For Shabbat Hanukkah: Miketz and the Maccabees

United we stand, divided we fall.

Daniel Pinner,

Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Ten brothers stood before the viceroy of Egypt, called Tzafenat Pa’aneach. They had no inkling that this hostile and dictatorial Egyptian was their own long-lost little brother Joseph.

Tzafenat Pa’aneach’s behaviour towards the ten brothers was so irrational, it must have been calculated to puzzle and disconcert them. In a country to which people from all over the Near East flocked to buy food, Tzafenat Pa’aneach singled out this one family to charge them with being spies.

When they protested their innocence, he gave them a totally irrational response: “This is how you will be tested: By Pharaoh’s life you will only get out of it when your little brother comes here! Send one of you to fetch your brother, while the rest you remain imprisoned. Thus your words will be tested, whether truth is with you. And if not, then by Pharaoh’s life! – you are spies” (Genesis 42:16).

What kind of test is this? How does bringing their little brother to Egypt possibly prove that they are not spies?

Tzafenat Pa’aneach then imprisoned them all for three days (v. 17), and when he released them, he suddenly changed the plan. Instead of keeping nine brothers in prison and sending one back to Canaan to fetch the little brother, he instead released nine to bring food back to their father, keeping only one, Shimon (Simeon) imprisoned.

Rashi and the Rashbam, following the Midrash (Tanhuma, Vayiggash 4) both suggest that Joseph imprisoned Shimon in order to separate him from Levi. He remembered all too well what Shimon and Levi had done to the entire city of Shechem years earlier when the prince of that city had raped their sister, Dinah; he dared not risk letting them roam free together in Egypt.

The Midrash graphically records Shimon’s arrest:

“What was Joseph’s wisdom? – That he did not want to fight with his brothers. But when he saw ten mighty warriors standing before him, each one of whom could destroy ten provinces, he was shocked. What did Joseph do? – He placed guards at the gates...then he took Shimon from them and imprisoned him, because it was he who had thrown him into the well; and also, he separated him from Levi, so that they could not conspire together to kill him. Shimon immediately said to his brothers: This is what you did to Joseph – and this is what you are trying to do to me!

“They said to him: What can we do? All our family will die of starvation!

“He said to them: Do as you see fit – and now I’ll see who can put me into prison!

Then Joseph sent a message to Pharaoh, saying: Send me 70 of your mighty warriors, because I have encountered bandits and I wish to shackle them. And Pharaoh sent them... Joseph said to those warriors: Put this one into prison, and shackle his feet! When they approached him he roared at them, and when they heard his voice they fell on their faces and their teeth smashed... Menashe, Joseph’s son, was sitting in front of them, and his father said to him: Get up with them. Menashe immediately got up and hit [Shimon] once, put him into prison and shackled his feet.

“Shimon said to his brothers: Do you say this hit was from Egypt? – This can only be from our father’s house!” (Bereishit Rabbah 91:6 and Tanhuma, Vayiggash 4).

The simple meaning of Shimon’s words is that no outsider could ever defeat the Children of Israel; as long as they remain united and unified, they are invincible. He was, after all, the one who, together with his brother Levi, had defeated and massacred an entire city in their youth.

Shimon, who with his voice had overpowered 70 of Pharaoh’s mighty warriors, knew that the ten of them together could easily take on Pharaoh’s entire army. But against one of their own family, they were doomed to fall.

And this had momentous implications for all the brothers. Because 220 years earlier (as they were all too well aware), G-d had told their great-grandfather Abraham: “Know for certainty that your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will oppress them for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13).

This long-dreaded began precisely at the moment that these ten brothers conspired against their one little brother Joseph, plotting initially to murder him and then to sell him into slavery. They had experienced what the results were of their brotherly hatred – and now, 22 years later, they bitterly regretted what they had done.

When Shimon castigated his brothers: “This is what you did to Joseph – and this is what you are trying to do to me!”, he was giving them a clear message: This is precisely the un-brotherly behaviour that brings exile upon us!

