On the last episode of Shark Tank, a popular TV show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a group of wealthy investors, a Jewish man presented what has become widely known as “Mensch on a Bench.” Inspired by “Elf on a Shelf,” a doll that Christians use to ensure children behave while they wait for Santa’s arrival, the Jewish entrepreneur created this huggable doll for kids of interfaith families and others who want something Jewish so as not to feel left out of the Christmas spirit (pithily called “elf envy”).
One of the investors, Barbara Corcoran, offered to invest $150,000 for 20 percent of the company, provided the Jewish creator would make a few changes. She wanted to redraw the doll’s face to make it look more friendly and requested a rewrite of the accompanying book. When she got finished with her list of conditions, one of the other investors remarked: “By the time Barbara’s finished, the Mensch is gonna be Catholic!” to which the Jewish creator responded: “My wife is Catholic, so that’s wonderful!
They’re mass producing 50,000 dolls and they expect to sell out with a need to create more. When the Jewish creator received the funding the whole team of investors yelled out, “Mazel tov!!”
We’re all familiar with the Chanukah story. The Greek tyrant Antiochus outlaws the practice of Judaism and forces our ancestors to worship their Greek gods and adopt the pagan culture of Hellenism. However, Hellenism had originally taken root in the Jewish community during the Second Temple period through simple exposure to another people’s culture and faith. Yes, it ended up being imposed upon us, but even before that began, Jews under Greek rule were giving up Judaism on their own in favor of Hellenism. Some in more subtle ways, like names changes, and some were making other more serious types of departures from a Torah way of life as Hellenism began to sweep the region.
How are we supposed to deal with outside influences? Do we seclude ourselves from the outside culture to ensure we preserve our own Torah way of life? Some believe this is the way to go. We might consider ourselves too enlightened to do that, but the American Jewish community has a serious intermarriage and assimilation problem today and you can see it in the many Chrismukah gifts you can now buy for Jewish people celebrating both Chanukah and Christmas. How does the Torah teach us to deal with this issue?
In last week’s Torah reading, Parshat Miketz, Joseph is sold into slavery and imprisoned. He develops a reputation of being able to explain people’s dreams. Joseph is fetched from jail and brought before Pharaoh who has his own need for dream interpretation. Instead of begging and pleading for his freedom, Joseph begins to invoke God’s name. When Pharaoh asks for Joseph to interpret his dream, Joseph responds, “It is not me, it is God who interprets dreams.” (Genesis, 41:16) After Pharaoh tells him the of his two dreams Joseph again responds, “What God is going to do He has already told Pharaoh.” (Ibid 41:25) A few verses later, Joseph repeats, “What God is going to do He has already told Pharoh” (Ibid, 41:28).
Jospeh does not hide who he is or in what he believes. He stands in polytheistic Egypt before Pharaoh, a man worshiped as a God, and invokes his belief in his monotheistic God. And in all the time that Joseph lives in Egypt, he continues to identify and to live as a Jew, as the son of Jacob. Our Sages teach that Yosef maintained the “dmut yonku”- the image of his dear father Jacob and the traditions of his family all throughout his many years in Egypt. And it never seemed to hold him back. On the contrary, the more he invokes God’s name, the more successful he becomes. To this day we bless our sons on Friday night “to be like Menashe and Ephraim,” the two sons of Joseph. Why Joseph’s sons? They were the first Jews raised in exile, in a foreign land, and in a different culture, and they nonetheless were raised in a uniquely Jewish way by their father. Our Sages teach that when Jacob and Joseph were reunited, Jacob studied Torah each and every day with his grandsons. Joseph’s sons continued their family’s values and traditions, and so we bless our children so that they grow up the same way even as they are exposed to different cultures and ideas. Joseph’s life teaches that we can be part of the greater society, that we can make a difference out in the world, and still maintain our distinct Jewish identity and way of life. That we do not have to seclude ourselves in Jewish enclaves to maintain our traditions.
But it’s not easy.
