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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Yosef the Tzaddik, Religious Arrogance and the Miracle of Chanukkah

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on December 23, 2011)
Topics: Chanuka, God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Mikeitz, Sefer Breishit

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Yosef is known throughout Rabbinic literature as “Yosef the Tzaddik.”  This phrase alludes to the verse in Amos (2:6), “their selling the Tzaddik for silver”, which is understood to be referring to brother’s selling Yosef for the 30 pieces of silver.  It is a description, however, that finds deep resonance with the character of Yosef.  If we close our eyes and conjure up an image of a tzaddik, what picture comes to mind?  Someone who is scrupulous about following mitzvot, for sure.  But also someone who is Godly, who sees God in the world, and who sees godliness in others.  Because he sees God working through him, he takes no credit for his own good deeds, and because he sees God equally working through others and world events as the unfolding of a divine plan, he is nonjudgmental and forgiving when other people act improperly.  Rather he sees in them that which is good, he sees their godliness, and he sees how that which is less than perfect as somehow fitting into God’s ultimate plan.

Such was the personality of Yosef.   Yosef saw God everywhere.  In a particularly exceptional case, his faith in God allowed him to resist Potiphar’s wife – “How can I do this terrible thing, and I will have sinned against God?”   But more importantly, it shaped his day-to-day reality:   “And his master [Potiphar] saw that God was with him” (Breishit 39:3).  How did his master see that it was God, and not Yosef, who was the cause of his success?  Because that’s how Yosef saw it: “the name of Heaven was constantly on his lips” (Rashi, quoting Tanchuma).

The most explicit articulation of this viewing of reality through a Godly lens comes from Yosef directly, and particularly in the case of dreams.  Although it is Yosef who gives the interpretations, he takes no credit for this.  This is true in the case of the baker and the wine steward: “Behold to God is the interpretations.  Please tell me your dream.” (40:8), and this is true in this parasha, in the case of Pharaoh: “That is beyond me; it is God who will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare.”  (41:16).   But it goes beyond dreams as well.   When, after having revealed himself to them, the brothers are overcome with guilt for having sold Yosef, he reassures them that it was God who was working through them all along: “And now, do not be anguished and do not be angry with yourselves that you have sold me here, because it was to be a source of life that God has sent me here before you.” (45:5).

This is the quality of the tzaddik, the person who always sees God in the world.   For such a person to be a tzaddik, however, it is important that this perspective be coupled with humility.  For if this faith becomes certainty, when a person not only thinks, but knows, in his own mind, how God is operating; then this righteousness will become religious arrogance and can be very destructive indeed.   If a person is certain about God’s plan for him and for the rest of humanity, then nothing else matters.  Even if people have to suffer, it is justified because it is all in service of God’s will.

The ease with which one can slip into this mode of thinking was a danger that perhaps even Yosef did not completely avoid.  Ramban asks why Yosef didn’t tell his father where he was when he became viceroy of Egypt.  He answers, because he wanted the dreams to come true.  “And were it not for this reason, Yosef would have sinned gravely, to cause his father so much anguish, and to be bereaved … for such a long time… but rather all worked out in its proper time, so that the dreams would be fulfilled.”  (Ramban on 42:9).  While we can agree with Ramban that it all worked out according to the divine plan, one wonders if we can fully agree that Yosef acted correctly.  For while Yosef did not proactively cause hurt to others, he also did not do anything to alleviate it.  Let’s wait and see how this might be the unfolding of God’s plan, seems to have been his approach, but perhaps this view needs to be bracketed when others might suffer.   Regardless, Yosef never allowed his belief to give him license to bring hurt upon others.   That would require certainty, which would require arrogance.

We do not need to think hard to consider how such religious arrogance can translate into violent fundamentalism.  Present day examples in other religions abound.  But we can also find examples of this in our own religion, both present day and in the past.   Sometimes the violence takes the form of “merely” destroying someone’s reputation or standing in the community.  And sometimes it can take the form of actually killing someone in the name of God:

… A Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modiin as the royal edict required. When Matityahu saw this, he was fired with zeal; stirred to the depth of his being, he gave vent to his legitimate anger, threw himself on the man and slaughtered him on the altar.  Then Matityahu went through the town, shouting at the top of his voice, ‘Let everyone who has any zeal for the Law and takes his stand on the covenant come out and follow me.’

(I Maccabees 2:23-27)

Now, Matityahu’s declaration, “Who is for Law, come to me,” evokes Moshe’s declaration at the foot of Har Sinai, “Who is for God, come to me,” which was followed by the tribe of Levi killing all those who had worshipped the Golden Calf.  The subtext of this passage from the Book of Maccabees is that just as the Levites were justified in their actions because of their zeal for God, so was Matityahu in his actions.  There is only one small difference.  The Levites were acting under God’s direct command (see Shemot 32:27), whereas Matityahu was acting on his own religious zeal and certitude.   While we see God’s hand working through the Maccabees, and while were it not for Matityahu’s rebellion the miracle of Chanukah never would have happened, we do not have to endorse this initial act of killing another Jew who was violating the Law.  We do not have to endorse an approach that turns a tzaddik into a kanai, a zealot.

We must be very careful how we transmit the message of Chanukah.  For me, the message has always been one of religious freedom, of the Jews fighting against the Seleucid Greeks for the right to worship freely.  But the historical record is more complex, and it is easy to draw out a different message.  Consider this, from a column two years ago in the New York Times:

The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics…they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first…

“The Hanukkah Story,” David Brooks, NY Times, Dec 10, 2009

So, is Chanukah a message of religious freedom, or rather one of religious intolerance, of forced circumcisions and forced conversion, of imposing one’s religious beliefs on others?   The answer to this is up to us.  The question is not what happened, but what we choose to remember, how we shape our collective memory and the message we choose to learn and to live by.  Note that the Book of Maccabees is not part of the Tanakh.  Rather, the Sages preserved the memory of Chanukah in our liturgy, and in that retelling there is no mention of the slaying of the Jew at the altar.  In fact, in that telling there is no memory of the Jewish Hellenists at all.  Rather, the message in the liturgy is the fight against the oppressive Greeks.  “When the evil Greek kingdom arose… to make Your people forget Your Torah and to transgress Your laws…” is what we remember in the al ha’nissim prayer.  We fought against the Greeks so that we could freely worship God.

And thus the emphasis on the miracle of oil, a miracle not even mentioned in the Book of Maccabees.  Why is that so central to our memory of Chanukah?   Because it takes us away from the possible and dangerous lesson on religious fanaticism, and focuses our attention on the message of God’s presence in the world as a source of light.   We choose what to remember, and we choose how to see God in the world.  If we perceive God and God’s plan with arrogance and certitude, then it will become religious zealotry, and it will lead to violence and destruction.  We have enough kanayim.  What the world needs is a few more tzadikkim.  Let us instead perceive God and God’s plan with faith and humility, then it can help us become a tzaddik like Yosef, forgiving and accepting, seeing the divine in all and bringing light to the world.