It is no coincidence that ever 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 Miketz nearly always falls during Hanukkah. Because in the riposte of the Hanukkah story, the Maccabees’ descendants made the same ghastly error.

The Maccabean Revolt began in 167 B.C.E., and a year and a half later they began wining strategic victories, liberating ever-increasing areas in and around Jerusalem and the Galilee.

With increasing Jewish control over the Land of Israel, Rome – the up-and-coming super-power – recognised Jewish sovereign independence in 161 B.C.E., and Yehudah, Judah the Maccabee signed a treaty of military alliance with Rome. Shortly afterwards Yehudah was killed in battle, and his brother Jonathan 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 recognised Judæa (the Latinised spelling) as an independent country. Though an alliance and a treaty with Rome may have seemed the pragmatic thing to do, the repercussions were horrendous: within a generation the Hasmoneans would become thoroughly Hellenised, and Jewish infighting would effectively give Rome control over Judæa.

Queen Shlom-Tziyyon (Salome) Alexandra – the last monarch to reign and to die as an independent ruler of an independent Jewish state – died in 69 B.C.E., and her two sons, Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, both claimed the Judæan throne. A civil war subsequently began between the two brothers and their respective followers.

Hyrcanus invoked the 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 then became High Priest and vassal king of Judæa.

As with Joseph millennia earlier in Dotan, and as with Shimon 22 years after him in Egypt – so long as the Jews were united, no outside power could ever defeat them. It was only when the brothers attacked one of their own that the first exile – the Egyptian exile – began, and it was only as a consequence of the war of brothers that the Romans were able to take effective control of Judæa, and subsequently to invade, conquer, and defeat the Second Jewish Commonwealth and drive the majority of Jews into exile.

Thus began the third and final and harshest of all exiles – the Roman-Edomite exile.

Our Sages calibrated the annual Torah-reading cycle towards the end of the Second Temple period, at a time of impending destruction, impending exile. They fully understood the dangers facing the nation, and they knew the urgent necessity to educate the nation of the terrible dangers of intra-Jewish betrayal – and so they ordained that Parashat Miketz would usually coincide with Hanukkah.

(At the time, of course, the civil war between Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, and the subsequent collaboration between General Pompey and Hyrcanus, was recent history, and the consequences were still day-to-day events.)

And now, 2,000 years on, as we return to our Land and cross the threshold of national independence – now is, once again, the time to study and learn the lesson of Parashat Miketz and Hanukkah.

We see, in our days and in our lives, how Israel can be invincible. Two dozen Arab and Moslem states surrounding us are impotent to harm us. The UN, the League of Arab States, the Organisation of Islamic Conference, the Communist International (if it even still exists), OPEC – these are mere ciphers.

Only Jews, and specifically Jews living in Israel, have the power to damage, even to destroy, Israel. Once it was in the name of all-inclusive Hellenism, the ideology that dominated the world from Rome to Persia, that Jews in Israel fought bitterly against Torah. Today it is in the name of peace, or in the name of socialism or communism, or in the name of coexistence, or in the name of progressive humanism, or in the name of democracy.

(Of course none of these ideas are inherently bad. Like any ideas, they are tools, and can be used for good or for bad, to build or to destroy.)

We have seen, only too often, how Israel’s most vicious enemies are fed their propaganda directly from Jews in Israel. It is tragically commonplace that some of the most vitriolic hatred of Israel and of Jews bouncing round the Internet is copy-pasted directly from the pages of Haaretz, Peace Now, MachsomWatch, and the like.

And we have seen how half a billion Arabs surrounding Israel have never been able to remove even one single Jew from a single nanometre of land. Only our own High Court, our own police and army, have ever been able to do that.

Standing before the hostile viceroy of Egypt, Shimon knew that only a punch from his own father’s house could defeat him. The Maccabees knew that only betrayal from their own could defeat them and plunge the nation back into exile.

And so it is today.