Yesterday in the Houses of Parliament, Tracy Crouch gave the loyal address to her Majesty the Queen. She concluded with ‘May I take this opportunity to wish colleagues and all the hard-working House staff a very Merry Xmas, a Happy Chanukah and a peaceful holiday season’.
Xmas and Chanukah do not always occur at exactly the same time, over the last 20 years they only have seven times – but the two festivals are so often linked. Chanukah is wrongly termed the Jewish Xmas.
This time of year also gives us a test of the assimilatory level of the Jewish home. If a Jewish family has a tree in its house, this is normally a sure sign that mainstream and western culture has done its work in terms of a major disconnect from Judaism.
The statistics are not pleasant – especially in America and growing here, the challenge of maintaining ones’ Judaism in the modern world is far too much for some, with intermarriage and assimilation reaching almost 80% in the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in the USA.
So what it is the answer? Is it simply a resignation that the only way to maintain our Jewishness is to separate ourselves completely from the secular world? It is certainly a strategy, but one that is impractical or impossible for the vast majority of Jews globally who live, work and exist in the wider world.
Furthermore, that is not the ideal, as Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch famously said, “Now what is it that we want? Are the only alternatives either to abandon religion or to renounce all progress? We declare before heaven and earth that if our religion demanded that we should renounce what is called civilization and progress we would obey unquestioningly, because our religion is for us the word of God before which every other consideration has to give way. There is, however, no such dilemma. Judaism never remained aloof from true civilization and progress. In almost every area its adherents were fully abreast of contemporary learning and very often excelled their contemporaries. An excellent thing is the study of Torah combined with the ways of the world.”
So how can it be done? Unsurprisingly, the answer can be found in this week’s parsha!
Yosef has been sold by his brothers and is now a servant in Potiphar’s household. Left alone with the beautiful Mrs Potiphar, she tried to seduce him. The Torah tells it the way it was ‘Yosef was handsome of form and handsome of appearance and after a while his masters wife took notice of Joseph and said come to bed with me’ (Bereshit 39:6-7).
The Torah continues with Joseph’s answer – ‘vayimaen’ – and he refused.
Over this verb the musical note is a shalshelet. The shalshelet is the longest musical note. It is sung up and down three times, as if unable to move onto the next note. Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi, a French scholar from the 13th century, explains that a shalshelet is meant to convey a psychological state of uncertainty and indecision or as Rabbi Sacks says – the music of ambivalence.
Vayimaen, and he refused, sung as a shalshelet. Is the idea that Yosef was uncertain, that he was tempted to go through with the act? Surely not!
However, we can only imagine the conflict in Joseph’s mind. On the one hand it would be a betrayal of everything his family stood for, a betrayal of the moral code and betrayal as part of the covenant with God. And yet the temptation must have been intense – he was far, far from home, no one could see him, a beautiful woman throwing herself at him.
Vayimaen – there is uncertainty.
But he refused, he didn’t go through with it, why not?
The Gemara (Sotah 36b) sheds some light on how he overcame this awesome test:
The image of his father appeared to him in the window and said ‘Joseph. Your brother’s names are destined to be inscribed on the stones of the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate and you will be among them. Do you want your name to be erased? Do you want to be called an adulterer?’
The Alshich, a medieval commentator, points out the obvious problem with the Gemara’s answer – Yaacov was nowhere near Egypt, he was back in Canaan, what does the Gemara mean that Yosef saw the image of his father?
The Alshich gives a powerful answer.
Who was Yosef? He was a Jew who had been raised in the house of Yaacov – he had his values, his identity.
When it came to the crunch he had the ability to reach into himself and imagine that his father was at the window. All that he believed in, all that he stood for would be destroyed if he succumbed to Potiphar’s wife. He had a tremendous inner strength, that didn’t just appear, it was who he was. He was Yosef son of Yaacov, grandson of Yitzchak, great grandson of Avraham, one of the 12 tribes of Israel – and that is how he refused!
The question is obvious. Do our children, do our grandchildren, have it in themselves to resist the temptation. Take out Potiphar’s wife and put in University, western culture, the materialistic culture, social media etc. The temptations are huge; can our young people conjure up their Yiddishkeit at the window? Can they feed off strong family memories of the Shabbat table, of learning Torah, of davening in shul every Shabbat. Can they strengthen themselves with the teachings of Moshe Chayim Luzzato’s – Mesilat Yesharim, or the lessons of thousands of years of Jewish History, or the eternal teaching of Pirkei Avot.
The tragic thing is that for the vast majority who leave the fold, they never really know what they are losing.
If we want to increase the odds that our children and grandchildren will not be tempted by the modern day Mrs Potiphar, we must give them a solid Jewish experiential background from a young age and give that through the most powerful transmitter of Torah and tradition – the Jewish home and the Jewish community.
So as we light those first lights on Sunday night – we must reflect that the temptation of Greek culture over 2000 years ago that drew the Hellenists away from our tradition are the same battles we face today.
Then we overcame with a rededication to Torah, the same solutions are needed today.