Mikeitz 5782: Let There Be Light!
Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17 )
GOOD MORNING! This week we celebrate the joyous holiday of Hanukah! This “Festival of Lights” is a time for gathering with our families – lighting the menorah, singing Hanukah songs, and celebrating the holiday with some enjoyable, albeit somewhat unhealthy, fried foods..
One of the more unique aspects of Hanukah has to do with a very unusual law. The great medieval codifier of Jewish law known as Maimonides rules that on Hanukah a person lighting candles on the first night of Hanukah makes three blessings: 1) “lehadlik ner” – for fulfilling the rabbinic commandment to light 2) “she’aso nissim” – thanking the Almighty for the miracles of Hanukah and 3) “shehechayanu” – thanking the Almighty for the opportunity (the third is only recited on the first night).
Regarding this we find a most unusual law – Maimonides writes that a person who hasn’t yet lit his own candles can actually recite the second and third blessings upon seeing another person lighting their menorah. In other words, you can make a blessing on another person’s act of fulfilling the mitzvah! This is a rather strange law and one that isn’t found anywhere else. What is it about Hanukah that creates this opportunity?
One of the defining elements of the Hellenistic culture was that of athletic matches. The Greeks defined personal excellence by what they achieved in comparison to others. This is very clearly highlighted by the value that the ancient Greeks placed on competition. In fact, perhaps the most enduring legacy that Greek culture has left the world is the Olympics and athletic competitions.
The jargon of competition is so ubiquitous in our lives that we hardly notice how violent the descriptions are. One team “beat” the other. The word “beat” is often substituted with the words “slaughtered,” “killed,” “destroyed,” etc. This kind of attitude defines measuring one’s achievements not only by what you have accomplished but also through the decimation and demoralization of your opponent.
Judaism takes on a very different world view – we are not meant to judge ourselves by the success or failures of others. After all, competition is inherently unfair as everyone was created with different strengths and weaknesses. Rather, the goal is to find the area in which we can excel and flourish. It is for this reason that Judaism doesn’t believe in judging oneself in comparison to others. The only acceptable competition is challenging oneself to strive and achieve ever greater accomplishments.
Perhaps that is why on Hanukah, when we are celebrating the triumph of Judaism over Greek culture, we make a point to make a blessing when we see others fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting candles. We are internalizing the message that we are happy for another person’s achievements.
Top Ten List of Things You Never Knew About Hanukah
1. While the holiday of Hanukah celebrates the victory following the three-year war between the Maccabees and the Seleucid Greek Empire, it took another two decades for the Maccabees to evict the Seleucids from the entirety of ancient Israel.
2. The Hanukah celebration, which began with the rededication of the Temple, took place on the 25th of the Jewish month known as Kislev. The 25th of Kislev was already very significant in ancient Jewish history. The temporary Temple that the Jewish people constructed under the direction of Moses during their 40 years of wandering the Sinai desert was completed on the 25th of Kislev. Additionally, the foundation stone for the Second Temple (515 BC) was laid on the 24th of Kislev and the celebration took place that evening (the 25th of Kislev).
3. The 25th word in the Torah is “ohr – light.” This is most fitting for the holiday known as the “Festival of Lights.”
4. The 25th place that the Jewish people camped during their 40 years of wandering in the desert is called “Hashmonah” (Numbers 33:29). This is uncannily similar to the name “Hasmonean,” which is the name of the Judaic dynasty that ruled as a result of miraculous defeat of the Seleucids.
5. The purpose of lighting the menorah is to publicize the miracle that occurred on Hanukah – thus the menorah is placed in a location that will be seen by others. In Israel, the menorahs are lit outside the home and near the street in specially designed glass boxes. Elsewhere, menorahs are lit near a window inside the home.
