Our sages never shy from finding interesting connections between the story of Joseph, which comes around in our Torah cycle each year at this time, and the lessons of Chanukah, which it either immediately precedes or intersects.
The sages derive a great deal of meaning from the part of the story in which Joseph seeks out his brothers, who strip him of his ornate robe and throw him into a pit, resulting in his being sold into servitude in Egypt. A little back story might be important here. Jacob loved Joseph, who was the child of his old age (A younger son, Benjamin, was associated with Rachel, who died in childbirth), so he gave Joseph a special garment and special attention, which means, according to our sages, that they studied together. Joseph’s special treatment included the supervision of the other brothers. Is it no wonder that he became full of himself and began to feel that he was destined for grander things? Each and every day that Joseph wore that special robe the brothers resented him more. It all came to a head when Jacob sent Joseph miles and miles away to Dothan to see how his brothers were doing and to report back to him. The Torah tells us that when he approached his brothers, “they stripped him of his tunic, the colored robe which was upon him.”
Rashi tells us something surprising. He tells us that the first robe that they stripped from him was a regular tunic, a chalok, and that they then stripped off his tunic/ketonto of many colors next! This teaches us that Joseph had decided to wear his colored garment on the inside. Why? Some might say he was fearful; he didn't want to cause their jealousy. Others, that he wanted to honor his brothers, but also that he didn't want to dishonor his father. So, his compromise was to wear it but to hide it from view.
From this colored garment, worn on the inside, we can learn a message of Chanukah. Greco-Syrian oppressors sought to dismiss the earlier tolerance for Judaism and required the Judaeans to throw off the colors of their Jewish practices and beliefs. Like the seven colors of the rainbow, they asked the Judaeans to abandon Shabbat, Torah study, halacha, kashrut, monotheism and circumcision, and to worship Zeus–seven things. The Jews had learned to wear these things on the inside, keeping them close to their hearts and private, while incorporating the veneer of Greco-Roman culture on the outside. But they could not strip away that inner layer, for this would be spiritual death. Thus, we learn the lesson that whatever cost the outer world exacts, we must always hold the inner garment close to our hearts and allow it to layer the Jewish soul. To strip ourselves of these traditions, practices and beliefs would spell our doom.
We learn another lesson from the plain white chalok/garment that Joseph wore on top. In wearing it he says to the man or angel he encounters, “Et achai anochi mevakesh.” I am searching for my brothers. A Jew can wear the inner layer of Jewish practice and tradition but must never stop “loving one's neighbor.” It’s easy to wrap one’s self tightly in the inner layer and forget about the outer layer. Cain, of the story of Cain and Abel, transgresses this cardinal principle when he says the opposite, “hashomer Achi anochi?"– Am I my brother's keeper? Quite the opposite–Joseph had fully relished in the first part of Hillel’s advice, “If I am not for myself who am I?” Now he was hard at work trying to express, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” (im anochi rak le atzmi Mah ani?) This is why he pointedly tells the angel, “my anochiut/selfhood is in search of “brotherhood”. Sadly, his brothers were still stuck in the past and resented the “old Joseph.” The plain garment represents the idea that we are all interwoven with each and every other Jew. But it must also mean that we are also interwoven with all the peoples of the world. No people is allowed only one garment. Our commitments are first and foremost to ourselves, but every Jewish life wears and additional layer of commitment and responsibility to all humanity.
At Chanukah-time, let’s be proud and determined that we hold tight to the multicolored robe on the inside that is our Jewish practice and Jewish community. But let us not forget that outer robe either. I, for one, take such pride in those Jews who work in greater society to build up the nations they live in, advancing their societies in science, in medicine and in quality of life. There is no end to my pride in the state of Israel, which, in its mission of first response, agricultural advances, solar advances and so much more, is mending and building up humanity as whole. May we remain strong and proud Jews in doing so, but may we never shirk this goal either, and to this we say Amen.