This week’s פרשה opens with פרעה dreaming some bad dreams which no one could interpret. The שר המשקים, realizing that he knows someone who could interpret פרעה’s dream, begins a reluctant, long-winded explanation of how he came to know יוסף, culminating in his unflattering description of a “נער עברי.” Rashi, cursing the wicked who cannot do a complete favor, interprets this pejorative description as meaning that יוסף is a “נער,” young and inexperienced, and an “עברי,” usually interpreted as a Hebrew. While there is definitely room to interpret יוסף being called in a נער in a negative light, why is the label of עברי considered to be demeaning? Where does this word first originate?
While עברי has been used previously in פוטיפר’s house by יוסף and אשת פוטיפר, the first person to be labeled as an עברי was the first Hebrew- אברהם אבינו. During the war of the four kings and five kings, “ויגד לאברהם העברי- It was told to Abraham the Hebrew [that Lot was captured].” רש”י there gives the basic explanation that an עברי is someone from עבר הנהר, a foreigner. עברי, a patriarchal label for a foreigner, has a neutral connotation in regard to אברהם. Why does it have such a negative connotation in Egypt?
Towards the end of our סדרה, “עברי” makes an appearance again. When יוסף sits down to eat lunch with his unbeknownst brothers, we are informed that they are seated separately from the rest of the attendees, because “לא יוכלון המצרים לאכל את העברים לחם כי תועבה היא למצרים”- The Egyptians were loathe to eat bread with the Ivrim. This seems to be a little bit ridiculous, especially considering the neutral origin of the label ‘עברים.’ Why did the Egyptians discriminate so much against the so-called “עברים”?
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch answers that this shows the prominence of יעקב’s family that the small group of less than 70 people is already well known throughout Egypt. Furthermore, in his פירוש on פרשת לך-לך, Rav Hirsch, quoting R’ Yehoshua, explains why the Hebrews are so well known. The origin of עברי, according to R’ Yehoshua, comes from the idea that אברהם אבינו stood opposite the rest of the world- that he opposed what was going on in the world, especially morally, and he firmly stood his ground, standing up for his ethics and values and staying separate. This could explain why the עברים bothered the מצרים so much- because they represent something different, so different that it was a תועבה to eat with them.
יוסף, on the other hand, was proud to be an עברי, to be different. Throughout the story of his abduction, sale, imprisonment, and rise to power, יוסף always introduces himself as an עברי, or as being from the ארץ העברים, not being afraid of the consequences of being known as one who stays separate. I believe that we can learn a lesson from this attitude of יוסף and his brothers of being עברים, that, whether we are wealthy and successful or mere foreigners trying to collect some food to bring home to our families, we must remember and be proud that we, the descendants of אברהם אבינו, are proudly different, proudly עברים.
Later on in the תורה, in פרשת בלק, the “prophet” בלעם tries to curse בני ישראל, but instead reluctantly blesses them twice. In his first blessing, he says “הם עם לבדד ישכן” (במדבר כ”ג:ט’) “They will be a nation that dwells alone.” Later on, when he sees he cannot curse the Israelites, he sends the בנות מאוביות, the Moabite Daughters, to seduce the nation in the hope that he could bring them down to the level of the other nations and thereby make them vulnerable. This story, along with the lesson of the עברים, teaches us a powerful lesson: that the nation of Israel, the longest lasting nation in the world, only remains strong while it remains separate, while it remains the עם העברי. Once we try to integrate, once we mingle with the בנות מאוביות, then we lose our strength, and have lost our battle.
In an op-ed article in Friday’s New York Times entitled “Hanukkah, Unabridged; The True Meaning of Hanukkah”, Hillary Leila Krieger, a non-religious Jew, writes of a similar dilemma involving the holiday we are currently celebrating. Chanukah is a holiday of two celebrations- the military victory of the חשמונאים over the Greeks, and the miracle of the פח שמן lasting eight night. Krieger writes “When my brother was in kindergarten, where he was the only Jewish student, a parent organizing enrichment activities asked my mother to tell the class the story of Hanukkah. My mother obligingly brought in a picture book and began to read about foreign conquerors who were not letting Jews in ancient Israel worship freely, even defiling their temple, until a scrappy group led by the Maccabee family overthrew one of the most powerful armies in the world and won their liberty. The woman was horrified. The Hanukkah story, she interrupted, was not about war. It was about the miracle of an oil lamp that burned for eight days without replenishing.”
This is the western perspective of Chanukah- they like to focus on the miracle of the oil, the more peaceful celebration of Chanukah, while forgetting the miraculous military victory which gave us the ability to light the oil for 8 days in the Temple. Why is it that Americans like to focus on this minor part of the overall Chanukah holiday while ignoring the major battle of the חשמונאים?
The early American Jews of the 1800’s decided that, to be more like their gentile neighbors, they should try to relate Chanukah to the nearby celebrations. This ironically caused Chanukah, a holiday where the Jewish people fought for what they believed in against a nation that was suppressing their religion, to become a holiday where the Jews suppress part of their religion to try to make our holiday more acceptable. As a result, the most powerful and important part of Chanukah, the fight for religious integrity, has gone on the back-burner in the name of assimilation.
The Jewish People of the twenty first century are in a spiritual crisis. While there are about 13.5 million Jews in the world, most of them do not observe or follow Halacha properly, and intermarriage is at its highest ever. Because of our desire to be the same as those around us, we have fallen into the same situation that בלעם arranged in biblical times- tempting us to assimilate and bringing us down. The only solution is to follow the message of the חשמונאים, the same message of the Twelve Tribes- to stay separate, remain עברים no matter where we are. By continuing this heritage, we can hopefully win the same spiritual battle the Hasmoneans won over 2,000 years ago, and through this, we can merit the Third and Permanent Bet Hamikdash very soon. Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach.