A Festival of Lights and Liberty Torah Portion

Connecting with the Portion of the Week

There are two torah portions read around the time of Hanukkah, both connecting to the story of Joseph and specifically Joseph’s entry into Egypt. In the first portion, vayeshev, Joseph is a teenager when his older brothers sell him into slavery. Joseph is taken from the land of his ancestors to Egypt, where he faces great hardship, is accused of a crime he did not commit, and is imprisoned with no direct route to freedom. In the second portion, miketz, Joseph correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, saves Egypt from the threat of famine, marries an Egyptian woman, and rises to prominence.

Willingly or not, Joseph became an immigrant, and, after a 30-year separation, the rest of his family immigrated and joined him in Egypt. According to the Torah, the Israelites left Egypt only after 430 years--almost twice as long as the United States has existed at all.
Whether the Joseph narrative is history or myth, there is no doubt that Jewish people knew what it was to be immigrants long before they began immigrating to the United States. Indeed, it says no fewer than 36 times in the Torah that “you should not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

However, we as Jews don’t need to reach back anywhere near the Israelites’ time in Egypt to understand immigration. Many of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (and we ourselves!) immigrated to the United States from all corners of the earth. Many came into this country with very little except the address of a relative or neighbor and the hope for a better life than achieved in their countries of origin.

It may be almost impossible for many of us to imagine Joseph’s circumstances, or that of his descendants in Egypt so very long ago, but it may be easier to reach back into our own family histories to locate an immigrant experience or two, and it’s quite easy to see immigrant experiences unfolding all around us.

Discussion Questions

1) How is Joseph’s story like that of immigrants in your own family’s history?
2) Are there immigrants in your community that have helped it to flourish?
3) Where do you think the biblical emphasis on “we were strangers, too” comes from?
4) DREAMers are minors and young adults who were brought to the United States as children and graduated from American high schools without obtaining legal status. As such, benefits of legal residency and citizenship, such as in-state tuition for college and documentation necessary to apply for work and drivers’ licences, are not available to them. Do you see parallels between Joseph’s circumstances and that of today’s DREAMers? How might Joseph’s circumstances have been different if he was unable to work for Pharoah? How might his family’s circumstances have changed?
5) The story of our collective ancestral immigration is preserved in the torah. What can you do to preserve the stories of the immigrants in your family? How will you teach those stories to your children, and to their children after, so that immigration becomes a part of the modern Jewish legacy passed from generation to generation? 

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