A Light In the Dark – Chanukah and Yoseph — By Ben

A Sefer Torah can be written in Greek and it is considered kosher. 

Kinda odd given that if a Torah isn’t perfectly scribed on parchment with intricate details maintained from the Hebrew text, the Torah must be discarded and buried. Even more troubling given that Greece almost lead to our complete destruction. The Greek culture shared quite a few similarities with Judaism; appreciation of art, pursuit of knowledge, perfection of self, debate, and philosophy. But despite these similarities (or actually because of them) the Greek exile was one of the darkest times in Jewish history. Where other oppressors tried to destroy the Jewish people with might or wealth, the Greek temptation to assimilate proved extraordinarily effective. Dwindling Torah Judaism down to the scarce few, the galus (exile) resulted in a civil war the likes of which Judaism had never faced before.  This was the depressing state of affairs surrounding the upcoming and joyous holiday of Chanukah.  

But why is it that, given such similarities, the two cultures ended up in war?  Why couldn’t they work things out? Was it just the conquerers mindset? Or was there something deeper going on? Also, why do we celebrate Chanukah on the 25th of Kislev. Yes we recaptured the Beit Hamikdash (The Temple) then, but we were in war with the Greeks for another several decades. It was a nice miracle that some oil burned super efficiently, but we took on the Greek Empire and won. That’d be like only celebrating the invasion of Normandy. There was a lot more to World War II. However, I believe the answers are rooted in this week’s parsha. 

Connections to the Torah

We read parsha Vayeishev every year on the Shabbos just before Chanukah. The portion begins the saga of Yoseph and his brothers. Quick recap; Yaakov clearly favors his 11th son Yoseph and gives him an awesome coat. Yoseph has a couple of dreams letting his older brothers know one day they’re going to bow down to him. After that, the brothers decide they’ve had it and they end up selling him into slavery then telling their father that Yoseph was ravaged by a lion. You know, usual older brother stuff. 

In their defense, they weren’t 10 wicked jealous older brothers. They knew about their evil uncle Esav and genuinely believed Yoseph’s delusions of grandeur were clear indications of a repeat of history. They felt he was a threat to the very fabric of the Jewish people. But from this, we see our first theme of Chanukah, a war among brothers. 

A Tzadik Before His Time 

Very few biblical figures are actually called a tzadik and Yoseph is one of them. But what makes him deserving of this title? The Torah says he tattled on his brothers to his father (virtually loshon hara). He certainly didn’t have the most humility in the world as he was very into his physical appearance (i.e. clothes, hair.) And he didn’t have the greatest emmunah either (a fault that keeps him in prison for an extra two years.) So what’s the Torah doing calling him a tzadik? 

We throw the word tzadik around a lot. But without definitions we’re lost. So to clear up any misconceptions, a tzadik is a person who keeps their integrity despite emotional challenges. As Yoseph goes through his own exile, he never loses sight of his value system.  While in slavery at Potiphar’s house he doesn’t succumb to the temptations of the beautiful wife, with over a decade in prison he looks out for everyone (most famously the baker and wine pourer), and then finally becoming an advisor to Pharaoh he doesn’t let his power influence him when his brothers make their way to Egypt. 

That’s the dividing line between the Jewish way and the Greek way. The values of the two societies are so similar that the Hebrew word for Greek, Yavon (יון) and the biblical name for the Jewish homeland Zion (ציון) are almost identical with the exception of one letter, צ, a tzadik. The only difference between the Greek culture and the Jewish culture is a tzadik, a respect and integrity for your traditions and values. 

The appreciation of art, knowledge, and perfection of self must be directed towards something greater. Where Greek gods were closer to comic book super heroes, with impeccable bodies and stunning powers, they were about letting their desires run wild. Gods created in man’s image. But the Jewish idea was that man was created in God’s image. Art for the sake of honoring the holy, self perfection to better impact the world, intellectual pursuits in an attempt to cleave to the divine. Not for honor or curiosity. 

Pulicizing the Light

It is remarkable that a Torah scroll can be written in Greek. The Rabbis admit there is holiness and ideas worthy of praise in the Greek culture. But the written Torah alone isn’t much more than nonsense. A Torah scroll by itself has no vowels or punctuation. Many ideas are only hinted at without being fully developed (the Torah itself gives no instruction on how to keep Shabbos). And even just reading the Five Books of Moses in English can be quite perplexing. As I’ve said before, the written Torah must be learned along side the Oral Torah. Acceptance of the Oral Torah has been a dividing point for the Jewish people time and again. The Sadducees and the Pharisees, Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, and in the time of Chanukah, the Hellenized Jews and the Hasmoniam. 

The Menorah of the Beit HaMikdash had a fundamental connection to the Oral Torah. So when the Maccabees recaptured the Beit HaMikdash and reignited the Menorah, it was a turning point not just for the war effort, but for the return of Torah back into the world. It was believed to be so important that Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik said that it was on that day that the war between the Jews stopped and they reunited against the Greeks.  

Just a Pit Stop

One final connection between the parsha and this idea. When the brothers first capture Yoseph, they decided to throw him into a pit. The Torah describes the pit in an odd way. 

The pit was empty; there was no water in it. (Bereishis 37:24)

Okay… that’s a bit redundant. If the pit is empty, obviously there’s no water in it (by the way, this is totally an example of why you need the Oral Torah.) So Rashi says, “It teaches there was no water in it but there were snakes and scorpions.” That’s nice, but why didn’t the Torah just say there were snakes and scorpions? 

But here’s the big idea. Water, time and again, is equated with Torah.  The wells Avraham and Yitzchok dug were really about them spreading Torah, the flood of Noach was about Torah flooding the world to purge evil, and so it is here, too, the metaphor continues. The pit has no Torah meaning the brothers did what they did because unlike Yoseph who was studying religiously (pun intended) with their father, they didn’t. Meaning they lacked the clarity to do what was right. And when there’s no Torah, for a Jew there is danger, i.e. snakes and scorpions. 

When the Jews in the time of Chanukah Hellenized into Greek culture, they believed they could get by on art and intellect alone. They were wrong. But when the Maccabees reclaimed the Menorah, they unleashed the Oral Torah back into the world. So when we light our Menorahs (actually they are chanukiahs because of the extra lights) we are not only publicizing the extra 7 days Torah flooded back into the world, we are bringing it back into the world ourselves. 

Happy Chanunkah.  

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