Vintage Vessel

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26 Dec 2016

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

We are all familiar with the miracle of Chanukah, how, after their victory over the Greeks, the Chashmonaim returned to find the devastation the Greeks had wrought on the Temple, how the Greeks had desecrated it and defiled and broken every jug of pure oil used for lighting the Menorah. Then the Chashmonaim found a small flask of untouched oil, still bearing the seal of the High Priest, enough to last only one day, yet miraculously, after lighting the Menorah, the oil lasted for a full eight days until new, pure oil could be produced. Why did this oil become miraculous? Is this flask of oil related to other flasks of oil alluded to or actually recorded in our Holy Writings, and if so, how are they related?

The first time we hear small jugs of oil is when Yaakov Avinu is left alone after having transported his family to the other side of the Yabok River, leaving him vulnerable to attack from the angel representing Esau. Why was he alone? Rashi writes that he went to retrieve some small jugs of oil that he had inadvertently forgotten. What was so important about this oil? Was Yaakov so materialistic, as Esau thought, that he would endanger himself for this small possession? Then he was no better than Esau himself. But Yaakov recognized that oil, as well as all things material, were important, for they can be elevated to serve a spiritual purpose. This oil, writes Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter in Dorah Dovid, was the oil Yaakov used to anoint the matzevah, the memorial he would build to Hashem at Beit El, the site of the future Beit Hamikdosh, when he would return safely from his sojourn with Lavan.   The Megale Amukos notes, that this was the same jug that the Chashmonaim found in the Temple years later.

In fact, notes Rabbi Eisenberg in Mesillot Bilvavam,  this dichotomy of purpose was the crux of the battle between Yaakov and Esau. That Yaakov originally forgot/shochach these vessels was already the influence of Yavan who wanted to bring choshech/darkness into the world. Esau wanted to forget and extinguish the light of Torah just as later the Greeks would try to make us forget/lehashk(ch)icham the Torah. (Note the anagrams.) The angel, although not successful, would injure Yaakov on the chaf(p) of his thigh, to profane the pach of oil. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Hebrew alphabet, several letters, although written the same, can be read either vocalized or unvocalized. The difference is designated by a dot within the letter. Speech therapists will tell you that these paired letters are similar in English as well. Ex: b/v, k/ch, p/f.) The battle was for control over the purpose of the oil. Would material possessions serve merely physical purposes, or would they be elevated as a means to spiritual ends?

In this context, our Sages note that the command to love Hashem with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might/resources refers to the three different ways each of our Patriarchs served Hashem. Avraham served Hashem with all his heart, thereby influencing others to accept monotheism. Yitzchak served Hashem with his soul, willing to sacrifice his life in service to Hashem. Yaakov showed that all our possessions can be used in God’s service.

In Chassidic literature, each of the Sefirot (manifestations of God’s presence according to Kabbalah) is represented by a different part of the body. The thigh represents hod/glory. This trait is actualized as emunah/faith. The Greeks aimed to undermine the faith of Bnei Yisroel by introducing ideas of a foreign culture inconsistent with Judaism into Jewish thought. They wanted to “enlighten” the world with their culture rather than with the true light of Torah. Therefore, it would be acceptable to study Torah as literature, or example, but not as the basis for a life style. Study Torah, but don’t practice Mila, Shabbat, or Chodesh.

Bright light is blinding, just as darkness is. Commentators maintain that the plague of darkness in Egypt was in essence overpowering light that blinded the Egyptians while providing illumination for the Jews. Similarly, the Greeks wanted to blind us and darken us with the light of their culture, and make us forget the Torah. The foundation of Torah is faith, writes the Slonimer Rebbe in Netivot Shalom, just as the thigh and hip joint are the foundation of man’s stance. That’s why Greeks wanted us to openly declare that we renounce the Torah and have no part in it. Therefore, when we light the Chanukah menorah, we should be strengthening our faith and trying to form a closer connection with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Even today, this is a time for miracles. As Rabbi Pincus notes, the only difference between Yavan/Greece and Tziyon, both spelled with the same three letters in Hebrew, is the letter tzadik at the beginning. But tzadik means a righteous one, and what defines a righteous person is his faith, the mantra of his existence, “Tzadik be’emunahso yichye.” Chanukah is the time to rekindle the faith within ourselves.

