Why Joseph Didn’t Write Home and Chanukah; A Lesson for Our Times

Joseph was miraculously elevated to the pinnacle of success, as detailed in this week’s Torah reading[i].

He was no longer a slave[ii], prisoner[iii] or powerless[iv] individual. Pharaoh appointed him to a position second only to Pharaoh[v] and, in that capacity, he assumed day-to-day responsibility for Egyptian affairs[vi]. Joseph was free, or so it seemed, to do as he pleased. Why then didn’t he seek to write home to his father, Jacob, to advise that he was alive and doing well? After all, he had been shanghaied many years before and knowing he was fine and even excelling would have provided much comfort to his father.

Nachmanides[vii] raises this most intriguing and poignant question. He even notes it wouldn’t have been much of a chore to send a letter. Hebron, where Jacob resided[viii], was near Egypt; it was only six days’ journey away, by foot. Indeed, he asserts even if it took a year to walk there, it would have been appropriate to do so, given the duty to honor a parent. Why then did Joseph not write home?

Abrabanel[ix] provides a compelling insight into Joseph’s psyche and the context in which he functioned to explain the quandary Joseph faced and why he felt it inappropriate to contact his father. In this regard, I can’t help but note Abarbanel’s personal familiarity with these kinds of sensitive political situations. Don Isaac Abarbanel was the equivalent of the Secretary of the Treasury under King Alfonso V of Portugal[x]. When the King died in 1483, he was falsely accused of plotting against the King and forced to flee. He became a financier to Queen Isabella of Spain, but with the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews of 1492, he left with his brethren.

Abarbanel posits that Joseph was in an extremely delicate and precarious position. There were nefarious and unethical individuals around him, who were looking for the chance to inform on him and create a pretense for removing him. They begrudged Joseph his success. He had appeared seemingly out of nowhere and didn’t hide the fact that he was a Jew[xi]. They perceived his precipitous rise to an exalted position of authority over them as a slight. Never mind that he was an extraordinary talent. He demonstrated outstanding skill and mettle under the most difficult of circumstances[xii]. Joseph earned Pharaoh’s favor and Pharaoh’s advisors were unable to compete with his wisdom, knowledge and brilliant intuition. He also benefited from divine providence, which he was careful to acknowledge[xiii].

Consider the false narrative that could have contrived against him, if word got out that he contacted his father in Israel. He would have been accused of having dual loyalties and acting against Egyptian interests. Assertions would have been made if a war erupted between Egypt and Israel that he was the spy, who would give away state secrets. It would have put him in extreme peril. Thus, Joseph wisely concluded it was better not to write home at that time.

This is no mere speculation; as matters unfolded, his instincts proved prescient. Remember that after Joseph passed away, Pharaoh and his advisors conceived of and disseminated a similar false narrative of disloyalty[xiv] to justify their enslaving the Jewish people in Egypt and murdering the male newborn children[xv].

Joseph did much good for Egypt during his tenure, saving so many from starvation during the great famine[xvi]. He also was able to help his family when they came to Egypt[xvii] and Egypt benefited[xviii] from this infusion of talent and capital[xix].

Joseph’s travails, wisdom and ability to cope are a model for life in the Diaspora, especially for those in the fast lane. Failure was not an option and his brethren were dependent on his success. His sensitivity to the ever-present specter of anti-Semitism was critical, because of the danger it might erupt and cause catastrophic harm to him and his people. Indeed, when he was no longer there to deter the nefarious forces arrayed against the Jewish people, it did.

There are many examples of Jews throughout the ages, who rose to high office and were in a position to do much good. Some were able to help their brethren as well. There were also those who eschewed the opportunity to do so, including in modern times, when the Jewish people faced dire circumstances[xx]. One recent appalling example was Henry Kissinger’s role in dismissing the plight of Soviet Jewry, in discussions with former President Nixon[xxi]. The concern about being accused of dual loyalty is a real one. Consider, the anti-Semitic slurs being leveled against members of Congress, who happen to be Jewish and the highly charged, patently false, reference to the impeachment inquiry as the Jew coup[xxii].

While Joseph’s wariness was justified, it begs the question of when and under what circumstances a reaction other than passivity is warranted. Joseph’s intuition and marvelous sense of discernment certainly aided him in making these weighty decisions. However, excessive rationality might reflexively lead to inaction. It sometimes seems like those closest to power are often the least likely to want to intervene. Responses like don’t rock the boat, raising concerns about possible peril or protestations of impotence are not unusual. Although, it’s foolhardy to court certain danger[xxiii], there are times when courageous action is required. Aiding those in distress often means assuming some level of calculated risk and, by implication, reliance on G-d’s help. Is this reckless or admirable conduct[xxiv]?

