Prashat Vayeshev, Shabbat Chanukah: Disproportionate Quantities

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Perfume Bottles

BS”D Parshat Vayeshev and First Shabbat of Chanuka 5767

Notwithstanding the differences of time and substance which exist between the episode of Yosef in the parsha and the miracles of Chanukah, both present us with problems relating to disproportionate quantities.In the parsha, Yosef, a young man of seventeen, is sent by his father to inquire as to his brothers’ well-being. As Yosef approaches, the brothers grasp the opportunity to rid the family of the disarray which Yosef had injected into their solidarity by his dreams of grandeur.Yosef is stripped of his special garment, and lowered into a pit of squirming snakes and scorpions. He is subsequently extricated from the pit, only to be sold to a caravan of merchants, for the purpose of being resold in the slave markets of Egypt.

The Torah turns its attention for a moment to the caravan, to inform us that they were carrying spices and perfumes on their regular route from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Rashi quotes the midrash which explains that the Torah thought it pertinent to inform us that these merchants would regularly transport kerosene, but Hashem did not want Yosef to be irritated by its offensive fumes, so on this run a problem developed at the point of exit in Mesopotamia and instead of the usual kerosene they took on a consignment of perfume.

How bizzare! A young boy of seventeen, is being betrayed by his brothers, was thrown into a pit of reptiles, the chains on his hands and feet cut deeply into his skin, his mouth and lips are parched from the beating sun and lack of water, and his future as a slave in Egypt leaves little to hope for; and what might annoy Yosef is the pungent smell of kerosene.

Here we encounter an example of “disproportionate quantity” as mentioned previously, because the antidote presented by Hashem does not come close to alleviating the malady.

The miracle of Chanukah is no less problematic.

The miracle of the oil, so central to the holiday, transpired in a chamber in the bet hamikdash called the “kodesh” (a room right before the kodesh hakodashim – the Holy of Holies), which was off limits to a Levi or Yisrael. Hence the only people who witnessed the miracle were the very few Kohanim who entered the kodesh. Now if Hashem wanted to impress Am Yisrael with a miracle, why did He perform it before such a limited audience?

I suggest that the next time you travel to Israel, stop off in Paris to visit the Louvre Museum. Among the works of art, you will come to a portrait of a young woman with a beguiling smile on her lips. At first glance, you might assess the picture with its distinctive hazy, soft focus effect to be worth a few thousand dollars including the frame. But if you come a little closer you will notice on its bottom right side a scribble which reads “Leonardo da Vinci.” You are standing before the incomparable “Mona Lisa”. This scribble, which in itself adds little if anything to the aesthetic aspect of the portrait, now escalates the price to 50 million dollars without the frame.

A person is capable of accepting great suffering if assured that the source of his pain is directed from God; so too, the agony is augmented when one feels that he has been abandoned by God.

The difficulties presented by the episode of Yosef and the miracle of Chanukah can be resolved according to the same principle.

A person is capable of accepting great suffering if assured that the source of his pain is directed from Hashem; the agony is augmented when one feels that he has been abandoned by Hashem.

In the matter of Yosef, the change from the pungent smell of kerosene to the pleasant aroma of perfume, did little to alleviate his physical anguish and feelings of betrayal, but Yosef recognized it as Hashem’s “scribbled” signature on the background of the events, and that He was the guiding force behind Yosef’s suffering.

The same is true in the matter of Chanukah.

The rebellion against the religious tyranny of the Greeks and our Hellenized Jewish “brothers” began in a town called Modi’in, situated between Yerushalayim and what is now Tel Aviv. A Greek officer erected an altar and a Jew offered up a pig to one of the many “gods” the Greeks worshipped. At that point Matit’ya’hu jumped on to the altar, killing the officer and his Jewish underling, while calling out “me la’shem ay’li” (whoever is on the side of Hashem join with me). With this, he and his five sons and a handful of loyal Jews withdrew to the hills and declared war upon Greece.

This was a bloody, savage war which lasted 15 years. And unlike what many believe, even after the miracle of the oil the bloodshed continued for another five years.

I can imagine Matit’ya’hu and his military staff sitting at night, reading the weekly reports: “On Sunday 1000 Jews were murdered and 10 towns destroyed. On Monday 5000 Jews were murdered, 50 batai knesset were burned to the ground, and 100 tons of wheat were destroyed.” And this scenario went on for years. The war was not a surgical strike; but rather a long drawn out event which cost the Jewish people tens of thousands of casualties.

At some point, Matit’ya’hu and his sons, who were God fearing Torah Jews, must have asked themselves who gave them the right to drag the nation into such a catastrophic conflict.

At some point, Matit’ya’hu and his sons, who were God fearing Torah Jews, must have asked themselves who gave them the right to drag the nation into such a catastrophic conflict. They were not prophets. God did not appear to Matit’ya’hu as he did to Yehoshua, Gidon, Yiftach and others to declare war. This war was the result of a decision made by one family which affected the entire nation. Perhaps at some point Matit’ya’hu may have had misgivings. But in fact the war was not only justified, it was essential for our survival as a Torah nation; but how did Matit’ya’hu and his staff of Kohanim know this?

After 10 years of battle, Hashem decided to inform the Kohanic-Military leadership that their judgment was correct. But since prophecy had ceased about 200 years previously, it had to be a sign from heaven which would be understood as directed only to the Kohanic leadership. And in order to be recognized as such, the sign had to be in the depths of the bet ha’mikdash where only Kohanim were permitted to enter; hence the miracle of the oil in the Kodesh. This was Hashem’s signature to the Kohanic leadership.

In our troubled generation, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Hashem is not entirely pleased with our conduct. This assessment has led some religious leaders to conclude that the suffering of our nation is the result of “hester panim” (Hashem concealing Himself from us), and so we must expect the worst.

But how mistaken they are! For we are witness to a fantastic signature of Hashem. Not a signature of only the four letters of the “shem ha’meforash (the Tetragrammaton or the hidden name of 42 letters), but all the 304,805 letters in the Torah.

I will explain.

One of the ten martyred rabbis, whose story we repeat in the Yom Kipper musaf service, was Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon.

Rabbi Chanina was caught teaching Torah in public and for this the Roman governor sentenced him to be burned alive while wrapped in a Torah scroll.

As he was dying, the rabbi’s students asked, “Rabbi, what do you see?” And Rabbi Chanina replied that he saw the parchments burning and the letters of the Torah were ascending on high.

In the face of all our present and perhaps future difficulties, Hashem has sent us a signature to let us know that we are in His hands.

It is the hundreds of thousands of letters of Rabbi Chanina’s Torah, which have descended in our time in the form of our holy Jewish sons in Eretz Yisrael, who study Torah and defend the land and its people in Tzahal, and our holy daughters who too learn Torah and are dedicated to sanctifying our way of life in tzniut and loyalty.

If one looks objectively, there are endless signatures of Hashem in Eretz Yisrael.

How very fortunate we are to have been chosen by Hashem to return to the holy land, where we and our children are part of today’s Chashmona’im, as we prepare the land and its people for the future chanukat ha’bayit of the long awaited Bet Ha’Mikdash.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.