VaYeshev - Weekly Torah Portion
The story of Hanukkah is a story of war, a struggle against a foreign occupier who attempts to control the people and make them lose their heritage and adopt new ways that are foreign to them. In the book of Maccabees 1 we read that “The king then issued a proclamation to his whole kingdom that all were to become a single people, each nation renouncing its particular customs. All the gentiles conformed to the king's decree and many Israelites chose to accept his religion,… The king also sent edicts by messenger to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah, directing them to adopt customs foreign to the country”. This is where the tale of Mattathias the priest and his five sons begins, and described is their struggle against the ruler and his attempt of control. In Maccabees 2 we learn that this has been a successful uprising. After that success, we find that “they tore down the altars which had been built in the public square by the foreigners, and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they burned incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence… And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves… Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.” Nothing in the books of the Maccabees speaks of a flask of oil, that we find in the Bavli Talmud, chapter 21b, “… the Greeks enters the Temple and the defiled all of the oil in the Temple, and when the Hasmoneans prevailed, they looked and did not find anything but one flask of oil that was stamped with the High Priest’s seal. And there was only enough to light for one day. And a miracle was made and they lit for eight days.”
The Haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah we recite the words of the prophet Zacharia, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of armies.” It is specifically on this Shabbat of Hanukkah that we are reminded that victory is important but not the most important. It is the spirit that got us that victory that counts. Without that spirit the victory is meaningless, it is unsustainable and has no future. It is doomed to failure even if at one time or another it may experience a transient perception of success. It is a lesson not only for others, our enemies. First and foremost, it is a lesson directed at us. If we cannot sustain and maintain that spirit of morality, integrity and justice, it will be impossible to reach significant achievements. The crux of the matter is not in the application of power but with the distribution of the spirit.
Joseph of this week’s portion of VaYeshev is an interesting riddle. On the one hand he is a person who is not popular among his brothers. They know that he “brought back a bad report about them to their father.” On the other hand, the father “loved Joseph more than all his other sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a multicolored tunic.” It is difficult to expect any kind of good results under such circumstance and the result, for now, “when Joseph reached his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the multicolored tunic that was on him; and they took him and threw him into the pit. Now the pit was empty, without any water in it.” Hover, just like the Hanukkah story a miracle does happen once he gets sold for a slave by his brothers and he finds his way to Egypt. However, from one deep hole he goes into another, his “master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; and he was there in the prison.” From being the favorite son to his father he is now locked up in jail.
Still, Joseph is quite a lucky young man as “the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the warden of the prison. And the warden of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it.” The might is in the hands of the jailor – he decides what happens in his jail. However, there is something that goes beyond these powers and that is the spirit, this additional something that can change a tough situation into a moment of victory, and as long as the right proportion between might and spirit are kept. In this respect it is interesting to observe the performance of the Israeli government during the past few days in a frenzy of attempts to force all kinds of restrictions and fines, curfews and lockdowns. Only one thing is missing and that is the spirit. A speech where the repetitious “I” is replaced is replace with a plea of the soul, the need for mutual responsibility, the obligation of elected officials to the public that has elected them into office. They were elected not to be tyrants but to be leaders. Rather than smear campaigns working together, more of the spirit and less of the might, more humility and less self-boasting.
To finish on a high note I want to call your attention to something totally different. I encourage you to list to “Surprises in this Week’s Torah Portion with Shimon Smith”, our friend from Beit Daniel. This week he hosted me in podcast giving me the great honor of joining a list of distinguished interviewees such as Professor Rabbi Dalia Marx, Rabbi Benny Lau, Yochi Brandes, Rabbi Galia Sadan and more. It is in Hebrew but always a good opportunity to practice.
Shabbat Shalom, Happy Hanukkah and wishes for Good Health.
Reuven Marko, 11 December 2020, 26 Kislev, 5781