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.


PV said...

I enjoy your blog. I'm reaching out across inter-faith circles to see how you approach personal daily prayer and meditation as a spiritual leader.
From one to another,

Reb Hymie said...

Yes - I've heard but not seen that there is a link between Yaakov's Pachim and the Pach shel Shemen in the miracle of chanukah. They say that the very Pach shel Shemen was infact oil in a pach from the pachim of Yaakov!
Goeffrey Hyman