The Midrash[xxv] criticizes Joseph’s lack of appropriate trust in G-d. It notes that Joseph had reposed undue and misplaced reliance on the Pharaoh’s Chief Cupbearer, who had been imprisoned with him. Joseph had favorably interpreted the Chief Cupbearer’s dream and asked that he remember him to Pharaoh, when he was freed and returned to his position[xxvi]. Joseph intended that the Royal Cupbearer would convince Pharaoh of his innocence and solicit a commutation of his unjust sentence. Of course, a person shouldn’t just depend on miracles[xxvii] and abstain from self-help. Joseph most certainly didn’t when he excelled at any task assigned to him, doing good deeds and graciously helping others. However, his heartfelt pleas should have been directed to G-d; not to importune someone he aided to help him. As my father, of blessed memory would say, be a servant of G-d; not a servant to a servant.

Joseph did seek to insulate his people from the kinds of risks he faced, by sequestering them in Goshen[xxviii]. However, the security it offered was ephemeral. Moreover, not every Jew was willing to live there or throw in their lot with their brethren[xxix]. Many fully acculturated and integrated into the fabric of Egyptian society. This pattern was repeated again and again throughout history[xxx].

Life in ancient Egypt presented some of the same challenges we face today. It was a superpower, which attracted many talented people from around the world. It boasted a cosmopolitan, permissive society, steeped in art, science and the pursuit of pleasure. Not everyone was a slave[xxxi]. Indeed, the Midrash[xxxii] records that some Jews benefited from Egyptian patronage and rose to prominence. They were wealthy and well respected. Assimilation was so prevalent that the Midrash[xxxiii] reports only approximately 20% of the Jewish people left Egypt, as a part of the Exodus. The rest didn’t and were all but forgotten by history. The Midrash’s statistics differ little from a 2013 Pew study[xxxiv] of Jewish life in America.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is again rearing its ugly head and no one is truly immune. It is foolhardy to engage in sophistry and make fine distinctions, so as to excuse some anti-Semites and their misbehavior and criticize only those in another party or at the other end of the political spectrum. Intersectional loyalties should not shelter anti-Semites. Whether it’s the murderous anti-Semitic attack in Jersey City, continuing anti-Semitic violence in New York City, defacing of Torah Scrolls in Beverly Hills, condoning of anti-Semitic slurs in an exclusive private prep-school in New York City and drumbeat of anti-Semitic incidents and hate-speech on university campuses, the common denominator is they are all directed against Jews.

Hatred of Jews expresses itself in a variety of fashions. Its newly packaged and insidious forms, such as BDS and fatuous calls for justice, are every bit as virulent and pernicious as plain old-fashioned slurs. The pretext of attacking the State of Israel not Jews, per se, is a canard. Don’t be misled; it’s about the very existence of Israel and the Jewish people[xxxv]. Yet, sometimes even well-meaning individuals are overwhelmed by the volume and intensity of the falsehoods. We live in times when lies are so prevalent that, as the Talmud[xxxvi] predicted, the truth is rare and precious.

Anti-Semitism is still irrational and no amount of logical discussion can alter this basic and immutable fact. Historically, neither assimilation nor living separate and apart in a ghetto cured anti-Semitism. Mindlessly repeating these mistakes cannot improve the situation. It only demonstrates the futility of either of these approaches.

This does not mean we just have to accept things as they are and not seek to make things better. I remember a time, not so long ago, when Soviet Jewry was imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain. Many Jewish organizations and leaders felt impotent, subscribed to the myth that quiet diplomacy was the only effective means of dealing with the problem or were taken in by the charade that nothing could be done. However, some young and unconventional leaders challenged the prevailing wisdom. They led very public protests and would not back down. They inspired so many with the message of ‘let my people go’, which echoed Moses’ demand to the Pharaoh. It is still hard to believe that a group of refuseniks veritably enslaved behind the Iron Curtain and concerned students and young leaders in the U.S. challenged the once mighty Soviet Union. They inspired so many to become involved, including our own Congress, in helping to save Soviet Jewry[xxxvii]?

They channeled the story of how Moses took on the mighty Egyptian empire and G-d miraculously freed our ancestors from slavery in Egypt[xxxviii]. It all began with a simple unifying cry. The Bible[xxxix] reports the Jewish slaves had one day off, when Pharaoh’s predecessor died. On that day, they all gave out a collective sigh and it was accepted by G-d as public prayer. It precipitated the process of redemption and exodus from Egypt.

