In this week’s reading, the sons of Yaakov sell their brother Yosef into slavery. First, they take him and throw him into a pit, intending to kill him. But seeing a caravan approaching, Yehudah suggests that they sell him instead, keeping the money while sending him down to Egypt.
Rashi points to two interesting details found in the Medrash. First of all, the Torah describes the pit as “empty, there was no water in it.” [37:24] Rav Tanchum asks, “it says the pit is empty. Don’t I know that it doesn’t have water in it? Rather, what the Torah is saying is that it didn’t have water in it, but it had snakes and scorpions in it!” [Talmud Shabbos 22a]
Then, the approaching caravan is described as carrying various fragrant spices. [37:25] Rashi explains that the Torah is telling us this in order to point out the merits of a righteous person like Yosef. Ordinarily, these caravans would be carrying petroleum products with bad smells. But for Yosef’s sake, this particular caravan carried aromatic cargo.
I remember Rav Asher Z. Rubenstein zt”l asking, what difference did the smell make? Why would Yosef care, in the middle of his brothers’ betrayal, being separated from his family and sold into slavery, about the odor of the camels’ burdens?
The Torah is telling us that everything is according to plan, even when we can’t see it. Dumped into a pit with snakes and scorpions, why wasn’t Yosef bitten? Because he wasn’t supposed to be. Rather, he was supposed to go to Egypt, and rise from slavery to be second to Pharaoh.
If so, why wasn’t the pit empty, instead? Yosef was shown that even at that moment, he was surrounded by miracles. An empty pit would not have shown him that G-d was still watching over him, as the dangerous creatures did. And in that context, he might indeed have noticed the fragrant smell of spices. Whatever it was that he was supposed to go through, he wasn’t supposed to have to endure a bad smell — and so he didn’t have to. These small signs carried a powerful message.
The story of Chanukah, which begins on Sunday night this year, teaches this same lesson. In the history of Chanukah, the fact that the oil lasted for eight days could seem like a trivial detail. The Cohanim could have used impure oil instead, because both the people and the oil were impure. And how was it even relevant? There was a war raging, and they’re making a big deal about oil?
It’s not about the oil itself; it is what the small miracle represented. By continuing to burn, the oil delivered the message that G-d was with us, during a battle between — quite literally — the forces of light and those of darkness. However things looked at the time, we were surrounded by miracles.
And so it remains. We all struggle with difficult situations, and sometimes we wonder why bad events have happened. The Torah is telling us that G-d watches over each of us, and makes certain that our circumstances match our individual needs precisely.
Sometimes we see that small glimmer of light, be it a fragrant smell coming from the camels, or the oil burning far longer than it should. Even when we cannot see it, everything happens for a reason, and that reason is ultimately to our benefit. That is the encouragement the Torah gives us, to enable us to withstand hardships great and small.