of the belief that man’s physicality is not perfect and needs to be harnessed; The Greeks believed that man was created whole and cannot be improved - to cut away part of his body was in their eyes a highly destructive act. Talmud Torah involves man trying to train his mind to understand how G-d looks at the world and to learn to look at the world in the same way. The Greeks in contrast believed that man’s reason alone was the ultimate source of wisdom and that he should not subjugate it to anything else.

The battle of Chanukah was the clash between two ideologies - one placed G-d in the centre and the other put man there. Baruch Hashem we won that war but the same war is being fought again in this generation. The Western world is greatly influenced by the ‘Enlightenment’: In the 17th and 18th centuries there was a very strong reaction against the domination of Christianity; one of the main aspects of this revolution was a rejection of the concepts such as faith and belief which the Christians had distorted. The reaction was a rediscovery and glorification of Greek values, chief amongst them, the primacy of man and his ability to understand everything. The legacy of the Enlightenment today is the prevalent arrogance of man; this includes his belief in his ability to independently solve all the world’s problems; to heal all illnesses, cause world peace and so on. It also includes his rejection of anything that he does not understand or cannot see, including any metaphysical being. Consequently, Western man is pulled by a great wave of social pressure to reject anything ‘religious’ as outdated and primitive.

Even observant Jews are surrounded by the Western world and it’s power can effect us as well. Chanukah is a time when we need to ask ourselves some hard questions to discern where the Greek outlook has crept into our thoughts: When events around us do not seem to make sense we say, ’gum zu letova’ but deep down do we have doubts - feelings that this really does not make sense? When we learn about Torah concepts or halachos that do not make obvious sense do we accept that we cannot understand everything or do we on some level question the validity of such laws? Do we ever feel that we do not really need G-d to succeed in life? When Gedolim say and do things that we do not understand how do we react? All such questions focus on the same issue: Do we totally reject the Greek outlook, the arrogance of man and his wisdom and do we accept the subservience of man to G-d? Avraham Avinu went before G-d, Yosef Hatzadik attributed all his talents to G-d. Chanukah teaches us that this is the only way for a Jew to live and prosper.

No comments:

Post a Comment