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Parshat -Vayigash/Hei Tevet

Parsha Mikeitz -The True Story of Chanukah

Why the Greeks did not pour out all the oil in the Temple?  Remember the well-known story: The Greeks had captured the land of Israel and tried to force the Jews to give up their religion.  Unfortunately many Jews, perhaps a majority, succumbed and adopted the current popular Greek culture over the eternal Divine wisdom of the Torah.  When Hashem miraculously delivered the massive Greek armies into the hands of the tiny band of faithful Jews, they took the Temple back, cleaned it up and rededicated it.  There was a major problem, however. The golden Menorah needed to be lit every day with pure olive oil, and all the bottles of oil in the Temple had been “defiled.” Each bottle was sealed with the seal of the High Priest, and the Greeks had broken all the seals.  They searched high and low and again, miraculously, found one bottle of oil with an unbroken seal, enough for one night, and it burned for eight days. This is the story we all learned, but here is the question: If the Greeks wanted to stop the observances in the Temple, they should have destroyed the oil, not just broken the seals.

This question is related to another question that many Halachic commentators ask:  Why was there a need for a miracle to find the one pure bottle of oil? All the oil had been defiled, and the Hasmoneans miraculously found one with the seal intact, was that miracle not superfluous?  According to Jewish law, if there is no oil that is “tahor” – ritually pure, it is permissible to use impure oil. So they could have used the oil with the broken seals. As a matter of fact, the whole eight-day miracle was unnecessary, since after the first day they could have used the other oil!  These two questions point to a much deeper understanding of the Chanukah story, the meaning of the struggle against the Greeks, and the lessons we can learn from it.


If we look at the history of the Chanukah story in our traditional texts, we see that the Greeks were not really interested in wiping out Jewish culture or even forbidding the study of the Torah.  They considered the Torah to be an important cultural heritage containing great wisdom and brilliant ideas, and they felt it should be studied along with the Greek and other philosophies, as an equal.  What they were trying to eliminate was the Divine connection. This was the position of the Jewish Hellenists too, that while Jewish culture is important, and Jewish practices have purpose and meaning, they should be viewed as cultural practices and not as following the will of Hashem.  They did not feel a need to stop the Menorah lighting, and therefore did not destroy the oil. They broke the High Priest’s seal, removing the oil’s purity and connection to holiness. All of their decrees against Jewish practice were designed to pull Jews away from their connection to Hashem and recognition of the divinity of Torah.  The Talmud says that the Greeks tried to force Jews to write on an ox’s horn that they had no part in the G-d of Israel.  


The Hasmoneans knew that to remove the Divine will from Torah is to deny the Jewish religion and will end up in the demise of the Jewish people, just as all the other great cultures have disappeared, because Judaism is not just another great religion.  Torah is the word of Hashem as given to us at Sinai and subsequently explained by Moshe. Every word of Torah is a word from Hashem, and every Mitzvah is a fulfillment of His will. It is this Divine source that makes the Torah eternal and it is this recognition that has ensured the Jewish people’s survival, and that will ensure our continued survival until Moshiach comes and beyond.  They were willing to sacrifice their lives to ensure that children were educated in this spirit, with the holiness of Torah and the recognition that it is only through adherence to Hashem’s will that we will continue to be the Jewish people.


So when the Hasmoneans took back the Temple and found the defiled oil, they would not use it, even though technically they could have gotten away with it, since the entire struggle was to maintain the purity of Judaism.  Their sacrifice was rewarded with the great Chanukah miracle. The lesson to us is obvious. We must be sure to pass this great lesson on to our children. There are many great cultures and philosophies, but what makes Judaism unique is the fact that it is Hashem’s will.  Jewish continuity depends on our youth getting this message. Every time someone does a Mitzvah in order to fulfill Hashem’s will, they are lighting another candle, and all this light accumulates and grows, like the Chanukah Menorah, and will ultimately bring about the illumination of the entire world with goodness, kindness and holiness.


