This week’s thoughts are really a ‘three-in-one’, combining this week’s Torah reading (Vayeishev), Chanukah, and next week’s reading (Mikeitz).
As we have previously quoted from Shnei Luchot Habrit, it’s not by chance that a Jewish holiday falls on or around a given weekly Torah portion; the two are inherently connected to one another. Chanukah always falls in the Vayeshev-Mikeitz range, and, as we’ll see, is a prime example of this phenomenon. We’ll turn to the Shem MiShmuel commentary explain the link between these specific concepts. We’ll split this into two sections for easier reading.
We start from this week’s parasha:
And Yaakov dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Cana’an.
-When Yaakov sought to dwell in tranquility, the troubles of Joseph sprang upon him.
–Rashi, 37:2, from Midrash
A closer look at the source Rashi is quoting from provides more details:
Rav Acha said: “When the righteous sit in tranquility or desire to sit in tranquility in this world, the Satan comes and accuses. He exclaims:
‘Is that which is set for (the righteous) in the World to Come not enough, that they seek serenity in this world?’
This is certainly the case, for Yaakov Avinu sought to dwell in serenity in this world and the trial of Yosef attached itself to Yaakov: ‘Yaakov settled down’, but
I had no tranquility, no quiet, no rest, and trouble came’ (Iyov 3:26):
[Each expression represents a different difficulty that Yaakov underwent in his lifetime:]
‘I had no tranquility’—from Esav;
‘No quiet’—from Lavan;
‘No rest’—from Dina;
‘And trouble came’—the trouble of Yosef.”
Now, Yaakov, the great Tzaddik, the ‘choicest of the forefathers’, surely did not intend to relax, to take it easy. His every thought, action and word were measured and infused with ultimate focus and righteousness; he was not ‘retiring’ at this point. Instead, this must have been a calculated shift of focus on Yaakov’s part; he must have understood that his service of God would have to take on a different dimension now- one associated with ‘calm’- and despite his best intentions, he was apparently incorrect in his estimate. As a consequence, he was given the test of Yosef.
Before we get into what Yaakov had in mind, let’s start with the bigger picture first. Let’s take a look at the roles of Yaakov and his forebears Avraham and Yitzchak- and thereby appreciate what Yaakov wanted to do, and how it related to Yosef.
We continue with another Midrash that comments on the same verse from Iyov…
‘I had no tranquility’— from (the exile of) Babel;
‘No quiet’—from (the exile of) Madai;
‘No rest’—from (the exile of) Greece;
‘And trouble came’—from (the exile of) Edom.
-Shemot Rabbah, ch.26
-This Midrash links the expressions of suffering to the exiles which our nation has endured since the destruction of the second Bet Hamikdash. Each contained its unique pain, each brought us a different challenge and opportunity to improve and correct what was broken.
The great Maharal pins specific attributes to each of the exiles, which show the depth of meaning behind each station on our long and difficult path towards Redemption.
The exile of Babel (Babylonia) corresponded to the sin of idol-worship; the country’s leader, Nevuchadnetzar, forced Jews to bow down to his idol.
That of Madai (and Persia) corresponded to the sin of adultery; the entire intention of Achashverosh and Vashti (of the Purim story) in hosting the huge, lavish banquet was to encourage immodesty and forbidden relationships.
The Greek ‘exile’ corresponded to the sin of murder.
Explains the Shem MiShmuel: according to the holy Arizal, the process of death involves impure forces entering the body. When enough of this negative energy is there to overwhelm the holy and sensitive soul, it leaves the body and thus the person dies. Similarly, Hashem rests His Shechina within us- and in particular during the time of the Bet Hamikdash. Just as impurity chases out the soul, so did the Greeks believe they could ‘chase’ God away from an undeserving nation, once they introduced impurity into its midst. This is the significance of their making the oils impure. This is the depth of their terrible decree that a Jewish girl who was engaged to be married must ‘first have relations with a Greek officer’(-see Gemara Megilah); they attempted to drive impurity into the core of the Jewish Nation.
–We now understand the connection between the Greeks and murder. Their effort to use impurity in chasing away holiness is parallel to the process of death and murder.
Yaakov’s rest, as important as he believed it to be, had not yet reached its correct time. Yosef’s trial was to be Yaakov’s final challenge- and then he could rest. Yosef’s story stood out from the rest- instead of fit ‘not allowing Yaakov rest’, it was the trouble itself. Whereas the other trials of Yaakov paralleled the exiles of the first Midrash we quoted, Yosef’s must have paralleled a fourth, darker exile- one that can only be described as inherently bad…
And all his sons and all his daughters arose to console him, but he refused to be consoled, for he said, “Because I will descend on account of my son as a mourner to the grave”; and his father wept for him.
That Yaakov Avinu could not be consoled is noteworthy. As the Midrash explains, one usually ‘forgets’ a loved one within a year of his or her death- Hashem ‘programmed’ us that way so that we shouldn’t carry the pain of such losses for the rest of our lives- yet Yaakov was inconsolable for 22 years (when he learned that Yosef was in fact alive). This special favor given to mourners was not applicable here- being that Yosef was actually alive- and so the loss remained fresh for Yaakov all those years.
The loss of Yosef during those 22 years was much more than a personal tragedy, in which Yaakov suffered for the apparent death of his dear son. The main calamity, rather, was that Yaakov had intended all along for Yosef (whom he valued more than he did his other righteous sons) to be the ‘next link on the chain’-the one who would lead the next generation, transmitting the teachings and traditions of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. (As discussed in ‘Influence of a Tzaddik’, 2013.) Yaakov was now devastated because his plan had been torn to shreds just like Yosef’s special coat, and the entire future of a budding Nation was in serious danger. The ‘return’ of Yosef, from this perspective, meant that B’nei Israel could still fulfill its potential.
Another, less known dimension of the drama involving Yosef and his brothers was that Yaakov’s own eternity was at stake. Yaakov had been promised by Hashem that if none of his children would die during his lifetime then he ‘would not see Gehinom (Hell)’ (Midrash); according to some commentators, this meant that if one did die during his lifetime, he would lose his entire portion in the World to Come.
As such, we can only imagine Yaakov’s pain when he thought that Yosef had died; this meant that he had lost his eternity! In fact, years later when the Egyptian viceroy kept Shimon captive and then demanded that Binyamin meet him, Yaakov connected his distress to the loss of Yosef years earlier:
And their father Yaakov said to them, “You have bereaved me-Yosef is gone, and Shimon is gone, and you want to take Binyamin! All these troubles have come upon me.”
-As if to say that the original spiritual loss had now deepened.
And, to be more exact:
”…his brother is dead, and he alone is left, and if misfortune befalls him on the way you are going, you will bring down my gray head in sorrow to the grave.”
Before we continue, a couple of points need clarification:
- Why was Yaakov, of all the Avot, given such an unusual ‘deal’ by God?
2.What was the logic behind such a system, in which Yaakov would be ‘punished’ for his own child dying?
Let’s try to continue this next week- and see how this all fits into our holiday…
Have a great Shabbat, and an enlightened Chanukah!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.