In the days of Soviet Jewry, a similar experience occurred at rallies calling for the Soviet Union to allow its Jews to leave. The unifying cries of ‘let my people go’ and chants or singing of ‘Am Yisroel Chai’ were overpowering. Make no mistake about it; this was genuine prayer and every bit as spontaneous, heartfelt and authentic as that original sigh in ancient Egypt. I remember well, how Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik (of blessed memory) advised, when Jews are in peril, we must cry out, publicly. The energy, prayer and efforts of those many souls, genuinely concerned about the fate of others and crying out in unison, triggered the blessings of divine providence. These efforts, derided by some as futile, were miraculously rewarded with success. How else to explain the Soviet Union allowing the Jews to emigrate from behind the iron curtain?

Like Joseph, we must each find our way in a very harsh world. We also cannot afford to lose our identity. He described himself as a Jew[xl] and, when he spoke, he did not shy away from his belief in G-d[xli]. Unlike Joseph, we don’t have the luxury of just ignoring the anti-Semitism around us. It is no longer latent. In its present violent and malignant form, we must defend against and seek to deter it. We may not be able to galvanize everyone[xlii] in this effort. However, as the Exodus from Egypt and, more recently, the effort to free Soviet Jewry demonstrated, this is not always required.

Indeed, this is one of the cogent messages of Chanukah. A determined, focused, energetic, intrepid and united band of the few, empowered by divine providence, challenged the overwhelming numbers and power of the Syrian Greek empire. They defeated them and their program of religious persecution and restored religious freedom[xliii]. Of course, it does take G-d’s help; but that’s what praying together and Chanukah is all about. Lighting the Chanukah Menorah symbolizes divine providence is still present among us and protects us. It’s been over 3,400 years since Joseph and the Exodus from Egypt and despite all the turmoil and vicissitudes of history, including the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires, Holocaust and today’s anti-Semites, we’re still here. It is also gratifying to know that a recent Gallup poll[xliv] found, 95% of American Jews and a solid majority of Americans, generally, have a favorable view of Israel.

Nevertheless, the malady of anti-Semitism still exists and we can’t just be docile or complacent. The recent election in the UK in which anti-Semites were soundly defeated is an example of what can be achieved. Some will likely seek to ascribe only rational explanations for this miraculous result. However, the effect of public rallies and prayers, refusing to back down to anti-Semitic pressure and demonstrations of faith in G-d should not be underestimated. Yes, there was a risk of failure and a resulting backlash; but that’s the point. We can’t be daunted when it comes to protecting those in harm’s way. Taking some measure of calculated risk and trusting in G-d to help is a part of the equation for invoking the blessings of divine providence[xlv]. So too is the unifying and empowering nature of many joining together in heartfelt, spontaneous and authentic public prayer; no matter what form it takes.

We are blessed to live in a wonderful country, where we have the freedom to profess and openly practice our Judaism. Live and let live is a fundamental part of the American way. We also have the freedom and opportunity to excel, succeed, nurture and protect our families and support a strong US-Israel relationship. These are all mutually supportive goals.

We can and should join with our fellow citizens in promoting security for all. Don’t let the anti-Semites, their Jewish or other apologists or the meek deter us from proudly serving G-d and country by defending against anti-Semitic haters. Don’t allow petty differences and partisan politics to divide us or condone anti-Semitism because of intersectional or other political concerns. Good leadership knows the difference between diplomacy and pandering and how and when to pursue a variety of avenues, as a part of an integrated approach to defeating anti-Semitism.

It’s time to join together and denounce anti-Semitism, no matter the source. The symbolic light of the Chanukah Menorah reminds us divine providence continues to protect us. G-d bless and protect America, Israel and the Jewish people. Am Yisroel Chai.

[i] Parshat Miketz, Genesis, Chapter 41.

[ii] Genesis 39:1.

[iii] Genesis 39:20.

[iv] See Nachmanides commentary on Genesis 39:8.

[v] Genesis 41:40 and 43.

[vi] Genesis 41:40-42 and 44.

[vii] In his commentary on Genesis 42:9.

[viii] Genesis 37:14.

[ix] In his commentary on Genesis 42:7.

[x] See the Jewish Encyclopedia entry on Abarbanel.

[xi] Genesis 40:15.

