VOLUME 54 NUMBER 4
January 15th, 2011
10 Shevat, 5771
In the Pits of Chanukah
By Rabbi Raphael Leban
I heard another great Jewish-mother joke from my brother last week. What do you get your mother for Chanukah? A menorah on a timer and a self-complaining oven.
Since Chanukah is right around the corner, I thought I’d bring a connection to the holiday found deep in this week’s parsha.
Parshas Vayeishev begins with the well-known narrative of Joseph and his brothers. They feel that he is disrupting the unity of the twelve brothers and plotting to usurp control, thereby threatening to scuttle their great grandfather Abraham’s mission and destroy the future of the Jewish People. They therefore decide to get rid of him. Reuven convinces them not to kill him, but rather to throw him into a pit, from which Reuven secretly intends later to rescue Joseph and return him to his father. In Reuven’s absence the other brothers change their minds and decide to sell him rather than letting him die in the pit—which is how Joseph eventually ends up in Egypt.
The connection to Chanukah is deeply hidden in this story—as deep as the pit.
The Medrish teaches that many decades later, when Joseph travels back from Egypt to bury his father, Jacob, he makes a point of stopping at the site of the pit where the brothers threw him. What’s so special about the pit?
The Torah describes the pit in an unusual way: “…and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.” Obviously if the pit was empty there was no water in it. What’s the point of the second half of the phrase?
Answer our Sages of the Talmud, the pit was only ‘empty’ of water, but it wasn’t empty of snakes or scorpions. Joseph was thrown into a pit with lethal little critters in it, and the Torah is giving a veiled reference to a great miracle—Joseph’s surviving the pit of snakes and scorpions.
Why then did Joseph pass by the pit many years later? To make a special blessing thanking G-d for the miracle that happened to him.
And this is the connection to Chanukah. The blessing of thanks that Joseph made is essentially identical to the one we make every night of Chanukah upon lighting our menorahs, ‘Blessed are you, G-d, King of the Universe, who did miracles for our forefathers in their days at this time’. At least, this is the beginning of the connection.
If I had to ask you, what is the big miracle we’re celebrating at Chanukah time, what would you answer? That the oil in the menorah lasted for eight nights, right? After all, that’s what the candle-lighting is all about, and that’s what the blessings are made on.
Let’s think about it for a second. In the grand scheme of things, is a little candle really so important? Are we really so happy and appreciative about some long-lasting olive oil?
The more important miracle of Chanukah is our miraculous victory over the mighty Greek army and our purification of the Temple. That’s what we’re really celebrating.
However, the blessing is made on the little miracle of the menorah. Why?
There are two kinds of miracles: hidden and revealed. A hidden miracle is one which doesn’t overtly violate the laws of nature. A revealed miracle does. A military victory, without the benefit of plagues of blood and darkness like during the Exodus, may still be miraculous, but in a subtle, hidden way. Olive oil that burns for eight times as long as usual is miraculous in an open, revealed way.
The commentary of the Abudraham explains that the blessing of thanks for a miracle is only said on a revealed miracle. That’s why we recite it over the Chanukah candles—it corresponds with the revealed miracle of the menorah. And that’s why we celebrate the miracle of the menorah—it’s the trigger for our blessings and thanks. The most important miracle, however, is the victory over our Greek oppressors, which lies hidden beneath the surface.
And so, too, with Joseph. The miracle of surviving the pit of snakes and scorpions—a revealed miracle—was great, but the greatest miracle was what followed. He escaped his brothers to become the second-in-command of Egypt, allowing him to save the entire Jewish People from famine. However, since that whole string of events took place within the confines of “normal” life, i.e. a hidden miracle, Joseph couldn’t say the blessing of thanks on it. That’s why he made a special trip to the pit years later, because there a revealed miracle had occurred—surviving the pit of snakes and scorpions—and there he could say the blessing.
Lastly, to tie it all up, I’ll just point out that the place in the Talmud the Sages chose to teach us that the pit was full of snakes and scorpions is right in the middle of the discussion of the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah menorah.
May we all merit to see the miraculous salvation of the Jewish People speedily in our days, and meanwhile to recognize the hidden miracles that surround us each and every day of our lives.
By Rabbi Dovid Nussbaum
The episode of the clash between the brothers and Yosef is an involved and intricate one. The severe discord between them almost led to bloodshed. At the last moment, Reuven saved Yosef from the other brothers by suggesting that they throw him into a hole. The hole was teeming with snakes and scorpions which were easily capable of killing Yosef. How did Reuven save him this way? Wasn’t he condemning him to certain death?
The Zohar, a book of mystical teachings, actually poses this question. The Zohar’s response is that Reuven reasoned as follows. If Yosef is truly righteous, Hashem will miraculously save him from the snakes and scorpions. However, if left to his brothers who intend to kill him, he might not be saved even though he is righteous. Therefore, Reuven schemed to save Yosef from the clutches of his brothers and convinced them to toss him into the hole that was full of snakes and scorpions. Although Hashem is as ‘capable’ of saving Yosef from his brothers as from poisonous animals, by doing so He would eliminate their ability to exercise their free will.
Free will is the fuel that powers this world and all that takes place within it. The temptations that we overcome or the mistakes that we unfortunately make are the source of reward and punishment. If we are not placed in challenging situations, the entire goal of this world becomes defunct. Indeed, the Talmud teaches us that when Moshiach comes the attraction to evil will disappear and we will therefore no longer be subject to reward and punishment.
This parsha is an apt precursor for the Yom Tov of Chanukah. The battle which the Hellenists pitched against the Torah-true Jews at that time surely revolved around this particular issue. We were not threatened with the eradication of the Jewish nation as in the time of Mordechai and Esther. Rather, our national challenge was whether to commit ourselves to the secularists or to remain faithful to our heritage. Thousands fell by the wayside like trees chopped down by the lumberjack. Only a small remnant of the nation had the clarity of vision to make the correct choice. But once they were committed to fight the invaders, there was no turning back. They fought with their entire being to secure the future for their children and grandchildren. And as we know, they merited Divine assistance and repulsed the powerful Greek army.
Our reminder of that great event is the tiny flame that flickers during the long Chanukah night. For, in the final analysis, it is light over darkness, truth against the evil of falsehood that prevails. Just as in that era the purity of our religion triumphed against the corruption of the Hellenists, so too, at the end of days, our pristine Torah, as symbolized by the pure olive oil will reign supreme and enlighten the world.
Byte for Shabbos
The Talmud teaches us that since Yosef was able to withstand the attempted seduction of his Egyptian master’s wife, so too, even the lowliest person will be held accountable for his transgressions. Why should the most immoral person be held to the same standards as a great tzadik? Our Sages mean to say that when Yosef was able to resist this powerful temptation, it created within everyone of us a stalwart reserve to do likewise, even though they may not have risen to that level themselves.