Friday, December 23, 2016

Parshas Vayeishev and Chanukah: A Kiss from Above

After Yosef’s brothers cast him into a pit filled with scorpions and snakes, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelite’s coming from afar. Upon seeing this, the brothers decide it would be better to sell Yosef to these men, as opposed to leaving him to die in the pit. In the Torah’s description of this episode, the Torah tells us the seemingly unnecessary detail that these Ishmaelites were carrying with them “spices, balsam, and lotus.” As the Torah does not record any unnecessary details, it is puzzling why it informs us of this seemingly insignificant fact. Rashi points out, quoting the Midrash, that Ishmaelite caravans typically carried foul smelling cargo like naptha and tar—but in order to spare Yosef from a long journey in a smelly caravan, G-d arranged it that this caravan would carry fragrant spices.
               Many are bothered by the following, perhaps obvious question: At this point in Yosef’s life, when all appears lost- his life as he knows it will forever be changed—he is being taken as a slave to a foreign land—what difference does it make how the caravan smells on his way down to Egypt? What comfort does the anomaly of a nice smelling Ishmaelite caravan afford him?
          In order to answer this question, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz notes how the Talmud tells us that when the Jews returned to the Holy Temple which had been desecrated by the Syrian Greeks, they found one small jug of pure oil, that had not been contaminated. It seemed like there was only enough oil to last one night, but in the end, it lasted for eight nights. As a commemoration for this miracle, the Rabbis enacted an eight day holiday of thanksgiving to G-d known as Chanukah.
            If one delves into this idea a little deeper, it seems a little bit puzzling. We know that there was also another very significant miracle that took place at the same time—namely that a small band of Jewish priests, overtook a massive force from the Syrian Greek army, in an unprecedented, shocking military victory. If the Jews would have lost the military campaign, the results would have been catastrophic. And yet, when the rabbis decided to enact a holiday to commemorate these events, they chose to commemorate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days instead of the more significant military victory. The obvious question becomes—why then, is Chanukah based on the miracle of the oil, as opposed to the key military victory?
            Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz gives a phenomenal answer to this question by giving a very powerful metaphor: Imagine if there was a family who lost a precious object. For a full week, the whole family is searching for the object, with no luck. Finally, the five-year-old boy finds it, and immediately, the father runs over to him, gives him a hug and a kiss on his head. For that boy, there are two things happening: A) The overall, large-scale satisfaction of the whole family finding the lost object, and B) the personal delight and immense pride that the child experiences when his father gives him a kiss on his head. For that child, that kiss was priceless.
            Rabbi Shmuelevitz says that this was the reason that the rabbis enacted the holiday of Chanukah. While it is true, and undeniable, that on a macro level, the larger miracle clearly was the military victory, what we want to remember throughout the generations is how G-d enabled one small jug of oil to last for eight days. Were we to have walked into the Temple, as victors of the battle, that surely would have been enough. But in G-d’s immense love for us, He gave us the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. He demonstrated His love for us by giving a timeless kiss on our head, and that is what the Rabbis want us to remember and to cling to during Chanukah, the darkest time of the year. So too, for Yosef, during his darkest days, as he was brought down to Egypt against his will, and his life was falling apart before his very eyes, G-d wanted to give him a kiss on the head, to remind him that He was still very much with him.
            Rabbi Shimshon Pincus points out that even nowadays, there are  miraculous things happening all the time, where G-d is constantly giving us a Divine kiss. Our problem, however, is that we are unable to perceive them. We are unable to perceive the kiss and embrace of our loving Father. He likens this reality to the fact that there are an abundance of sound waves that exist in the vast universe. It is true that there are sound waves—but if we don’t have the right instruments, they will never be perceived. On Chanukah, our job is to work on perceiving these daily miracles; to build our own personal radio transmitters, so that we too, can bask in the unending love of the Almighty.