Hanukah and the Story of Yosef
Every year, without exception, the story of Yosef and his brothers is read during or just before the celebration of Hanukah. It is always at this time of year that we read about the very first instance of Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) among the Jewish People – the hatred shown to Yosef by his brothers, who ended up selling him into slavery, banishing him from their family. Is this just a coincidence, or might there be some connection between the story of Yosef’s being sold as a slave, and the festive celebration of Hanukah?
In truth, we have proof that a connection exists between the story of Yosef and the story of Hanukah. The Kabbalistic work Megaleh Amukot (by Rav Natan Shapiro, Poland, 1584-1633) noted that the Gematria (numerical value) of the name “Yosef” equals that of the name “Antiochus” – the Greek king who enacted the edicts against the Jews. Moreover, the Midrash writes that the Greeks forced the Jews to write upon the horns of their oxen a formal declaration that they renounced their allegiance to their G-d. Some Rabbis noted that this edict was intentionally associated with Yosef, who is compared to an ox (“Bechor Shoro Hadar Lo” – Debarim 33:17).
The question, then, becomes, what is the point of connection between Yosef and Antiochus; between the story of the cruelty suffered by Yosef at the hands of his brothers, and the story of the cruelty suffered by the Jews at the hands of the Greeks?
The answer is that the Greek persecution came because the Jews of the time repeated the mistake of Sinat Hinam which was first made by Yosef’s brothers. The entire story of Hanukah was all about strife among the Jews and the decision to cure this ill through unity and peace. Indeed, the war against the Greeks was led by the Hashmonaim, a family of Kohanim. The Kohanim, the descendants of Aharon, carried his unique legacy of “Oheb Shalom Ve’rodef Shalom” – living as a “lover” and “pursuer” of peace. They embodied the ideal of peaceful relations among people, and thus it was specifically they who led the campaign to restore peace and harmony in Am Yisrael and thereby put an end to the Greek persecution.
Additionally, the Mishna (Middot 2:3) teaches that when the Greeks stormed the Bet Ha’mikdash, they made thirteen breaches in one of the walls surrounding the structure. Thirteen is the numerical value of the word “Ehad” (“one”), and thus represents Jewish unity, the ideal of Jews working and living harmoniously together as one. The thirteen breaches symbolize the breach in unity that wrought the campaign of oppression launched by the Greeks against the Jews.
For good reason, then, “Antiochus” has the same Gematria as “Yosef.” If we repeat the mistake made by the brothers in their mistreatment of Yosef, then we suffer the oppression of Antiochus.
This is why we always read the story of the sale of Yosef around the time of Hanukah – because Hanukah is the time for us to focus our attention on eliminating Sinat Hinam from our midst, to correct the mistake made by Yosef’s brothers, the mistake which, unfortunately, we continue to make even today. We read this story as a somber reminder of the devastating consequences of strife among Jews, and the need to work towards peace and harmony – especially during the time of Hanukah. It is perhaps for this reason, we might add, that people customarily make special parties with relatives, friends and neighbors during the Hanukah holiday. Celebrating together with our fellow Jews in joy and camaraderie is an effective way of strengthening the bonds between us and thereby combating strife and fighting.
Please G-d, we will succeed during the upcoming Hanukah celebration to strengthen our love for all our fellow Jews, eliminate hatred and contention from our homes, from our communities, and from our hearts, and increase the level of peace and unity in our nation, so we will earn the merit of witnessing and experiencing miracles like those which were performed for the Hashmonaim, Amen.