Thursday, December 14, 2006

Small Jars And Chanukah (VaYeshev 5767)

Last week, I spoke about the events just before Yaakov encountered the ‘man’ with whom he wrestled all night before he met his brother Esav:

He arose that night and took his two wives his two maid-servants, his eleven children and he crossed the Yabok ford. He took them and led them across the river. He took across that which was his. Yaakov remained alone and a man wrestled with him until dawn. He saw that he could not beat him, so he touched the top of his thigh. He dislocated the top of Yaakov’s thigh when he wrestled with him. (BeReishit 32:24-26)

I mentioned the perplexing Talmudic tradition that the reason Yaakov was left alone was because he remained to retrieve some small jars that he had left behind:

Yaakov remained alone - Said Rebbi Elazar: he remained for small jars. From here we learn that the property of the righteous is dearer to them than their bodies. Why to this extent? Because they do not stretch out their hands to steal. (Chullin 91a)

The confluence of ideas with Chanukah is irresistible. We know that when the Hasmoneans entered the Temple to rededicate it after their victory over the Greek-Syrians, they found only one small jar of oil with its seal of purity intact; from this the Temple Menorah miraculously burned for eight days until new oil was available. Is there any connection between the two events (Yaakov’s jars and the jars of Chanukah)?

In the more esoteric teachings we find a link. It is well-known that one of the points of contention between the Jews and their antagonists at the time of the Chanukah miracle was the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds. The Greeks, at best, acknowledged the existence of a higher realm, but did not accept that man was capable, through his actions, of ‘unlocking’ the spirituality from everything in the physical world. In their view, the Torah was not a manual for Man’s meaningful use of the all the resources in the world (thereby associating them with their supernal roots), but a classic of literature. The Torah could sit in the great libraries of the world among the ‘greats’ but could never be considered the tool with which Man could connect his world with the Divine. The Jewish view, antithetical to this is exemplified by a Chassidic approach to the verse (from the Hallel) psalms:

The heavens – the heavens are for God, but the earth He gave to the children of Man. (Tehillim 115:16)

The reason the two phrases are juxtaposed is to teach that while the heavens are for God, Man is given the earth to make it into heaven (i.e. imbue it with spirituality through his actions, as regulated by the Torah). (Attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe and others)

This programme, so antithetical to the ideology of the Hellenists and their Greek masters, was as radical in ancient times as it seems to people today. It involves appreciating that everything, without exception, has a purpose, as well as developing a concomitant realisation that if one has been given something by God, one must need it to fulfil one’s ultimate purpose.

The ability of Yaakov to remain across the river from his family, facing significant danger to rescue something small and seemingly insignificant was a crucial moment in Jewish history. By so doing he invested his descendents with the capacity to find potential in everything, a key feature of the Jewish enterprise. The sources indicate that the oil of Chanukah symbolises the same dedication – the victory of our ancestors over their Greek oppressors was a triumph for this concept over the enemy’s Weltanschauung, which rejected the possibility of spirituality in the physical world. Simple oil can be turned so easily into light and heat, unlocking vast and previously unrecognised potential. Perhaps this is why it is the symbol of Chanukah and our inspiration in the night of exile.

I would like to thank an anonymous reader for correcting a typo in an earlier edition of this essay.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Dwelling With Lavan (VaYishlach 5767)

Yaakov sent messengers to Esav his brother towards the Land of Se’ir, the field of Edom. He instructed them saying: thus says your servant Yaakov: I dwelt with Lavan and I have delayed until now. (BeReishit 32:4-5)

Why did Yaakov need to inform his brother that in the many years of his absence, he had lived with uncle Lavan? After all, he had been sent there by his parents. The range of views expressed in answer to this question is testimony to the ingenuity of the classic commentators, each of whom work with a different nuance in the text:

I dwelt with Lavan - as you knew, by the instruction of my father and my mother, so that he should not think that he ran away because of him. (Rashbam ad. loc.)

The Rashbam assumes that Yaakov wishes to convey the reason, not the fact, of his sojourn with Lavan. The use of the verb ‘lagur’ – to dwell temporarily, is also the focus of Rashi comment:

I didn’t become a leader or an important person, rather a stranger - thus it is not appropriate to hate me for your father’s blessings, with which he blessed me: you will be a supporter of your brother, for it has not been fulfilled in me. (Rashi ad. loc.)

Rashi differs from the Rashbam in that he emphasises the fact that he only stayed with Lavan as a visitor and never amounted to very much there. Chizkuni has a rather different view, one of three that he offers (one is the same as the Rashbam).

(1) I dwelt with Lavan - do not be surprised how everything that I have came to me, for I was with Lavan our uncle. If I had dwelt with another unrelated man, I would have had nothing. (2) Alternatively, I dwelt with Lavan - as you knew, by the instruction of my father and my mother, so that he should not think that he ran away because of him. (3) Alternatively, so that he should have nothing against him for not having greeted him for these 20 years, for he was a hired worker.

The first offering of the Chizkuni is the opposite to that of Rashi – Yaakov was explaining not the fact that he was poor, but that he was successful!

Finally, the Midrashic explanation of Rashi, which has become the most well-known comment on the verse, reads the word ‘garti’ (I dwelled) as an anagram:

Alternatively, ‘garti’ is 613 in numerical value, to say that I lived with Lavan the wicked one, and I observed the 613 Mitzvot, for I did not learn from his evil ways. (Rashi ad. loc.)

In other words, Yaakov challenged Esav by reminding him that he was not a ‘push over’; after all, he has survived many years with Uncle Lavan.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Essay In New Chanukah Book

Readers may be interested to hear that I have an essay in a new ArtScroll book, which is to be published tomorrow.

Please see Inspiring Lights.