We can now better understand the struggle for the flasks of oil. As Rabbi Imanuel Bernstein writes, material possessions can be viewed as having and being a means to a higher end, or as being an end in and of themselves. Either of these motivations would cause someone to retrace his steps to retrieve forgotten items. Esau’s angel misconstrued Yaakov’s motivation.

Rabbi Dovid Cohen notes that the Beit Hamikdosh was the actualization of the concept of elevating the material and mundane to the spiritual. The site, the walls, the vessels, even animals could be used for sanctification. With the Yavan/Greek mentality of using everything only for personal enjoyment, the natural, physical world of seven can never be elevated and transformed to the spiritual world of eight. Yaakov took the oil, anointed the stone he had slept on and sanctified it. And it is this stone that later would become the cornerstone of the Beit Hamikdosh. Yaakov understood the spiritual value of even the small flask of oil.

The Sitei Cohen notes that it is this same miraculous flask of oil that appears ideologically several times in Tanach, albeit it is not physically the same vessel of oil.  As a result of the people’s belief in the Baal, Hashem granted Eliyahu’s prayer for a drought upon the land. To show the effects of the drought and cause Eliyahu to rescind this request, Hashem sent him to see a widow in Tzorfat and ask for a bit of food. When she said that all she had was a bit of oil to bake a small roll for herself and her son before they would die of starvation, Eliyahu told her to bake him a roll first and then for herself and her son. The oil never stopped the entire time of the drought and she and her son survived. (There is more to the story beyond the scope of this shiur.)

Elisha, who inherited the prophecy leadership from Eliyahu, performed a similar miracle for a widow who, according to tradition, was the widow of the Prophet Ovadiah and their sons. Ovadiah was a servant in the evil King Ahab and Queen Izevel’s court. When the King and Queen sought to kill all God’s prophets, Ovadiah hid 100 prophets in two caves, saving them from death. He used his money to feed them, and eventually borrowed money to support the true prophets. Upon Ovadiah’s death, the creditor came to the widow to collect the debt and threatened to take her sons as slaves in payment of the debt. The woman cried out to Elisha who had her borrow vessels from all her neighbors and begin pouring the bit of oil into she still had into all the jugs. The oil continued flowing until there were no more empty vessels left to fill, and the widow was able to live on the proceeds from the sale of this oil for the rest of her life.

What ties all these oil miracles together? As Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter writes in Dorash Dovid, each of these actions portrays a high level of mesiras nefesh, of self sacrifice for a higher ideal. From Yaakov fighting the angel to regain the oil for spiritual uses all the way through to the Maccabbees, each showed self sacrifice. The Maccabbees risked their lives to fight an overwhelming army, and then went directly to the Beit Hamikdosh to rekindle the Menorah to prove that the physical victory was not what was important, but rather the spiritual victory over the Greeks who wanted to sever Bnei Yisroel’s ties to Hashem.

Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv brings another dimension to the connection between Yaakov’s struggle with the angel and the struggle of Bnei Yisroel with the Greeks. Rabbi Schorr focuses on the injury Yaakov suffered from this struggle. He was injured in his thigh, the Kabbalistic parallel to hod/glory. In The Book of Daniel, Greece is described as a thigh of bronze, a being unable to bend, brazen, one who bows and submits to no one. This is the antithesis of Judaism. We acknowledge that all that we have comes from God, and we submit to His will. The Greeks wanted to destroy the place dedicated to our bowing and submission to God.