[xii] He excelled under the most trying of circumstances, including as a slave to Potiphar (Genesis 39:2-5), while incarcerated (Genesis 39:20-23) and then as the second to Pharaoh, as summarized above.

[xiii] See, for example, Genesis 41:16 and 40:8.

[xiv] See The ancient and sordid history of the dual loyalty canard, by the author, in the Blogs of the Times of Israel, dated 3/19/19.

[xv] Exodus 1:6-15.

[xvi] Genesis, Chapter 41.

[xvii] Genesis, Chapters 43-47. See also Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Genesis 45:10, in which he notes Joseph was concerned about shipping grain to Jacob and the family in Israel, because he thought he might be suspected of dealing in grain in a foreign market for his personal gain. He might also be accused of amassing a secret fortune outside of Egypt, as a prelude to leaving the country to reunite with his family. Once the family joined him in Egypt this was no longer a concern.

[xviii] See BT Brachot 63b.

[xix] See Abarbanel commentary on Genesis 46:28 and Tur HaAruch commentary on Genesis 46:34.

[xx] See Lessons My Father Taught Me About the Holocaust, by the author, in the Blogs of the Times of Israel, dated 1/18/18.

[xxi] See Henry Kissinger to Soviet Jewry: Drop Dead, by Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, dated 12/11/10.

[xxii] See ‘Jew coup’: The anti-Semitic conspiracy theories surrounding Trump’s impeachment, by Eric Cortellessa, in the Times of Israel, dated 12/19/19.

[xxiii] See, for example, 11th century, Rav Bachya ibn Pekuda’s Duties of the Heart, Gate 4, Gate on Trust 4:25.

[xxiv] See, for example, JT Terumot 8:4.

[xxv] See Genesis Rabbah 89:3 and at end of 89:2, as well as, Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 9:6

[xxvi] Genesis 40:14.

[xxvii] See BT Shabbat 32a and Taanit 20b. However, see also the famous disagreement between Rava and Abaye on the subject, in BT Pesachim 64b. As the Chida notes, in his Petach Einayim commentary thereon, although it is generally inappropriate to depend on miracles, it’s different when it involves many people or the performance of a good deed.

[xxviii] See Genesis 45:10 (and Nachmanides commentary thereon); 46:34 (and Radak and Ralbag commentaries thereon); 47:6 (and Chizkuni commentary thereon, in which he notes they were able and astute, as well as, loyal and trustworthy) and 47:27.

[xxix] See Rashi commentary on Exodus 10:22. See also Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 11:11, as well as, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:13.

[xxx] See The Seder-A Shared Experience, by the author, in the Blogs of the Times of Israel, dated 44/10/19.

[xxxi] See Meshech Chochma, Parshat Vayera 8 and Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 3:5, at page 17a.

[xxxii] Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 14:3.

[xxxiii] See Rashi commentary on Exodus 13:18 and 10:22, as well as, Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 13:18, Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 13:17, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 11:10 and Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 1:4. See also Ezekiel 20:8-9 and Radak commentary thereon.

[xxxiv] Pew Research Center-A Portrait of Jewish Americans dated October 1, 2013.

[xxxv] See Why They Fight, by Charles Krauthammer, of blessed memory, in the Washington Post, on July 14, 2006.

[xxxvi] BT Sota 49b.

[xxxvii] Including Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson and Congressman Charles Vanick, who co-sponsored the Jackson-Vanick amendment (enacted in 1975) to the Trade Reform Act of 1974. It required lifting of restrictions on emigration by Soviet bloc countries in order to be granted Most Favored Nation status under the Act.

[xxxviii] Exodus, Chapter 1-13.

[xxxix] Exodus 2:23 and see Ohr Hachaim and Chizkuni commentaries thereon.

[xl] See Genesis 40:15 and 41:12.

[xli] See, for example, Genesis 41:16 and 25.

[xlii] I note in passing that even so august a figure as Mordechai HaYehudi of Purim fame had a favorability rating of only a majority of his brethren, according to Megillat Esther 10:3. See also BT Megillah 16b.

[xliii] See Chanukah, Celebration of Religious Liberty; Hate Has No Home in Classic Judaism, by the author, in the Blogs of the Times of Israel, dated 12/6/18.

[xliv] See Gallup: American Jews, Politics and Israel, by Frank Newport, dated 8/27/19.

[xlv] It was one of the final tests of faith just prior to the original Exodus from Egypt. See Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:46 and Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 16:3. See also Petach Einayim commentary on BT Pesachim 64b, relating to the exceptions to the general rule against relying on miracles, noted above.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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