Living in both the secular and Jewish world poses serious challenges and if there’s any time that highlights this challenge here in America, it’s the end of December, during the Chanukah/Christmas season when too many of our Jewish brothers and sisters seem to have the same feeling for both of these holidays.
One approach to this dilemma is to look back at Joseph whose story we always read at this time of year. Joseph was someone who was clearly involved in the outside world, someone who contributed to the greater good outside of his own people. He saved thousands of people’s lives by predicting a famine and executing a plan to get the people through the crisis. And throughout he maintained himself as a devoted Jew. How? By being proud of who he was. By not being ashamed of his roots and heritage. By not thinking that his success was dependent on covering up his true identity. At the end of the day, Pharaoh made Joseph viceroy because he saw Joseph’s great talent. The fact that he had a different belief system didn’t impede his success. To the contrary, people saw him as a person of conviction, devoted to certain beliefs and a way of life and they had even more respect for him.
We often think that the more we become like everyone else, the more respected and accepted we will be. Jews under Greek rule said the same thing–the more Greek, the more Hellenist I become, the more cultured and sophisticated I will be viewed and ultimately the more accepted I will be. Our great-grandparents said the same thing in Germany not too long ago. In 1930, the great scientist, Albert Einstein was asked by the Zionist leader, Chaim Weitzman, to travel with him to America to raise funds for the Zionist cause. Einstein was approached by some prominent Jewish leaders in the Germany and asked not to go, as it would make the Jewish community appear as though they had a dual loyalty. Einstein nonetheless accepted the invitation but raised only $750,000 in America because those who donated were primarily Eastern European immigrants. The wealthier American Jews were less invested in helping out the Zionist cause. They too were far more focused on becoming accepted in America.
If we think the answer to our problems is becoming like everyone else or dispensing with our traditions, whether they be Shabbat or Kashrut, because we think those differences will make it harder for us to land a new job or maintain a relationship, we’re making a big mistake, in that we’re abandoning the very parts of life that will ultimately enable us to be successful in the world.
Giving up our Jewish traditions to fit in is just repeating the same mistake our ancestors made in the times of the Greeks, and that’s why the ultimate counter to the Hellenists were the Maccabees. Because they had pride in their Judaism. They were called the Maccabees because Maccabeim was an acronym from a phrase from the Hebrew Bible: “Mi Kamocha B’elim Hashem”- “who is like you among the gods Hashem” which was emblazoned on their shields and armor. As a response to the widespread belief in the Greek gods being forced on the Jews of Israel, the Maccabees said that there is only one God.
The Maccabees were proud of what they believed in, and they weren’t afraid to proclaim it to the world. That’s why we place our Menorahs in the windows of our homes, facing the world, not to display arrogance, but pride, in who we are and in what we believe. Jewish pride is ultimately what saved our people then, and it is what’s so desperately needed again today. Putting our Jewish traditions behind us so we can get ahead ultimately deprives us of the very value system that has kept us a vibrant nation, and it prevents the world from benefiting from the light that God wanted us to share with all of humanity.
We can learn and grow from other people’s ideas and cultures. We can live in harmony among other nations and still not lose ourselves, if and ONLY if, we have sufficient knowledge and pride in our own value system and in our own special way of life. And yes, at times, that special lifestyle may limit us. It may limit who we date or who we marry. If we want to have Shabbat in our lives or send our children to Jewish schools, then yes, we have to look for someone appropriate and that limits our dating pool. It may at times prevent us from taking certain professional positions, but rather than looking at our Jewish lifestyle as some kind of limitation or hindrance, as with Joseph, that lifestyle, that value system, is precisely what empowers us to be successful in this world.
The only question is how to define success.
When Shuli and Michal Rand, the lead actors in the film Ushpizen were asked whether their religious lifestyles limit their success in the film industry, Michal answered, “Yes – our success in the film industry is somewhat limited, but not our success in life.” It all depends on what kind of success we want to achieve.
May we all be blessed with true success in our lives and, as we light our Menorah, let us reflect on the message of Chanukah: Jewish pride–the only thing that will ensure that the light of Torah continues to shine in the hearts and homes of all Jews, so it can illuminate the world.