The Greeks actually made thirteen breaches in the walls of the Beit Hamikdosh. The Chashmonaim repaired each of these breaks, and enacted thirteen bows, one for each of these repaired breaches. When our Sages established the holiday of Chanukah, they specifically established it as a day lehodot ulehallel, a day for giving thanks and praising Hashem, for acknowledging that everything belongs to Him. It is fitting, then, that the Beit Hamikdosh was built in the territory of Binyamin, the only tribe not yet born when Yaakov and his eleven sons encountered Esau and bowed down to him. It is equally fitting that Chanukah is celebrated in Kislev, the month associated with the tribe of Binyamin.

Rabbi Schorr continues his discussion by citing the Shla”h Hakodosh. He notes that Yaakov went back for the pach/small jar, and Esau injured him in his chaf(p)/hollow (of the thigh). Each is the reversal of the other. Depending on whether it is at the beginning of the word or at the end, the letter appears either open or closed. The name of each letter is also a Hebrew noun. The peh is the mouth, while the chaf/kaf is the hand. Judaism advocates an open hand to help others and a closed mouth that shuns unnecessary and improper speech. Esau wanted to reverse this order. He, and subsequently Greece, wanted us to keep our fists closed over our possessions but be willing to say whatever we wanted. When we acknowledge that everything comes from Hashem, we more readily open our hands to others, and open our mouths appropriately to praise Hashem.

The Greeks tried to destroy the three pillars of our faith, the light of Torah, the avodah/service and gemillat chassadim of giving to others. Therefore, on Chanukah it is customary to increase our Torah learning, our “service” through Hallel vehodaya/praise and thanksgiving, and giving tzedakah.

Mesiras nefesh, self sacrifice by definition means going beyond the norm, beyond what one can naturally endure. Rabbi Yaakov Tauber who relates the teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains our previous verse to love Hashem with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all meodecha in this vein rather than “with all your wealth”. Meod in almost every context is translated as “very”, more than. So one should love God beyond his heart and soul, one should stretch his being beyond his perceived capacity. Man has the capacity for self-transcendence. The very word Odom/Man  is composed of the same letters as meod.

How could the Greeks have wielded so much power over us in the first place? Rav Reiss in Keriei Moed offers that it was precisely this lack of passion in mitzvah performance and Torah learning that left us weakened to the Greek advances. But when the Maccabbees put passion and self sacrifice for God in the forefront of their battle, they were victorious. Bnei Yisroel had not lacked quantity in mitzvah observance; what they lacked was quality of mitzvah observance. Thirteen Maccabbees went against the mighty Greek army mounted on elephants, and by their passion gained Hashem’s support.

All year long we can perhaps get away with a lackadaisical attitude, writes Rabbi Elimelech Biderman in Be’er Hachaim, but not on Chanukah. For non performance of all other mitzvoth, financial constraints may be argued, but for lighting the Chanukah oil one is even required to go into debt, one must exhibit self sacrifice. This self sacrifice is alluded to when Avraham and Yitzchak are ascending the mountain for the binding of Yitzchak. Avraham tells the two men accompanying him, “Nelchah ad koh/We will go to this place,” even though Hashem had promised Avraham, “Koh yihiyeh zarache/Thus will be your seed,” like the stars in the heavens. The numerical equivalent of koh is twenty five, alluding to the holiday of Chanukah which falls on the twenty fifth of Kislev. That self -sacrifice of Avraham became the legacy of his descendants for all generations, as manifested in the actions of the Maccabbees.

Self- sacrifice is going beyond yourself, outside your comfort zone. We go beyond the four walls of our homes and light the menorah to be seen outside. We take what we do and enhance it. Similarly, on Chanukah, we can take one area, one mitzvah of our daily lives and commit to enhancing it. For example, we can commit to saying one bracha with more focus. By committing ourselves to even one resolution beyond our norm, we too become vessels of purity to carry on the legacy of our forefathers and our heroes, symbolized by the vessels of oil from Yaakov and from the Chashmonaim.

Happy Chanukah.

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