6. The tradition of giving money (“Hanukah gelt”) to children is of long standing. According to Rabbi Avraham Gambiner, known by his authoritative work on Jewish law and custom Magen Avraham (17th century), it was the custom for poor yeshiva students to visit homes of Jewish benefactors who dispensed Hanukah money. According to Rabbi Avraham Bloch, the rabbis approved of the custom of giving money on Hanukah because “it publicized the story of the miracle of the oil.”
7. According to others, Hanukah gelt is linked to the miraculous victory of the Maccabees over the ancient Greeks. To celebrate their freedom, the Hasmoneans minted national coins. In 1958, the Bank of Israel issued commemorative coins for use as Hanukah gelt. That year, the coin bore the image of the same menorah that appeared on Maccabean coins 2,000 years ago.
8. The menorah on the emblem of the State of Israel is actually taken from the image of the menorah found on the Arch of Titus in Rome. That menorah, which depicts the menorah that was taken to Rome at the destruction of the Second Temple, is different from the one we use on Hanukah. The one used in the Temple had seven branches, while the menorah that is used on Hanukah has eight branches (representing the miracle of eight days of Hanukah).
9. Maimonides writes that the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukah candles is greatly beloved and one must make every effort to fulfill this mitzvah. He ends with the following beautiful sentiment, “Light in the home promotes shalom (peace) and the Torah was given in order to promote peace in the world.”
10. The rigorously observed custom of eating fried foods (latkes, donuts, etc.) to commemorate the miracle isn’t exactly diet friendly. The average sufganiyah (jelly filled donut) packs between 400-600 calories. In Israel it is estimated that 24 million donuts are consumed over the eight-day holiday – equaling some 10.8 billion calories. Peloton anyone?
Last week, I left you with a question to think about: The eight days of Hanukah commemorate the miracle of the cruse of oil that was used to light the menorah in the Temple. That cruse was only supposed to last one day but lasted for eight days, after which they used the newly produced ritually pure oil. It would seem that the miracle was only the extra seven days, so why do we commemorate it as an eight-day miracle?
This question is attributed to Rabbi Joseph Karo, composer of the authoritative series of books on Jewish law known as Shulchan Arukh. Over the last five centuries, there have been many explanations offered to answer this question. In a terrific testament to Jewish ingenuity and scholarship, a book has been published with over one hundred answers to this very question! Here are a few of the most well-known answers.
1. When the Maccabees found the lone jar of oil they realized they would need to stretch it for eight days. So they only put 1/8th of the amount of oil required to burn for 24 hours. Miraculously, that small amount burned for 24 hours.
2. The Maccabees realized that another way to stretch the oil was to use wicks that were much thinner and smaller than the usual wicks. So they designed wicks that were 1/8th the size of the original wicks, even though the light emanating would be far smaller. The miracle was that the smaller wicks burned with the same light and intensity of the original wicks.
3. The first day celebrates the war from which the Maccabees emerged miraculously victorious over the Seleucid Greek Empire. The next seven commemorate the miracle of the oil.
These are just some of the approaches taken to resolve this very interesting question. Feel free to send me your own ideas! I can be reached RabbiZweig@ShabbatShalom.org.
I want to leave you with a final thought: The miracle of Hanukah shows us that a little bit of purity can go a long way. The greatest developments in world history did not take place because of large armies or mega corporations. Effective change for the better comes from individuals with courage and heroes of faith. It’s not the firepower of an army that wins the battle, but rather it’s the purity and conviction of its cause that is ultimately victorious.
Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1 - 44:17
Pharaoh dreams of cows and sheaves and demands for someone to interpret his dreams. The wine butler remembers Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. They bring Joseph from the jail. Pharaoh acknowledges the truth of Joseph’s interpretation (that there would be seven good years followed by seven years of famine) and raises Joseph to second-in-command of the whole country with the mandate to prepare for the famine.
Ten of Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food; Joseph recognizes them, but they don't recognize him. Joseph accuses them of being spies and puts them through a series of machinations in order to get them to bring his brother Benjamin to Egypt. Then Joseph frames Benjamin for stealing his special wine goblet.
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
— Anne Frank