Who are you? Where do you belong? A lesson from Joseph


It is a story of incredible self-control and moral bravery. Yosef (Joseph), the young teenage son of Yaakov, is a slave in Egypt, and his Master’s wife tries to seduce him.  When he refuses to go along, and she frames him and claims he tried to rape her, he is arrested and thrown into a dungeon. Let’s take a look at the circumstances. Yosef’s mother had died and his father thought he was dead.  His brothers had sold him, had no idea where he was, and as far as he knew had written him out of the family. So here is a young man, alone in the world, a slave in a strange land, and the wife of one of the most prominent men in the country is offering him a ticket to a much better life, not to mention the physical pleasures.  The Midrash says that she tried every day for a year to seduce him. Just imagine the temptation. In fact, after a year of this, as Rashi explains, when Yosef was about to succumb, he went to her house when there was nobody there. But he controlled himself and ran out, leaving his jacket behind, which led to his being thrown into prison. 


What happened at that moment to give him the supreme strength to turn around and withstand this incredible temptation?  Rashi says that he saw the image of his father. There are many explanations of what that means and how it affected him.   Our sages tell us that Yosef’s face looked exactly like that of his father Yaakov. Yosef looked in the mirror and saw his father’s face.  He was reminded at that moment where he came from and what his mission in life was. He was not just a lost soul in a foreign land he was the son of the great Yaakov, grandson of Yitzchak and Avraham.  Yosef remembered that he was a link in that chain of holiness and purity that was changing the world and preparing the way for the Torah to be revealed. He no longer thought of himself as alone, he realized where he belonged.


This story is connected to two major holidays that we are in the middle of celebrating.  Tuesday was the 19th of Kislev, the celebration of the redemption of the founder of Chabad from prison where he was held on false charges - the day that is considered essentially the true beginning of the dissemination of Chassidus.  Sunday night we will light the first Chanukah light, commemorating the great miracles surrounding the redemption of the Jewish people from the Greeks and Helenists. Chabad Chassidus helped us understand that no Jew is alone or left out of the Jewish people.  To the many Jews who feel apart, who don’t recognize their Jewish identity, Chabad teachings say: look in the mirror, you carry the face of our forefathers and you, regardless of how you have lived your life, are a vital link in the chain.


Chanukah is the time when the few Maccabees stood up not only to the outside oppressors, but also to the Helenists.  These were Jews who claimed that Jewish people needed to adopt the modern Greek culture and assimilate. They felt that this was the only way for our people to survive in the face of the overwhelming power and seduction of the secular world.  The Maccabees reminded us that no matter the situation, and whatever power is prevalent in the world, the Jewish strength is based on our adherence to Torah. They reminded us that every Jew is a vital part of the Jewish people. This idea is also expressed in the single bottle of pure oil that they miraculously found in the Temple after it, and all the oil, had been desecrated.  That single bottle of pure oil represents the neshama – essential pure soul, of every one of us, that remains pure and connected to its Divine source regardless of the impurity surrounding it. 


This message is especially vital to our young people today.  You are part of the family. You may feel isolated spiritually and not recognize your Judaism, but if you take a good look in the mirror, your soul is there, waiting to be illuminated.  I wish you a happy and spiritually uplifting Chanukah.


 How should a person react if they receive an extraordinary blessing or a miracle happens to them?  Think about it for a moment. You faced a danger that by natural means would have caused you great harm, maybe death, and you were saved in a way that was a clear miracle from Hashem.  Certainly I think that besides relief, anyone would feel gratitude and joy. Beyond that, what kind of emotions can we expect? Many would feel really good about themselves that Hashem had chosen them and singled them out for a special kindness.  

