"Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, 'Not I! God will see to Pharaoh's welfare'" Genesis 41:16


The vain youth who had dreamt of his family bowing down to him has matured. Sold into slavery and thrown in prison, he has learnt humility. When Pharaoh says to him, "I'm told that you only have to hear a dream to interpret its meaning," Joseph modestly answers, "It's not down to me," or, following Targum Onkelos: not from my wisdom, but from God comes the answer to give Pharaoh peace of mind.

Such modesty, though, is double-edged. While disclaiming his own soothsaying power, Joseph claims to speak in God's name and thus asserts special authority for his words. The Tanach affirms Joseph's righteousness but also warns against false prophets who tell kings what they want to hear. Maimonides rails against venal soothsayers who dupe the gullible with dream interpretations. It isn't always easy to tell the difference between an inspired interpretation of events and a self-serving one.

We always read this portion during Chanucah and a similar ambiguity surrounds the heroic exploits of the Maccabees. We celebrate them as freedom fighters, who championed the right of Jews to observe our law in the face of heathen persecution.

The sages of the Talmud, however, begrudge them much recognition. The Mishnah barely mentions Chanucah and the Gemara devotes a mere six pages to it, whereas Purim gets an entire volume. Many scholars ascribe this to the fact that the Hasmoneans, a priestly family, having repulsed the Syrians, illegitimately usurped the throne reserved for the house of David and established a regime that persecuted scholars and deteriorated into violent anarchy.

Priests and kingship shouldn't mix and military prowess doesn't necessarily translate into divine right. That might be why the rabbis chose as the haftarah for Shabbat Chanucah Zechariah's vision of the heavenly menorah, culminating in the message, "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts".

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