Posted by: Subway Conductor | December 11, 2020

A Derasha for Parshat Vayeshev

Comparing Hanukkah with Purim will shed some light on the meaning of the Festival of Lights. There is good reason to compare these two holidays since they are both minor festivals. They are termed such because they are holidays which do not have the restrictions against doing work which the major festivals have. These two holidays also share the fact that they are based on historical events. Purim commemorates the miraculous salvation of the Jews of Persia from annihilation, while Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Temple after the miraculous victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks. Purim is the most physical holiday we have. On Purim we eat, drink, make merry, and give presents. There are several mitzvahs on Purim. First to read the Scroll of Esther. But we don’t sit quietly and listen to the story. It is a very active listening with stomping of feet and booing. Eating hamantaschen is a nice custom, but there is actually a mitzvah to have a festive meal on Purim. It is also customary to imbibe. There is a mitzvah to give presents to our friends and gifts to the poor. On Hanukkah, there is only one mitzvah – to light a candle. By the way, although the custom is to light one candle the first night and increase each night until we light eight candles on the last night, halachicly, one can fulfill the mitzvah by lighting one candle each night. Unlike Purim, with all of its physical observances, Hannukah is observed by the simple act of lighting a flame. We enjoy eating latkes or other fried foods on Hannukah, but this is only a custom, not a mitzvah.

A flame is a symbol of the spiritual dimension of the universe. Many religions use candles in their rituals. A flame is a powerful symbol for spirituality because a flame is a most unusual thing. We cannot deny that it exists. Get too close and you’ll be burnt! We can see it, we can sense it, it has effects. It produces heat and light. It has great potential power, both destructive and constructive. And yet, what is a flame? Is it a substance? It is not a material. It is something that exists without any definite form or shape. All these attributers of fire make it a symbol for spirituality. Moses first encountered G-d in a burning bush. G-d is even referred to in the Torah as a “consuming fire.” (Deut. 4:24)  We light a candle on Hannukah to symbolize the power of the spiritual life.

The reason Purim is such a physical celebration is because the threat was to the physical existence of the Jewish People. Haman sought to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day…” (Esther 3:13).   The Greeks did not seek to destroy the Jews, but Judaism. They did not want to kill Jews, but rather to have them adopt Greek culture. Ever since the conquest of the Near East by Alexander the Great, Greek culture was a major force in that part of the world. The fact is that many Jews, perhaps most, were eager to assimilate to Greek ways. The prevailing culture had many attractions. But a small group of Jews led by the Maccabees stood up to this attempt to abandon the unique Jewish way of life. As we say in the addition to the shemoneh esre during Hanukkah, the Greeks prevailed on Your people “to make them forget Your Torah and to make them transgress Your laws…” The celebration of this miracle is not physical, but spiritual. We light a flame as a way of reaffirming our commitment to G-d and the Torah.

On Purim, we have a text that we read as part of the holiday. The Scroll of Esther contains the story of Purim and all of the observances connected with the holiday. What is the text for Hanukkah? As we know, there is no biblical reference to Hannukah. There is not even a tractate of the Mishnah or Talmud devoted to Hannukah. But every year, during Hannukah, the Torah portion is the story of Joseph. It is worth noting that the story of Joseph occupies a large part of the end of the Book of Genesis. The creation of the universe is dealt with in one chapter, but the saga of Joseph spans four Torah portions. Why so much emphasis on Joseph?

Joseph is the model of a diaspora Jew. He was taken to Egypt as a youth and grew to great power and success there. He was a minority of one and yet he remained a Jew. Egypt, like Greece, was a powerful civilization. It was a center of technology and was one of the great empires of the ancient world. Joseph certainly adopted some of the aspects of Egyptian life. His brothers, when they arrived, did not recognize him and took him for an Egyptian. He rose to become the second most powerful person in Egypt and yet he is called “Joseph the righteous – Yoseph hatzadik.”  This is the model for generations of diaspora Jews who live as small minorities in the midst of powerful and attractive cultures. The story of Joseph revolves around the same theme as Hanukkah. It is about preserving Judaism in the face of the forces of assimilation.

When we light the Hanukkah candles, we rededicate ourselves to the spiritual life of Judaism. We reaffirm our commitment to live as Jews in the midst of an all- encompassing powerful and attractive culture. It is a reminder to preserve the unique Jewish way of life while yet living and interacting with the world in which we live.  Lighting a candle each night of Hanukkah, we tell ourselves “Don’t let the flame go out!”

Good Shabbos and Happy Hanukkah!!


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