By Rabbi John Franken
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23.
Margaret MacMillan’s acclaimed new book, “War: How Conflict Shaped Us,” makes a fascinating argument. War, it argues, is baked into humans like flour is baked into bread. Altogether it presents a rather dim view of the human condition, suggesting that humankind is destined to be locked in conflict, all the while accompanied by suffering and loss.
The biblical narrative of Joseph and his brothers certainly begins this way. Having brought bad reports to their father, young Joseph is cast into a pit by his resentful brothers and left to die. Then, implored by the eldest brother, Reuben, to “shed no blood,” the brothers opt to sell Joseph to a caravan of traders.
Only after many years of fear, separation, suffering and grief, does Joseph reconcile with his brothers and reunite with his long-grieving father. Even so, not one of them is spared the pain of that conflict even as the denouement sees the abatement of family strife.
It may be with that idea in mind, coupled with the catastrophic consequences of war for the Jews of the first and second centuries, that the books of Maccabees were left out of the biblical canon and that the early rabbis recast the Chanukah story from a tale of war to a tale of spiritual rededication. The greatness of the Maccabees, taught the rabbis, was not their valor or their physical strength. It was their principled dedication to the God and Torah of Israel. For what conflict has any worth if not for the innermost values of the people waging it?
Having just come through an extraordinarily bitter election and its aftermath, it feels as if we are emerging from a war of our own. Indeed, to millions of Americans on both sides, the 2020 election represented nothing less than a conflict between good and evil, light and darkness, freedom and tyranny.
The haftarah for Chanukah is a fitting and hopeful coda to this other seemingly existential conflict. “Shout for joy, Fair Zion!” the prophet Zechariah proclaims. “’For lo, I come and I will dwell in your midst,’ declares the Eternal.” And yet, Zechariah’s prophecy comes with a caveat: that this dwelling of God in our midst will happen “not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.” However much war and conflict might infect us, only the spirit of God can bring holiness and peace into our midst.
John Franken is rabbi of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.