As we prepare for Shabbos and for the upcoming Yom Tov of Chanukah, allow me to share with you an idea that brings our Parsha and Yom Tov together.
The Talmud (Shabbos 21b) delves into much detail concerning the Yom Tov of Chanukah. After discussing the types of oils and wicks which may be used and the placement of the menorah, the Gemara asks a simple question: Mai Chanukah, what is Chanukah?
“For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a eulogy for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.”
There seems to be a glaring omission. When the Talmud describes the Yom Tov celebration of Chanukah it tells us about Hallel (the recitation of Hallel) and Hodaah (thanksgiving, Al HaNissim prayer) but makes no mention of kindling the Menorah? What is Chanukah without the lights? Aren’t the Chanukah candles the paradigmatic representation of Divine providence and intervention? Why does the Talmud omit any mention of the performance of this mitzvah?
To fully answer this question, we must look at the Parsha. The Torah states, “Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1). Yaakov had one simple desire, “Bikeysh Yaakov ley’sehv b’shaalva, Yaakov wanted to dwell in peace and tranquility” (Rashi 37:2). After running from Esav, contending with Lavan and suffering tragedy in Shechem, all Yaakov wanted was to settle in the land of his fathers, serve God and watch his family grow. “God says to the righteous, is it not enough that you will have peace in the World to Come, you also want peace in this world as well?” (Rashi 37:2) We then go on to read of the disturbing dynamic between Yosef and his brothers. Jealousy and animosity ultimately turn the brothers against Yosef, who is sold into slavery, plunging Yaakov into two decades of mourning for the son he thought had been killed. Was it too much for Yaakov to ask for peace in this world and the next? Why does it have to be an either or? What was wrong with Yaakov’s desire for tranquility and quiet after what had been a tumultuous couple of decades?
Perhaps to gain insight into Rashi’s comment we must look at an episode at the end of the Parsha. Yosef found himself incarcerated together with the Pharaoh’s baker and butler. One morning the men awoke disturbed by dreams they had the night before. Yosef offered to listen and attempt to interpret their dreams.
“So the chief cupbearer related his dream to Joseph, and he said to him, ’In my dream, behold, a vine is before me. And on the vine,
are three tendrils and it seemed to be blossoming, and its buds came out; [then] its clusters ripened into grapes. And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I placed the cup on Pharaoh’s palm’” (Genesis 40:9- 11).
Yosef explained that in three days, the butler would be restored to his former position dutifully serving Pharaoh.
“Now the chief baker saw that he had interpreted well. So, he said to Joseph, ’Me too! In my dream, behold, there were three wicker baskets on my head. And in the topmost basket were all kinds of Pharaoh’s food, the work of a baker, and the birds were eating them from the basket atop my head’” (Genesis 40:9-11).
Yosef explained that in three days the baker would be executed and the birds would pick away at his flesh.
What did Yosef see in these dreams that led him to offer these differing interpretations? Rav Elchanan Wasserman (1874-1941) explains that Yosef saw a fundamental difference between the two dreams. The butler’s dream was filled with dynamic activity, the baker’s was not. The butler saw himself serving and doing, the baker saw himself in a passive position. Where there is movement, there is life. Where there is passivity there is death.
Perhaps, this insight sheds light on Yaakov’s request. What is the meaning of “Bikeysh Yaakov ley’sehv b’shaalva, Yaakov wanted to dwell in peace and tranquility”? Yaakov felt he had done what was asked of him. Unlike his father and grandfather, all his offspring would perpetuate the code of Abrahamitic values. He had established a spiritually complete family. His beloved Rachel was gone, and he had had his share of struggles and life battles, now Yaakov wanted to rest. But God says, “this world is not for resting, this world is not for tranquility. Life is only meaningful if it is filled with perpetual growth and it is the struggle which serves as the catalyst for this growth. It is our challenges that force us to be more and do more. It is the hurdles of life that allow us to find our inner strength and resolve. It is only through challenge and struggle that we fully elf-actualize. After 120, when we reach Olam HaBa, the World to Come; there we will experience true peace, tranquility and rest from our struggles.”
This is the message of Chanukah as well. The Maharal of Prague (Ner Mitzvah Chapter 2) explains that the main miracle of Chanukah was the military victory. Masarta Gibroim B’Yad Chalashim, You placed the strong in the hands of the weak. This is the true essence of Chanukah. In fact, the entire purpose of the miracle of the pach shemen (the cruse of oil that burned for 8 days) was to highlight the supernatural nature of the military victory. When people saw the hand of God in the continuous burning oil, they realized the hand of God in their victory over the Greeks. The real miracle of Chanukah was that we were willing to fight, we were willing to revolt against the status quo, we were willing to struggle. It would have been much easier for our ancestors to lay down their weapons, join the Greeks and find life “tranquility.” But the Chashmonaim understood that when you stop struggling, you die. Our holy grandparents understood that a life of tranquility is not a life of meaning. They found the courage to rise up and keep moving.
