Elli Schwarcz -Of Spice and Oil: Vayeishev and Hanukah


This week we read Parashat Vayeishev, which tells of how Yosef was sold by his brothers as a slave.

Meanwhile, Hanukah begins on Sunday night, and so the holiday coincides this year with the Torah portions of Mikeitz and Vayigash, which continue the story of Yosef and his brothers.

We know that it is no accident when a given holiday falls out on a particular weekly Torah portion. As Shela Hakadosh explains, the cycle of Torah readings was arranged with Divine Assistance, and so there is in fact a real connection between a special day and the regular reading with which it coincides. This is especially true for our current confluence of events, because this week’s parasha, Vayeishev, and next week’s, Mikeitz, are always either just before or on Hanukah. What then, we may ask, is the connection between Vayeishev (and the subsequent Torah portions) and Hanukah?
Before we can get to an answer to this question, let’s review the events of Vayeishev:
Yaakov favored Yosef over his other children, and Yosef carried himself in a way that his brothers believed challenged Yehuda’s position of authority. When Yosef shared his dreams with his brothers, implying that they would one day all bow to him in subservience, they finally decided to take action. Yosef’s brothers threw him into a deep pit, but then spared his life and sold him as a slave to passing merchants.
We can now address our question, by noting a detail in the Torah’s telling of the story. Interestingly, the verse tells us exactly what merchandise the caravan carried that day:
And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold- a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spices and balm and lotus, going to carry it down to Egypt.
– Vayeishev, 37:25

What is the significance of this detail? Why does the Torah mention what the caravan that would transport Yosef carried? Our Rabbis explain:

Why does the verse publicize what they were carrying? To let us know the reward of righteous people- for it is not usual for Arabs to carry things other than naphtha and tar, whose smells are bad, but for this one [Yosef], spices were arranged so that he should not be damaged by bad smells.

-Rashi, from Midrash

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz finds this clarification difficult. Yosef, a tzaddik who represented the continuity of B’nei Israel, was sold by his own brothers, leaving behind his father- and exiled to the most immoral and impure country on Earth. An incredible tragedy! Should he even notice the smell in the caravan, let alone enjoy it?
Rav Shmulevitz answers his question with a simple but important concept. True, the spices’ good smell was trivial compared to the seriousness of the unfolding story, but there was an underlying message here. While most miracles are significant for the salvation they bring, this small miracle was of a different nature. Precisely because it wasn’t crucial that Yosef enjoy a nice aroma, this pleasant gift was Hashem’s way of showing his love for Yosef. Against a backdrop of betrayal and trepidation, Hashem was signaling that He remained at Yosef’s side, and that their relationship was still intact. In Rav Shmulevitz’s words, it was as if “God was giving Yosef a kiss.”
The Hanukah story, continues Rav Shmulevitz, would revolve around just such a miracle. Consider the paragraph that we add to the Amidah prayer on Hanukah. It rightly describes the decrees that the Greeks used in attempting to wipe out Torah observance, and emphasizes the victory that Hashem gave the small band of righteous Jews in the face of impossible odds. The text, though, doesn’t end there.  After we remember our salvation- both physical and spiritual- we continue to describe B’nei Israel’s retaking and purification of the Beit Hamikdash, and then tell of the lighting of the Menorah.
Our miraculous victory, ensuring our continuity as a Torah nation, would seem to be the most important aspect of the Hanukah story- and yet appears to be almost overshadowed here by the miracle of the oil and the details surrounding it.
Even more striking in this regard is the Talmud’s telling of the Hanukah story. In explaining which specific miracle prompted our Rabbis to establish this holiday of thanksgiving, our Sages focus almost exclusively on the oil miracle- only mentioning our existential victory in passing (that part has been emphasized here to show how little is is discussed, in comparison to the Menorah miracle):
When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they made all of the oils in the Sanctuary impure. And when the royal Chashmona’i family overpowered and defeated them, they checked- but only found one jar of oil sealed with the seal of the Kohen Gadol [as proof that it was unopened and still pure], and there was only enough in it with which to light for one day. A miracle was made on the oil, and they lit from it for eight days. The next year, they [the Rabbis] established them [these eight days] and made them holidays with praise and thanks.

-Gemara Shabbat 21b

So much attention is given to the miracle of the oil, although logically it pales in significance to our actual salvation, our survival as Hashem’s Nation!

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Here’s another difficulty, this one a well-known question regarding the Menorah miracle:

There is a law in the Torah that ‘impurity is permitted if the community is impure’ (Tum’ah hutra besibur).
This means that although an animal that has become tam’ei (ritually impure) is generally invalid as a sacrifice in the Beit Hamikdash, if most of the Jewish people are impure at a certain time, the sacrifice is valid.
The Menorah, likewise, should not have  required pure oil at the time of the Hanukah miracle, because the nation was generally impure at that moment! The Jews’ efforts to procure pure oil, first in their search, then in sending for the new oil to be made and brought back on a four-day trip, were actually unnecessary.
If so, the question is asked, why did Hashem make an open miracle, allowing the pure oil to last until more could be produced, if the lighting would be perfectly valid even with impure oil?
(Some commentators point to our special care for the Mitzvah, trying to fulfill it in the best possible manner- and this, despite the challenges involved- as precisely the reason Hashem performed, in His mercy, this miracle. As Ba”ch (Bayis Chodosh, authorotative commentary on the Tur- halachah books) writes, the nation’s shortcoming in the years leading up to the Hanukah story, before we lost control of the Beit Hamikdash, was a lack of alacrity and attention to our service of Hashem. Our inability to push out the Greeks and hellenized Jews and recapture the Temple was a Divine consequence for not appreciating it enough while we had it. As such, the great lengths to which we went to light the Menorah optimally signaled that we had fully rectified our failings in this dimension. Here, though we will focus on a different angle.)
The answer to this question will also explain why the miracle of the oil is celebrated so much to begin with- and is in fact the very principle we have been discussing until now. True, the pure oil was unnecessary, and that is exactly why Hashem performed the miracle; it was a sign of His love for His nation. When the Maccabees, inspired by their love of Hashem, risked their lives for the sake of the Torah, Hashem showed His approval by giving them the ability to light the Menorah at the optimal level. This phenomenon, a miracle whose sole purpose is to show Hashem’s care for us, is more precious to us than our very survival- and is therefore celebrated and highlighted even more than our military victories.

The Mitzvah of the Chanukah light is very dear, extremely so…

-Rambam, Laws of Megilah and Chanukah, 4:12

May we all learn to see Hashem’s guiding hand everywhere, remembering that He loves us and wants us to grow from our challenges. May we absorb the light of our Menorah, and merit to see the Light that awaits us.

A new Light on Zion may You shine…
-Shacharit prayers

Have a great Shabbat, and a great Hanukah!


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