Parasha Miketz: When facts are not enough

The festival of Hanukka celebrates two miracles, the first highlighted by the "Al Hanissim" prayer and the second expressed by the kindling of the menora.

parsha miketz 88 (photo credit: )
parsha miketz 88
(photo credit: )
"Then Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon…." (Genesis 41:14). The festival of Hanukka celebrates two miracles, the first highlighted by the "Al Hanissim" prayer and the second expressed by the kindling of the menora; the military victory of the few and ill-prepared Hasmoneans against the mightier Greek-Syrians recalled in the prayer, as well as the small cruse of oil which was sufficient for only one day but which burned for eight. The question is, why the necessity for the second miracle? And even if it were indeed necessary, why do we celebrate it for eight days? After all, there was initially enough oil for the first day. In order to answer these questions, I would like to analyze five similar phenomena - each related to light overcoming darkness - which surround the festival of Hanukka, its history, its calendrical astronomy and its Torah readings. First of all, the "festival of lights" falls when the daylight hours are beginning to increase and slowly overcome the darkness which almost seemed to overtake the sun. Second, we recite the blessing of the new moon, which marks the renewed appearance of moonlight in a darkened sky, and which will continue growing as the month progresses. Third, a small band of religious Maccabees overcame a much larger, mightier but "darker" (from the Judean perspective) army of gentiles and Hellenist Jews. Fourth, Joseph, the son of Jacob, emerges from a black, bleak dungeon to become grand vizier of Egypt, and saves his family and emerging nation from destruction. And finally, we read of the gifts given by the princes of the tribes to the Sanctuary - a Temple whose ultimate task is to bring sanctity and light into a world inundated by darkness and impurity. Do we believe that Jewish history is determined in much the same way as the seasons of the year, the renewal of the moon, and the relative hours of sunlight and darkness? Is history as predetermined as nature, both resulting from the directing finger of the Divine? A careful investigation of Pharaoh's dreams and Joseph's reaction to them in this week's Torah portion provides the answer. Pharaoh first dreams of seven fat cows and seven lean cows, the lean cows completely devouring the fat ones. Indeed, even after the lean cows devour the fat cows they appear as lean as they were. He then dreams of seven wind-tossed and mildewed sheaves of wheat which devour seven bountiful sheaves, and once again we remain with the wind-tossed mildewed sheaves. Joseph explains that the cows as well as the sheaves represent Egypt, the country which then led the world and for which Pharaoh was responsible. From this perspective, the cows symbolized the government, which must nourish and sustain its citizens much as a cow must nourish and sustain her calves; in similar fashion, the sheaves symbolize both the food and the economy. It is no wonder then that Pharaoh's dreams gave him no rest; they clearly announced the end of Egypt as any kind of economic force in the world. As the Bible itself testifies: "the famine shall completely consume the land [of Egypt])" (Genesis 41:30). Nevertheless, Joseph ends his interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams with an added suggestion which would alleviate the looming disaster: "And now let Pharaoh find an understanding and wise individual to be placed in charge of the land of Egypt…. and let him store food in reserve within the land of Egypt during the seven years of plenty…. so that the land will not be destroyed because of the famine" (Genesis 41:33). Joseph is setting the stage for himself to be appointed as that individual. Pharaoh makes the right appointment and Joseph saves Egypt, he saves the Jewish people and he saves the world from a famine which had been set to destroy everything. History as well as nature may appear to move along lines dictated by fixed laws of physics and sociology. However, it is no accident that the very first commandment given to Israel is, "This new moon is given to you…" (Exodus 12:1); to you to mark, to you to count and to you to control. You can and must control time, you can and must control history, and you eventually will be able to master nature. Pharaoh managed to avoid what appeared to be inevitable doom by making the right appointment; Joseph succeeded in avoiding inevitable doom by taking proper advantage of an opportunity and by using his God-given talent. The Maccabees overcame the Hellenists by summoning the will and ability to defeat an "impossibly" superior enemy. They certainly accomplished it only with God's help, but had they not attempted to take history into their own hands, mankind after the Greek period would never have benefited from the wisdom of our Torah and the ethics of our Ten Commandments, and Jewish history would have ended two millennia ago. Similarly, the Maccabees understood that their victory was not merely physical or military; their battle had been fought first and foremost on behalf of the ethical monotheism which must emanate from the Menora of the Sanctuary - "the candle which is commandment and the light which is Torah." Hence, despite the knowledge that scientifically there was only enough oil for one day and that it would take eight to process more, they nevertheless felt constrained to take science and nature into their own hands and begin lighting the menora. The message of this second miracle rings out loud and clear: Take history and nature in hand! If you do it for the sake of heaven, you will be helped from on High and will overcome. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.