Two of the greatest leaders of all time taught us differently.  Our forefather Jacob – Yaakov – is returning from 20 years in exile in Charan, where he escaped his brother Esav’s wrath for taking the blessings from their father.  He had arrived there penniless, alone in the world, and as he was leaving, miraculously escaped his uncle Lavan’s attempt to destroy him. Now, as the Torah relates in our Parsha, he is returning to Israel with a large, successful family, with great wealth and honor.  Hearing that his brother is coming to fight him with 400 men, Yaakov takes steps to defend himself and his people, sends gifts to Esav to appease him, and prays to Hashem. In his prayer, Yaakov says: “Katonti Mikol hachassadim – I am small because of all the kindnesses etc. that You have done to me.”   Hashem had promised Yaakov that He would bless him and protect him, and return him to this land, why was he feeling small?  

There is a beautiful Chassidic interpretation of this concept, taught by the founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.  He was faced with grave danger when he was arrested by the Czarist regime in Russia on suspicion of a capital offence, claiming that he was starting a new religion and committing treason.  You can read the fascinating and important historical account here. Ultimately, he was  released with great honor and the Chassidic movement flourished in a much broader way than before.  The day he was released, the 19th of Kislev, (as well as the 20th, when he actually arrived at the place of his freedom,) is therefore celebrated by Chassidim and many other communities as the “Rosh Hashana” of Chassidus.  The anniversary of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s release from prison will be celebrated throughout the world next week on Tuesday and Wednesday, December 17 and 18.

Immediately after the Rebbe was released from prison, he wrote a letter to his Chassidim everywhere.  The letter begins with the words of our forefather Yaakov: katonti – I am small. In this letter he warns the Chassidim not to show any arrogance or anger toward their oppressors, a natural reaction one might expect, and instead to be exceedingly humble.  The letter was published in the book of Tanya, and you can read it with commentary here.  In this letter Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains the meaning of Yaakov feeling small after such great kindnesses from Hashem.  His teaching gives us insight into the thinking of truly saintly people, and inspires us to try to emulate this, at least in some tiny way, to the extent of our ability.  

Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains that Yaakov felt small because when a person receives kindness from Hashem, this means that Hashem has shown him or her His light, and they have become closer to Hashem.  The closer a person is to Hashem, the less they feel themselves. We are focused on ourselves and our own egos when Hashem’s light is hidden from us, we are “distant,” but in Hashem’s presence there is nothing but Hashem.  When we are in touch with our inner core, the part of Hashem within us, we react to His closeness with true humility. If a person is self-absorbed, they may react to a show of extraordinary kindness with arrogance: “Look at me, I am worthy of these great gifts.”  When these great holy people, in contrast, said they felt “small,” it was not an expression of any feelings they had about who they were and how they had behaved. On the contrary, it was a complete lack of self-absorption. They felt blinded by Hashem’s kindness that they had experienced.

One lesson to us is to try to recognize the bounty that Hashem gives us constantly, and to realize that it is given to us in order for us to fulfill our mission, to use everything we have to make a home for Hashem’s Presence.  The more we are driven by our mission, the less we will be concerned about how much we have and how much we need, and the happier we will be in the long run.

Vayetzei - Blessings for Rain


In California nobody complains about the rain, except maybe newcomers or people in the path of mudslides.  Rain is a blessing that we need to fill up our reservoirs and aquifers, to water our forests and crops and to provide the snow melt that gives us our drinking water.  Tonight, December 5th, we start praying for rain.  There are two prayers in the Amida (silent prayer containing 19 blessings that we say three times a day) related to rain.  The first is “mashiv haruach umorid hageshem” – praising Hashem who is the one who “causes the wind to blow and brings down the rain.”  The second prayer is “veten tal umatar livracha” – asking Hashem to “give us dew and rain for blessing.” Since the first is not actually a request for rain but a praise to Hashem for this blessing, we say it throughout the rainy season, beginning on the eighth day of the Sukkot/Shmini Atzeret holiday.  The second prayer is an actual request for rain, and we therefore do not start requesting it until later in the season. For a fascinating discussion on why we start saying this prayer now, based on the secular calendar, and why it is a different time than in Israel, see here.  

