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Vayeshev 5781: Let There Be Light!

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! This year the holiday of Hanukah begins on the night of December 10th. Hanukah has a particularly unique aspect to it – one that is found nowhere else in Judaism and the lesson it teaches us can be truly life changing. But first:


In 167 BCE, the Syrian-Greek and Hellenistic emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, set out to destroy Judaism and incorporate the Land of Israel and its inhabitants into his empire. His soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and defiling the city's holy Second Temple with idol worship by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.

However, the evil Antiochus knew that a mere physical attack on the Jews would not accomplish his goal. He therefore mounted an attack on the very structure of Judaism. First, he prohibited studying and teaching the Torah. By prohibiting the study of Torah he was attempting to eliminate the spiritual backbone of the Jewish people.

He then issued a ban prohibiting the practice of three mitzvot (commandments): 1) Shabbat 2) Sanctifying of the New Month (establishing the first day of the month by testimony of witnesses who saw the new moon) 3) Brit Mila (entering the Covenant of Abraham through Torah-ordained circumcision).

Why these three mitzvot? Shabbat signifies that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe and that His Torah is the blueprint of creation, imbuing the world with meaning and values. Sanctifying the New Month determines the monthly calendar and the exact day of the Jewish holidays. Without a functioning calendar there would be communal chaos. Brit mila (circumcision) is a sign of our special covenant with the Almighty. These three mitzvot form a foundation for the structure of Judaism. Without them our cultural integrity would quickly deteriorate and dissolve, and we would slowly assimilate and submit to the Greek culture.

A family of Jewish priests – Matityahu and his 5 sons, known as the Maccabees – would not have it. They started a revolt and three years later succeeded in evicting the oppressors. The victory was a true miracle – on the scale of present day Israel being able to defeat the combined forces of all of today's super-powers (this might also explain why the emblem of the State of Israel is a menorah). Once the Jewish people regained control of the Temple in Jerusalem, they wanted to rededicate it immediately. The symbol of this rededication was to be the lighting of the menorah on the newly recaptured Temple Mount.

In order to do so, they needed ritually pure olive oil to re-light the menorah in the Temple, which was a part of the Temple's nightly service. Only a single cruse of oil was found. This was just enough to burn for one day, however, they needed oil for eight days (the time it would take for new ritually pure olive oil to be produced). A miracle occurred and the single small jar of oil burned for eight days. Thus, the Temple was rededicated; in fact, Hanukah means “dedication” in Hebrew!

To commemorate the miracle, we light Hanukah candles (or better yet, lamps with olive oil) for eight nights. The first candle is placed on the far right of the menorah with each additional night's candle being placed to the immediate left. One says three blessings the first night (only two blessings each subsequent night) and then lights the candles, starting with the furthermost candle to the left (the newest addition). We light the candles near a window or in our doorways so that others may see them, in order to publicize the miracles that occurred on Hanukah.

It is here that we find a remarkable aspect of Hanukah within Jewish law. Anyone even slightly familiar with Jewish practices is aware that one of the most practiced customs is that of reciting blessings. We recite blessings on every commandment that we fulfill, when we partake of food and drink, and when we have certain life experiences (e.g. meeting a king, or seeing a place where miracles have occurred).

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 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?

In order to understand this we must begin to appreciate the very essence of what the holiday of Hanukah is all about. Hanukah, as we know, celebrates the victory over the Greeks who tried to eradicate the study of Torah and its values. One of the greatest differences between Greek culture and Jewish culture is how we view our relationships with others.

One of the main defining elements of the Hellenistic culture was that of athletic matches. 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. In other words, the Greeks defined personal excellence by what they achieved in comparison to others.

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” can easily be 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 demoralization of your opponent.

Of course, this is rather unfair as everyone was created with different strengths and weaknesses. 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.

When my father founded a day school in Miami Beach in the 1980’s, he emphasized that the prime educational goal was to motivate each child to develop to the best of their capabilities. He discouraged school wide competitions in the lower grades and mandated that the teachers and administrators grade each child by their achievements through personal effort and hard work.

Grades were not to be given objectively, but rather subjectively. A high grade should only be given based on how much a student achieved through personal effort. In other words, a student who can easily memorize material should not be granted an “A” for effortlessly recalling what others have to spend many hours studying. He challenged his educational staff to make sure that every student was being challenged according to their capabilities and to grade them on that basis.

Likewise, Judaism celebrates personal achievement as measured by one’s own innate capabilities. This has another amazing benefit: We can celebrate other people’s successes as well as our own because their achievements do not come at our expense. Thus, we are not resentful of what they have attained and we can be genuinely happy for what they have accomplished.

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. I want to wish everyone a most joyous Hanukah and may the lights of this holiday usher in an extended era of peace and tranquility in these difficult times. Amen.

Torah Portion of the Week

Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1 - 40:23

This week's portion includes four stories: 1) The selling of Yosef (Joseph) as a slave by his brothers, which eventually positioned Yosef to be second in command in Egypt and enabled him to save the known world from famine 2) The indiscretion of Yehuda (Judah) with Tamar 3) The attempted seduction of Yosef by Potifar's wife, which ends with her framing Yosef and having him imprisoned 4) Yosef interpreting the dreams of his fellow prisoners, the wine steward (who was reinstated and forgot to put in a good word for Yosef) and the baker (who was hanged).

Candle Lighting Times

(or go to

Jerusalem 4:00
Miami 5:12 - Cape Town 7:33 - Guatemala 5:16
Hong Kong 5:23 - Honolulu 5:32 - Johannesburg 6:35
Los Angeles 4:26 - London 3:36 - Melbourne 8:17
Mexico 5:41 - Moscow 3:38 - New York 4:10
Singapore 6:41 - Toronto 4:22

Quote of the Week

Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.
— Anne Frank

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Steven Edward Finer



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