Friday, December 26, 2008

The Translator Between:
A Miqeitz DvarTorah

(for ma‘ariv)

יוסף's brothers come down to Egypt
to buy food,
to support themselves
and their families
through the famine
that struck both Egypt and כנען —
but which only the Egyptians
were ready for,
thanks to their new assistant-pharaoh
צפנת־פענח
or as we call him, יוסף.

Recognizing the brothers
who hated him,
who wanted to kill him,
who sold him into slavery —
יוסף turns on them,
singling them out
from all the other hungry foreigners,
and accuses them of being spies.

As everything begins to fall apart around them,
the brothers remember יוסף
thrown down
into the utterly empty pit —
and his voice,
begging,
which they ignored.

And the brothers
are terrified
that this
is their payback.

But they didn't know
that צפנת־פענח, vice-pharoah of Egypt,
understood
what they said to each other
in desperation
and self-incrimination —
כִּי הַמֵּלִיץ בֵּינוֹתָֿם
because a translator was between them.

This whole time
יוסף had been making believe
that he could only speak Egyptian,
and not Cana‘anite or Aramaic,
or whatever other language
his brothers had been using
to speak among themselves.

This translator
is identified by the מדרשים
of בראשית רבה
as מנשה,
יוסף's older son.

מנשה
was born in Egypt.
His father was יוסף.
His mother was אסנת, an Egyptian aristocrat.

Unlike his father,
who grew up in ארם and כנען,
insulated by family
who recognized their heritage
and their inheritance,
who had a sense of their relationship to God
and God's promise to them and their ancestors —
מנשה and his brother, אפרים,
grew up in Egypt,
surrounded by Pharaonic opulence
and the rich culture, history and faith
of the Land of Fertile Black Soil.

And yet,
as we will see in a few weeks,
יעקב considered his Egyptian grandchildren
faithful enough to the family's mission —
Abrahamic enough —
to be adopted by him
and upgraded
from grandsons
to Sons of Israel,
worthy of founding
entire tribes.

Rabbi Elli Fischer has pointed out
that every generation
and every Jewish group
has it's own חנוכה.
For the Secular Zionists in Israel,
חנוכה is about Jewish power
and military might.
For some contemporary חרדים,
חנוכה is about the victory
of the purity of fundamentalism
over pluralism and accommodation.
And in 20th century America,
the environment in which many
of us grew up,
חנוכה
was about religious freedom;
about multiculturalism;
about preserving and strengthening
Jewish identity
in sometimes hostile —
and if not actually hostile,
at least unsupportive
surroundings.

Like מנשה and אפרים,
we grow up in open homes.

Through our windows
come the ideas, values and influences
of the society in which we live,
both positive and negative.

Most of us are not outsiders like יוסף —
newcomers to a strange land.
We are more like his children,
at home in both worlds
and both languages.

We are translators
like מנשה,
the מליץ בינותם —
standing on the edge
between worlds,
interpreting and transforming
cultures, concepts,
languages and lives.

We enrich our relationship with God
and our understanding of humanity
when we search for the good and true
no matter where it comes from.

And we illuminate all of human civilization
like the חנוכיה in the window or the doorway
when we express the wisdom of our Tradition
in a way that the wider world can hear.

מנשה's job of translation
eventually led
to a reconciliation
between יוסף and his brothers.

Our task, though,
is more challenging.
We translate
not just to heal relationships between brothers,
but to heal the entire world.

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