Judaism: How [Not] to Bring the Redemption
“It happened at the end of two years to the day, that Pharaoh was dreaming: behold – he was standing over the River [Nile]” (Genesis 41:1).
Two years earlier, Joseph had accurately interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s Royal Butler and Royal Baker, and pleaded with the Royal Butler to remember him to Pharaoh upon his impending release. Though the Torah does not tell us how long Joseph had spent in prison before that incident with the dreams, several sources (Exodus Rabbah 7:1; Tanhuma, Vayeishev 9; Tanna de-Vey Eliyahu, Pirkei ha-Yeridot section 1; Seder Olam; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 39) record that it was ten years.
According to the Midrash, “Joseph should only have been in prison for ten years, as a punishment for having delivered evil reports about his ten brothers ; but because he said to the Royal Butler ‘Just remember me with yourself when [Pharaoh] does good for you’ (40:14), an extra two years were added” (Exodus Rabbah 7:1).
The Tanhuma (Vayeishev 9) is starker: “He should only have been in prison for ten years, so why were two years added? – G-d said: You cast away your trust in Me, and instead trusted in the Royal Butler. You asked him two times to remember you – ‘Just remember me with yourself when [Pharaoh] does good for you, and please do me this kindness; remember me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this building’ (Genesis 40:14), so you will be forgotten in this prison for two years”.
This raises an obvious question. We have a principle that it is forbidden to rely on a miracle (see Shabbat 32a, Ta’anit 20b, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 192:3, et. al.), so what did Joseph do wrong in asking the Royal Butler to remember him to Pharaoh and get him out of prison? As Rabbeinu Bechayyeh (Spain, mid-13th century to 1340) points out, it would have appeared to Joseph that G-d had purposely sent these two royal officials to share Joseph’s prison cell in order to provide him with the opportunity of some royal influence; so why was Joseph punished for taking the opportunity when it came along?
I suggest that the answer can be found in the Midrash, according to which the Royal Butler’s dream not only foretold his release from prison three days later, but was also a prophecy of Israel’s Redemption from Egypt: “The Royal Butler related his dream to Joseph: ‘And behold! There was a vine in front of me’ (Genesis 40:9) – this alludes to Israel…; ‘and on the vine were three tendrils’ (verse 10) – representing Moshe, Aaron, and Miriam; ‘and it was as though it was budding’ (ibid.) – the budding represents the Redemption of Israel; ‘its blossoms bloomed’ (ibid.) – representing the blossoming of Israel’s redemption” (Genesis Rabbah 88:5, Midrash Lekach Tov).
Joseph should have understood that though the individual Jew is allowed to rely on natural means to rescue him from ordinary dangers, when the Redemption of Israel is the issue it is forbidden to rely on any outside help. The Redemption of Israel is by its very definition Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of the Name of G-d – and this can happen solely by the hand of the Nation of G-d.
It is no coincidence that since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Mikkeitz almost always coincides with Hanukkah: the last time Mikkeitz did not fall during Hanukkah was in 5761 (2000), and the next time will be in 5781 (2020). And the story of Hanukkah, the history of the Maccabean Revolt, reinforces this immutable lesson.
The Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire began in 167 B.C.E., when Antiochus IV (who eight years earlier had become ruler of the Seleucid Empire) began a concerted campaign against Judaism throughout Judea. The Maccabees’ fight seemed absurd: twenty-five men against the world’s mightiest empire.
Tough the Maccabees may have been, but they had no military training. They did not even have any military tradition to learn from: there had been no Jewish army since King Yehoyakhin (Jehoiachin), the last king of Judea, some 420 years earlier – and that army had been defeated and conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.
The last Jewish military victory had been six kings and a century earlier yet, under King Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah), when the Assyrian army of Sanheriv (Sennacherib), 185,000 strong, all died in a single night (2 Kings 19:35, Isaiah 37:36, 2 Chronicles 32:21). Thus even that was not a military victory which the Maccabees could study to learn military stratagems.
