Dec 14 2017

The Misunderstood Maccabees and Miketz Miracles

Holy TempleThere is a lot of misinformation about the Chanukah holiday. People teach that the Greeks took over Israel, the Jews fought back, the Jews won the battle, and then there was the miracle of the oil — enough oil to explain the Menorah, Latkes, and Sufganiyot (Israeli jelly doughnuts). That one small flask of oil certainly went a long way.

But if there is one phenomenon that exemplifies the confusion, it would have to be the Maccabiah Games. It offers young Jewish athletes from around the world the opportunity to participate in… a pale imitation of the Olympics, which are, of course, modeled after the original Greek games. We, too, can be just like the ancient Greeks!

And that is exactly the wrong message. Because the victory of Chanukah came from being as unlike the Greeks as one could imagine.

The war that gave us Chanukah was not fought between Jewish Maccabees and the Greeks alone, but the Jewish Maccabees versus Hellenized Jews as well. There were many Jews who fell for the Greek ways, and their glorification of the human body — the reason behind the original Olympic Games. Jews competed in those games, and worshiped Greek idols.

The Maccabees were the very opposite of the Greeks. They neither celebrated nor possessed physical or military prowess; it made no sense that they won the war. The Medrash says that with prayers alone they felled thousands of Greek officers, leaving the military in disarray. The miracle of the oil was only one of many miracles that happened at that time, but showed Divine favor towards the Maccabees. The war did not end before Chanukah; it continued for several years after the miracle of the oil. But at that point to the Maccabees knew that they would emerge victorious.

In this week’s Torah reading, which is always read during Chanukah, we find a similar sequence of miracles happening to Yosef. He was sitting in an Egyptian prison, jailed because of a false accusation. Thus he could have despaired — but instead knew that everything came from G-d. And when it was time for him to leave that prison, he went from prisoner to viceroy, second only to Pharoah, in just a few hours. Another person could have lost his mind from this sudden, bizarre change of circumstances, but Yosef knew that it was all in accordance with a Divine plan.

Yosef knew that the dreams he had as a young man were prophetic revelation: he would eventually rule over his brothers. And it was the plot of those same brothers, their selling him to be a slave in Egypt, which led to the fulfillment of that prophecy! It makes no more sense than the idea that a single prayer could kill Greek military officers, but there it was.

The lesson of Chanukah is that, just as with Yosef, things are not as they seem. Everything is happening according to a Divine plan, though it may be beyond our comprehension. The Jewish obligation Is to recognize that “many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but it is the prescription of G-d which will be fulfilled” [Proverbs 19:21]. Chanukah tells us that our path is not one of physical, intellectual or business prowess, but Divine Intervention. And in the end, victory is preordained: the Jews survive against all odds.

Dec 01 2017

War & Peace… Together

Our reading begins with Yaakov returning to the land of Cana’an, re-encountering his brother Esav after several decades of separation. This was, however, no ordinary family reunion.

After Yaakov received his father’s blessing intended for Esav, Esav decided to kill Yaakov. It was for this reason that Rivka, their mother, advised Yaakov to run to the house of her brother Lavan [27:41-43] Rivka told Yitzchak that she wanted Yaakov to marry a non-Canaanite woman, and thus Yitzchak sent Yaakov there to marry Lavan’s daughter [27:46-28:2] — but this was engineered by Rivka to save Yaakov’s life.

Now, Yaakov is returning. Will 34 years of separation have placated Esav, or will he greet Yaakov with murderous intent? Yaakov was afraid, and sent messengers ahead with gifts for his brother “to find favor in your eyes” [32:6]. To which Rashi adds, “for I am at peace with you, and request your love.” Yaakov did not want to fight, he wanted peace.

Yet we also learn that Yaakov divided his caravan into two camps — so that at least half would escape if they were attacked. Rashi quotes the Medrash which says that Yaakov prepared himself in three different ways: with gifts, with prayers, and with preparation for war.

Modern day pacifists would claim that two of these things were contradictory, that one cannot simultaneously claim to want peace while arming for battle. Our Sages say, “the stories of the fathers are signposts for the children.” On the contrary, sometimes being well prepared for war is the best way to ensure peace!

Nov 23 2017

Preparation… for More than a Lifetime

At first glance, one could attempt to compare the encounter between Yaakov and Rachel to a scene from a novel. The Torah previously described in detail how Avraham’s servant Eliezer journeyed to find a wife for Yitzchok, and brought her to him, sight unseen, to be his bride.

What a difference a generation makes! Yaakov journeys on his own, and when he arrives, he is told by the shepherds that Rachel, daughter of his uncle Lavan, is approaching. And here is the story as a novelist would tell it:

Our hero sees his beloved, experiences love at first sight, runs and kisses her, crying with joy… And then, in a feat of superhuman strength, moves the rock blocking the well in order to water her flock. After meeting her father, our hero agrees to work seven long years for the honor of marrying his bride. And indeed he does so, his aching heart yearning all the while. And after seven years, he requests her hand in marriage, and they live happily ever after.

