Vayeishev - Chanukah
Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Immortality of a Nation - A Shadowy Existence
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 87:12) says that in the merit of Yosef's not
succumbing to the advances of Potiphar's wife, the Red Sea would one
day split for his offspring. This is derived by means of lexical
Regarding Yosef the Torah writes "Vayanas - And he [Yosef] fled and
went outside (39:12)." In regard to the splitting of the Red Sea it is
written, "The sea saw, vayanas - and it fled." Is there some deeper
relationship between the splitting of the sea and Yosef's overcoming the
desire to sin with Potiphar's wife, or is this simply a play on words?
In his famous essay Concerning the Jews, Mark Twain wonders:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of
the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost
in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to
be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is
as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his
commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the
smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of
great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine,
and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the
weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvellous fight in this
world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind
him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The
Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian, rose, filled the planet
with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed
away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast
noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held
their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in
twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them
all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no
infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his
energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things
are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.
What is the secret of his immortality?
What indeed is the secret of our miraculous immortality? Let us examine
our nation's infamous archenemy, Amalek; perhaps by identifying what
quality it is Amalek seeks to destroy, we will have uncovered the secret
of our existence. The Torah commands us to obliterate all remembrance
It shall be that when Hashem, your G-d, gives you rest from all
your enemies... you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from
beneath the heaven. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 25:19)
Why does the Torah stress that the memory of Amalek shall be erased
"from beneath the heaven?"
The Ba'al Shem Tov explains the verse (Tehillim 121:5), "Hashem is your
shadow," to mean that just as a shadow follows in a most precise
manner the movements of its producer, so too Hashem "shadows man,"
dealing with us in a manner corresponding to the way we serve Him.
For instance, one who goes out of his way to judge his fellow favourably,
Hashem will likewise "go out of His way" and give him the benefit of the
doubt even where he may not deserve it. By the same token we could
infer that if one serves Hashem with exceptional dedication - rising to
overcome difficulties and trials that challenge one's very nature, forcing
him to stretch his feeble humanity to levels he himself would never have
thought possible - then Hashem will correspondingly "move heaven and
earth" to accommodate such a person.
Perhaps this can help us understand the answer to an age-old question:
Why did the salvation of Chanukah come about through a full-fledged
miracle (both in the exceptional victory of the tiny Jewish army over the
mighty Greek forces, and in the oil of the Menorah lasting eight days),
while the salvation of Purim - the ascent of Queen Esther to the
monarchy and the subsequent downfall of Haman - came about through
ostensibly natural means?
Haman and the Persians desired no less than to annihilate the Jewish
nation. Our very existence was challenged, and we reacted by an
exceptional outpouring of prayer and fasting. In truth, though, there's
nothing very exceptional about the Jewish reaction to the Haman-
problem. It was do or die - literally. One would only expect that in a
fight to the death, one does whatever one has to do to win.
Antiochus and the Greeks, by contrast, did not come to kill. All they
desired was our conversion. "Become like us - and we will do you no
harm." Indeed, there were those who succumbed to their overtures, and
were lost to our nation for eternity. It would have been easy enough for
our ancestors, too, to take the conversion route, doing perhaps as the
Marranos did during the Spanish inquisition, outwardly behaving as
gentiles, and keeping their Judaism behind closed doors. Yet they refused
to succumb. They would have no part of a culture that demanded they
relinquish the religion of their forefathers. Despite Greek decrees, they
continued to study Torah publicly, honour the Shabbos, and keep the
mitzvah of bris milah. "Let us rather die as Jews than to live as heathens."
The Jews in the time of the Greeks stretched the very limits of their
humanity; they gave everything they had and more - their very lives - for
the honour of Hashem's name. In return, Hashem repayed them with
nature-stretching miracles. The Jews of Persia did what was right and
what was expected; Hashem saved them too, but by "natural means."
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 87:8) compares the verse here, "And he
fled, and went ha-chutzah - outside," to the verse (Bereishis/Genesis 15:5),
"And [Hashem] took [Avraham] ha-chutzah - outside." Rashi (there)
comments that Hashem took Avraham "outside" the normal limitations
of nature; He "elevated him above the heavens," promising him a child
through Sarah, who lacked the natural ability to give birth. Yosef too, by
overcoming the exceptional challenge of Potiphar's wife, went "outside"
and above the restrictions of his own humanness. He could have
succumbed to sin; he could have claimed that the test was simply too
great, the temptation overwhelming. Yet he didn't. With "superhuman"
effort, he fled the crime scene, leaving everything behind, and ultimately
suffering a twelve-year jail term as a result of her wrath. In his merit,
Red Sea would one day "flee" from before his offspring, bending the laws
of nature for he who bent his own nature. (Perhaps this also explains
why the sea couldn't split until the Jews first jumped into its raging
waters; in order for nature to surrender to the Jews, they first had to
surrender their lives to Hashem.)
What Amalek seeks to destroy is our ability to rise "above the heaven,"
giving Hashem everything we have and more. Were he to have
succeeded in doing so, perhaps our miraculous existence would have
indeed succumbed to the natural forces that have eroded nations far
stronger and more numerous. The Torah thus commands us to erase his
memory from beneath the heaven. [Based in part by an essay in Nesivos
Shalom, Ki Setze p. 130]
The "secret of our immortality," Mr. Twain, lies in our willingness to give
everything we have, and far more, for the sake of Hashem and His
Torah. Our continued existence, in the face of centuries and millennia of
hatred, exile, and persecution, defies explanation. It's something that
those living "beneath the heavens" can't rationalize nor understand. As we
observe Chanukah, which celebrates our supernatural commitment to
Torah and mitzvos, we take the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to
the values and ideals that remain just as fresh and as relevant today as
they were in the times of Mattisyahu and our ancestors.
Have a good Shabbos and a freilichen Chanukah.
This week's publication has been sponsored by Dr.
and Mrs. Moshe Slome, in honour of the Bar Mitzvah of their
son, Yisroel. May they have lots of Yiddishe Nachas from him
and all their children!
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.