To find a Jewish army which had been victorious on a battlefield we have to go back to King Yarav’am (Jeroboam) II of Israel, who had ascended to the throne 86 years before Hizkiyahu had ascended the throne of Judea, and who in alliance with Judea had conquered Damascus and Hamath and restored them to Israelite sovereignty (2 Kings 14:28)
So the Maccabees took up arms some six and a half centuries after the last Jewish military victory. They were untrained and unskilled tactically and strategically, as well as being hopelessly outnumbered and overpowered.
Hellenist ideology dominated the world from Greece unto Persia, and not even Rome yet dared to challenge the supremacy of the Seleucid Empire. Yet within three years, the Maccabean forces re-took Jerusalem and the Holy Temple (which had been captured by the Greeks and desecrated back in 168 B.C.E.), re-dedicating the Holy Temple on the twenty-fifth of Kislev 164 B.C.E.
The Maccabees’ campaign continued, winning battle after battle, campaign after campaign, fighting without any mortal allies. In the next year they defeated the Seleucid-Hellenist forces in the Galilee, Judea, Samaria, Hebron, Gilead (in Transjordan), Beth-Shean, Jaffa, and the entire coastal plain from the port in modern-day Haifa southwards down to Gaza.
Jewish forces were winning victory after victory over Seleucid forces throughout Judea, and their eventual victory seemed guaranteed.
And then in 161 B.C.E., Rome – the up-and-coming super-power – recognised Jewish sovereign independence, and Yehudah (Judah) the Maccabee, the son and successor of Matityahu who had founded the Maccabean dynasty, signed a treaty of military alliance with Rome. Shortly afterwards Yehudah was killed in battle, and his brother Yonatan was elected in his place. There followed a long period of uncertain rule in Israel – rival Jewish groups and the remnants of the Seleucids all vying for power.
In 139 B.C.E., the Roman Senate formally recognised Judæa (the Latinised spelling) as an independent country.
The Hasmoneans saw this alliance and treaty with Rome as a veritable salvation: for a small nation fighting desperately for its independence against a mighty superpower, winning the protection of another powerful country seemed the pragmatic thing to do. But the repercussions were horrendous: within a generation the Hasmoneans would become Hellenised, and Jewish infighting would effectively give Rome control over Judæa.
In 69 B.C.E. Queen Shlom-Tziyon (Salome) Alexandra died – the last monarch to reign and to die as an independent ruler of an independent Jewish state. Her two sons, Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, both claimed the Judæan throne, and a civil war broke out between the two brothers and their respective followers. Hyrcanus forged an alliance with the Roman Empire, and the Judæan civil war ended when the Roman General Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) entered Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E. in support of Hyrcanus, who thereby defeated his brother Aristobolus and became High Priest and vassal king of Judæa.
Such is the result of entrusting Israel’s Redemption to human allies. G-d’s Name is not sanctified by Israel relying on Rome or France or America for salvation. His Name is sanctified when Israel, His Nation and His representatives in this world, fight their own wars and win their own victories in His name without mortal allies.
Joseph in his Egyptian dungeon should have realised this. When he interpreted the Royal Butler’s dream, he should have understood that his experience in prison was the paradigm of Israel’s exile, and that his release would be the paradigm of Israel’s Redemption. And the Redemption of Israel, which is pure Kiddush Hashem, can be wrought solely by Jews relying solely on G-d.
For failing in this test Joseph spent an extra two years in captivity. When the Maccabees failed in this same test, they descended rapidly into the very Hellenism that their grandfather had given his life to fight against, and very soon became corrupt dictators, holding power against their fellow-Jews at the point of Roman spears – and eventually, those self-same Romans with whom they had forged alliances and treaties destroyed them along with the same Holy Temple that their predecessors had fought to liberate and purify.
This is the inevitable result of trusting in human allies instead of in G-d for the Redemption. As with Joseph in this week’s Parashah and as with the Maccabees in the Hanukkah episode, relying on foreign nations for our Redemption guarantees failure. Our salvation will come not from treaties with America or from Chinese technology, nor from deals with Arab terrorists, but solely from G-d and from our trust and reliance in Him.