What is striking about this is the fact that we pray for rain altogether.  It is part of our heritage to do so, and the Torah teaches that it is Hashem Himself who controls the rain.  The Talmud says that there are three “keys” that Hashem holds in his own hands, so to speak: birth, rain and resurrection.  A large part of the Talmudic tractate “Taanit” is devoted to the fasts and prayers that are said in Israel if there is no rain.  Is rain not a natural event brought about by the various forces of nature coming together? Evaporation, cloud formation, winds, temperature, etc. (in layman’s terms)?  Well, saying that the rain is brought about by natural forces is like saying that chickens come from the supermarket or the butcher. This is an absolutely accurate statement, but really has nothing to do with the source of the chicken, which begins with an egg and requires a tremendous amount of work, involving many people and machines, to get it to the supermarket or butcher in the first place.

Rain is formed by natural forces, but the natural forces are created and directed by Hashem.  Every drop of rain comes by Hashem’s direct Providence. Our sages discuss the difference between that land of Egypt and the land of Israel.  Egypt is the place where our ancestors were enslaved, a place described by the Torah as “the nakedness of the earth,” a place of spiritual darkness and where the Divine light is hidden.  Israel, on the other hand, is the land where “Hashem’s eyes are upon it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.” It is the land of the holy city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, a place of divine revelation.  Egypt’s water comes from the Nile river which floods and waters the surrounding fertile areas (at least before the dam was built.) Israel’s land is watered by rain. This is because in Israel, the relationship between Divine Providence and rain and material blessings is revealed.  

There is a beautiful story that I read many years ago relating to rain, fasting and blessings.  A Jew from Israel was visiting his Rebbe in Russia, and was a little down on the “simple Jews” of Israel.  The Rebbe told him not to underestimate the holiness of those “simple” Jews, and told the following story: There was a simple, unlearned farmer who live just outside of Jerusalem.  He could read Hebrew and was a devoutly observant man, but he had no idea which prayers to say on which days. (In those days there were no annotated siddurim.) Each week when he came into Jerusalem to sell his produce in the market, he would visit the Rabbi who would give him a list of which prayers to say each day.  Some days were Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month), other days were fast days, etc., and he could not handle instructions for more than a few days at a time.  

Once in the rainy season, anticipating that he may not be able to make it into town for a while, he had the Rabbi give him instructions for an entire month.  The next week he did come to town as usual, with a wagon laden with produce to sell, and to his surprise the market was empty. The rainy season was well under way and it had not rained yet, so as is our custom the community set a day of prayer and fasting and the market was closed.  The man asked where all the people were, and he was told that everyone was in the synagogue praying because it was a fast day. He was shocked and horrified that he had not known it was a fast day, and he had said the usual prayers, not those appropriate for a fast day, and this distressed him greatly.  He made his way to the synagogue, where the Rabbi was on the Bimah addressing the community, exhorting them to return to Hashem and strengthen their commitment to Torah observance. Into this serious, intense environment runs the farmer, flings open the door and yells: “Rabbi, what did you do to me?” The people were taken aback, but the Rabbi calmly asked him what the problem was.  He explained that he was upset that he the Rabbi had not told him about the fast day and he had not said the appropriate prayers.

The Rabbi calmed him down and explained that this was not a standard fast, but that a fast had been called because there was no rain.  The farmer looked at the Rabbi in astonishment and said: “because there is no rain you fast?” “What else should we do,” asked the Rabbi.  “well,” answered the farmer, “on my farm when it doesn’t rain I turn my eyes up to heaven and I tell Hashem: “I need rain for my field,” and it starts raining.  “Well,” said the Rabbi, “why don’t you try this here?” The “simple” farmer went outside, turned his eyes toward the heavens, and called out: “Father in heaven, your children need rain,” and it started raining and the drought was over.

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