But that’s not what happens.

Yaakov sees Rachel… and the flock. He then moves the stone and waters her flock, completely ignoring her until her father’s entire flock of thirsty sheep have had their fill. Then and only then does he kiss her, and only after kissing her does he cry. He then volunteers to work for seven years to be able to marry Rachel only after the seven years of work are over, and the verse describes those years as “like a few days, in his love for her.” After those years, he says to Lavan, very unromantically, “bring me my wife, because my days are complete, and I will be with her.”

So despite the superficial similarities, what actually transpires is profoundly different, so different from our expectations that further explanation is needed.

The Ohr HaChaim notes that the verses repeatedly emphasize that Lavan is Yaakov’s “mother’s brother.” Yaakov first waters the flock, because by doing so he is, by extension, honoring his mother. He comes to Rachel, kisses her as family, and then cries. Rashi explains that when he kissed Rachel, Yaakov saw prophetically that he would indeed marry her, but she would not be buried with him. He also cried because unlike Eliezer who came with rings and jewelry in search of a bride, Yaakov came with empty hands.

The seven years passed like “a few days” because Yaakov was both showing his honor and esteem for Rachel, and preparing himself to be her husband. He says to her father, bring me my wife, because I have completed my days of preparation, and now I am ready to be with her and to be her husband.

What we see is not a romance, but a lesson from our forebears in how to approach marriage as a spiritual act, as part of serving G-d. Yaakov honored his mother, together they honored her father, and they prepared themselves spiritually for seven years to be father and mother of the Jewish people. When we create a Jewish home and raise our children to follow the Jewish path, we too, are building for a future that extends long beyond our lives.

Nov 17 2017

First, Choose a Direction

This week’s reading begins with Rivka’s pregnancy, which came about only after many years and many prayers. And then we read a verse which, according to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki himself, begs further explanation: “And the children struggled within her, and she said ‘if so, why am I here?’ And she went to inquire of G-d” [25:22].

First of all, what’s the problem? Different children behave differently in utero. Some move around a great deal, while others are more placid. Women can often tell how their children will behave before giving birth.

So Rivka’s baby moved around a lot. Admittedly, a child like that is likely to be somewhat more taxing (and that may be an understatement). But this is not, to use the expression, “the end of the world!” So why does she say “if so, why a why am I here?”

Second question: where did she go? G-d fills the world, yet the verse says “she went to inquire” of Him.

And what is the answer she receives? “And G-d said to her, ‘there are two nations in your womb, and two peoples will separate from within you; and the one will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger'” [25:23]. They are two brothers, and they will not get along. One will bully the other, she is told. And she is reassured and goes home, and indeed eventually gives birth to twins.

This, then, is the reassuring answer, that they are brothers who won’t get along?

Our Sages explain that what Rivka perceived was not “conventional” movement of a baby. There was a House of Study, dedicated to understanding G-d, led by Shem the son of Noach, and his great-grandson Eyver. And any time that Rivka went by this House of Study, she felt her baby (not knowing that there were, in fact, two babies) trying to get out to go study with them.

But by this time, there was also a great deal of idolatry in the world. And every time she walked by a house of idolatry, she also felt her baby trying to get out, to go worship the idols!

It was to the House of Study of Shem and Eyver to which she went to seek guidance. And that is where she learned that she was going to have twins.

Our Rabbis say that what bothered her so much was that her baby appeared to be pulled in every direction. He or she wanted to simultaneously serve G-d and serve idols. And the consolation was, these are two different children, each of whom is naturally drawn in one direction but not the other.

This was a consolation, they say, because then one could hope that the child naturally drawn to idolatry would nonetheless defeat this inclination and serve G-d. But if he didn’t perceive that idolatry and service of G-d were different and mutually exclusive, then he was lost at a much more fundamental level.

Unlike babies in the womb, we have within us both good and evil inclinations. We are all, in our lifetimes, drawn to both sides — and every person, on his or her level, sometimes makes the wrong choice. But our very first task is to know that there is indeed a choice to be made, that some actions are superior than others. The Torah tells us how to discern between them. And then, we must take stock. We must know in what direction we are going, rather than allow ourselves to be lost in our daily affairs. That will enable us to change for the better.

Our goal is to grow. We must attempt to become more G-dly, and bring more G-dliness into the world through our actions. If we are “all over the place,” lost in a cloud of good and bad behaviors, then indeed “why are we here?” We must take stock of our actions, choose our direction, and pursue the good. Then the bad will be subjugated to the good, even if the bad appears to be “greater,” dragged to the House of Study to be elevated and purified.

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