The Gemara makes no mention of the kindling of the Menorah in our observance of Chanukah because it is not the cornerstone of our holiday. The light of the Menorah is but a tool to illuminate the true message of this Yom Tov. There is only success in struggle. Salvation only comes through battle. Tranquility doesn’t engender growth or any form for upward mobility. The thrust of this Yom Tov is Hallel and Hodaah, praise and thanksgiving. Praise for God who guides our destiny and delivers us from all harm and thanksgiving for our ancestors who had the courage to continue the struggle.
Yosef foresaw the salvation of the butler in dynamic activity, the Maccabim saw salvation only through dynamic activity and we must find our personal salvation through dynamic activity and constant growth.
We look forward to the weekend, we plan our vacations and we aspire to retire. But, our job is to work, our mission is to struggle, our mandate is to grow. We must always look for ways to expand our soul and become more. We must learn to embrace the hard work of life and relish the opportunities to shape our circumstances. Although we may yearn for tranquility, deep down we know that true fulfillment and happiness can only be found through perpetual growth. We must understand that the challenges of life are but opportunities for growth, development and self-actualization. As we look into the luminescent glow of the Chanukah candles may they inspire us to embrace the struggle and pray for victory.
Jacob became very frightened and was distressed, so he divided the people who were with him and the flocks and the cattle and the camels into two camps. And he said, “If Esau comes to one camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will escape (Bereishis 32:8-9).”
Yaakov prepares for the overwhelming reunion. Will Esav want war or peace? Has Esav forgiven his brother or does he still harbor animosity? These are the questions swirling around Yaakov’s head. Rashi explains that Yaakov prepared for this encounter in various ways. He prayed to God for help, split the camp in anticipation for war and sent gifts to appease Esav. Although Rashi mentions prayer first, Yaakov in fact prepares for war first and only afterwards prays. Rav Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) in his work titled Oznayim LaTorah asks a simple question, “Why didn’t Yaakov pray first? Isn’t prayer the most instinctive, reflexive response to danger and difficulty? Why does he first split the camp and then only later turn to spiritual options?”
Rav Sorotzkin answers that Teffilah, prayer, requires a certain level of “yishuv ha’daas,” inner quietude and concentration. When Yaakov hears that Esav is coming to meet him with 400 men, he is consumed with worry and fright for his children and wives. He knows he can’t best Esav on the battlefield and realizes that at this point flight is no longer an option. Teffilah, true dialogical connection with Hashem requires concentration and some measure of inner peace. Yaakov doesn’t have it and so he doesn’t pray. It is only after he takes other steps and feels a bit more “prepared” for this encounter that he could reach out and converse with Hashem.
Perhaps, the Torah is teaching us an additional lesson as well. When we encounter a challenge, perhaps the step before (or at least concurrent with) prayer is action. When we encounter difficult or tumultuous circumstances we must ask ourselves, what I can do to help myself? How can I own this situation to make it better? All too often, we rely on others to solve our problems and fix that which is broken. If you want something done in life, roll up your sleeves and get it done yourself. To an extent, we must take this approach with Hashem. The Ribbono Shel Olam is always here to help us. But what He wants more than anything is for us to own our circumstances and engage in dynamic activity to help ourselves and better our world. He doesn’t only want us to pray; He wants us to act. Hashem gives us the incredible opportunity to partner with Him to advance ourselves and our world. The reality is, we can’t accomplish anything without God’s assistance and providence. But we must take the first step. We can’t ask Hashem to act if we are unwilling to act.
Perhaps, this was the dynamic unfolding with Yaakov Avinu. Yaakov realized he needed to prepare in these three ways. He understood that teffilah was an absolute necessity. Yet, Yaakov understood that there is decisive action he could take to help himself, take ownership over his circumstances and act. And so, he splits the camps in preparation for war, sends a beautiful gift to Esav and then says, “Hashem, I have done everything I can, I need your help. Where my reach ends, is where Yours begins. Hatzileyni Na, save me and my family from these difficult circumstances.”
We all encounter challenges in one way or another. It is tempting to place the responsibility to solve the crises of life on the shoulders of others. It is even tempting to place the full responsibility on God. Yaakov Avinu teaches us that Hashem is always with us and always ready to help. But it is our sacred duty to try to help ourselves, to take ownership over our lives and circumstances. It is our responsibly to split the camp, make decisions and try to become the masters of our destiny.
This evening’s class is sponsored by Avraham and Shaindy Kelman in memory of Yeshaya Yosef ben Yoel and by Motty and Chana Leah Morgolit in memory of יצחק אברם בן מאיר.