As Chanukah and Tahnksgiving get set to overlap, this week’s portion offers many reminders of the deeper themes behind these two important holidays.
It’s been fun this year to watch people connecting Chanukah and Thanksgiving — this rare overlap. As we plan Thanksgiving menus this week to include sweet potato latkes, and gather Chanukah candles along with cranberry sauce, I turn to this week’s portion to remind us of the deeper themes of these holidays.
We are introduced first to the character of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son. When first met, he is a dreamer. He stands out from his brothers for his favored position in the family, for the multi-colored coat his father gives him, and for the dreams he has and recounts. This Joseph is arrogant and flamboyant — but aware of his special promise, and therefore poised to fulfill it.
Thanksgiving Day and Chanukah are also holidays of dreaming. They both commemorate the dream and achievement of religious freedom. The first settlers of this country were Puritans who came to America because they were persecuted for practicing their form of Christianity in their home countries.
Thanksgiving was the celebration of building a new life in a place where they could follow their beliefs. Likewise, one of the central achievements of Chanukah is the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, when the Jews could finally worship as they wished after being persecuted by the Syrian-Greek army.
Joseph has fabulous dreams, but they get him into trouble. His brothers are jealous of him for being their father’s favorite. To achieve his dreams, Joseph must shrink his ego. The text describes what happens to him with a series of actions that literally send Joseph down. His brothers cast him into a pit, he is sold into slavery and taken to Egypt, and finally he is sent down into a prison when he is falsely accused of trying to seduce Potiphor’s wife.
In the prison, Joseph begins to develop some humility. He becomes an interpreter of dreams rather than a dreamer, helping his prison mates make sense of their dreams. Furthermore, he clearly states that not he, but God, is the true interpreter of the dreams. This growing humility positions Joseph to fulfill the destiny of his early dreams.
This focus on humility reminds us of the deep meaning of the two holidays we are about to celebrate. The act of thanksgiving itself is a humble one — when we are grateful we acknowledge that what we have is not due to our efforts alone, but that others, and even God, have had a hand in our fortune. A central part of the story of the first Thanksgiving is the help the settlers received from the Native Americans in growing food.
Chanukah is also a holiday of humility and thanksgiving. It celebrates the miracles of rededicating the Temple and of the oil, which would not have happened without the help of God. Jews are both proud of their unlikely military victory at Chanukah, and humbled by the miracle that it was. Chanukah is eight days of thanking and acknowledging God for that miracle.
Humility and acknowledging others are essential ingredients of the act of giving thanks. In the midst of all the cooking and celebration we have in the week ahead of us, may we also connect to each other, remember our interdependence, and know that our dreams are only achieved when we ask for, receive, and are grateful for help.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]