No one in Pharaoh’s inner circle was able to interpret his two disturbing dreams. Joseph’s reputation for interpreting dreams was his ticket out of prison and Pharaoh accepted his explanation. A famine was coming but it would be preceded by seven years of plenty.
When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all of Egypt, “Go to Joseph. Whatever he tells you, do.” (41:55)
What prompted Pharaoh to issue this instruction? Rashi explains that the people told to him that Joseph asked them to circumcise themselves. Pharaoh said to them, “Why did you not store up food? Didn’t he warn you that years of famine were approaching?” They responded, “We gathered much but it rotted!” Pharaoh then said, “If so, you had better do whatever he tells you. He put a decree on the grain and it rotted. What if he puts a decree on us and we will die?”
What was Joseph thinking? Why would he want a country of non-Jews, Egyptians, to circumcise themselves? It is not plausible to think that he sought to convert them; we do not believe in proselytizing and certainly not coercing non-Jews to convert.
[These questions are addressed by Maharal of Prague(1526?-1609) in his commentary on Rashi, Gur Aryeh. He was a figure of such magnitude that four hundred years after his death his statue stands in front of city hall in Prague. His erudition in Talmud, Kabbalah, philosophy, law, Biblical exegesis and every other aspect of Jewish knowledge has been recognized for hundreds of years and is known for his unique ability to explain the perplexing and otherwise esoteric sections of the Talmud called Aggadah.]
Joseph realized that a unique phenomenon was occurring. He took note of the fact that everything that the Egyptians had stored had spoiled, whereas whatever he had stored was still fresh. Why would that be?
He understood that something Divine was happening. He had the advantage of brit milah (circumcision), while they didn’t. Brit (circumcision) means covenant. It is an agreement between two parties that allows a relationship to endure. A human can seemingly function on his own, but this existence is fragile and lacks stability. We humans have limitations in strength, endurance, and every other area of life. As the expression goes, “I’m just human;” meaning, “I am finite; I have limitations.” The way we transcend these limitations is when we have a strong relationship with G-d. His protection can safeguard a person from all sorts of hazards that might shorten his life. A covenant creates that relationship, and is entered into through brit milah, circumcision, which is mentioned in the Torah as the way of creating a covenantal relationship with G-d.
The very essence of the physical act of circumcision supports the idea of endurance through covenant. Circumcision entails the removal of an unnecessary piece of skin from a man’s body. Every part of a man’s body is there to endure, except for this small piece of skin. But the Almighty does not make anything without purpose. If He orders a part of that body to be removed, He effectively differentiates between that which should last and endure, and the foreskin, which should not.
Those who insist on retaining the foreskin effectively cling to non-permanence rather than permanence. This non-permanence extended to their material possessions as well; their grain therefore had no permanence and rotted. Joseph, on the other hand, noticed that his grain was still fresh. One needs food to survive and his had been blessed. He understood that this was due to the one bodily feature that distinguished him from the Egyptians; it was an act done to his body that represented permanence and a covenantal relationship with G-d. His grain therefore had not rotted because it had been given an extra lease and was therefore not subject to the forces of nature, which was the fate of the grain stored by the Egyptians.
As Joseph became aware of what was happening to the stored grain, he realized that in this instance He wished for people to opt for circumcision and therefore compelled the Egyptians to circumcise themselves. This was not part of a program of forced conversion, it was simply what he recognized was the will of the Creator.
Joseph also understood the merit through which he had risen to power. It had taken superhuman effort to safeguard the sanctity of the mitzvah of brit milah(circumcision) by refusing the daily attempts his master’s wife Potiphar to seduce him. The family of Abraham and Sara understood that the beauty of sexuality was to be channeled into a committed relationship and that a man and woman make a covenant of their own when they get married. For others to share in the dividends of his rise to power, they needed to share some common values. Those who rejected the principle behind circumcision would not be beneficiaries of its protection. Joseph’s stored food would only benefit those who shared at least part of the collection of values connected with brit milah(circumcision; covenant). By mandating circumcision for all, Joseph widened the circle of potential beneficiaries, so that they might all eat of the stored grain.
This week’s Parsha, Mikeitz, always falls on Chanukah, the festival in which we celebrate the fact that it was important enough for a small group of Jews to fight for their Judaism. The Greeks did not want to annihilate the Jews, they just wanted them to forget about the uniqueness of their mission. The Jews were to be a light for the nations of the world of the world of the beauty of a life in which G-d (ethical monotheism) is the core value. One of the pronouncements decreed on the Jews was that they were not permitted to circumcise themselves. When we internalize the approach stated above, we see how important it must have been for the Jews of that time to literally fight in battle to retain the right to the unique symbol on the male body that represents survival, endurance, and life itself.
We are now more than 2,000 years since the Chanukah story and we are still here and faithfully committing ourselves to the mitzva of brit milah, circumcision. The Greeks wanted us to blend in with them and lose our identity. The Hellenized Jews of that generation did exactly that and have been tragically forgotten. Those of us who are still here to celebrate are descended from the Jews of that era who refused to forget they were Jewish and even willing to fight for it.
This year as you look at your lit Chanukah Menorah, think about the Jews of the past centuries who were willing to fight for their values; it was their fight that allows us to be here today. While being memorized by the Chanukah lights, we should pause for a moment and ask, what am I willing to fight for? What’s really important to me? What am I doing to make sure there will be Jews 2,000 years from now?
Happy Chanukah-Good Shabbos.