Vayeishev and Chanukah 5779

A kiss from above[1]

והנה אורחת ישמעאלים באה מגלעד וגמליהם נושאים נכאת וצרי ולט הולכים להוריד מצרימה
…behold an Arab[2] caravan was coming from Gilad, and their camels were carrying spices, balm, and lotus; they were taking them to Egypt[3]

The gemarra asks[4] the innocent question: What was the miracle which prompted the establishment of the holiday of Chanukah? It answers that the Greeks, after they conquered the land of Israel, entered the Holy Temple and defiled all the oil that was to be found. When the Jews defeated them, they searched all around for sanctified oil to be used for the Menorah. All they could find was a single vessel that was still sealed. However, there was only enough oil in the vessel to last for one day. They used it anyways, and a miracle happened where the oil lasted for eight days. The following year they established that time of year as a season of rejoicing, with songs of praise and thanks.

It sounds from this, that the songs of praise and thanks were established because of the miracle of the vessel of oil. However, this isn’t as simple as it seems. At that time, the Jews were in danger of entirely disappearing. The Greeks made many harsh decrees which precluded traditional Jewish observance. Their goal was for the Jews to completely assimilate. A small group of young Torah scholars banded together in order to free the Jewish people from their oppressors, and engaged in a clearly futile battle. However, huge miracles occurred and they were victorious over the mighty Greek army. Seemingly it would make more sense for the holiday of Chanukah to focus on this tremendous miracle of victory. This miracle allowed the perpetuation of the Jewish religion and people. Why is this considered secondary, and the small, localized miracle of the vessel of oil given so much prominence?

When Yaakov’s sons sold their brother Yosef to slavery, the Torah tells us the seemingly superfluous information about the cargo of this purchasers. The Torah tells us that their camels were carrying various types of spices to Egypt. Why does it mention this detail? Our Sages teach us[5] that normally the Arabs would transport horribly smelling skins and tar. Hashem had mercy on Yosef, and ensured the Arabs who would buy him would be instead transporting sweet-smelling spices[6].

This teaching is very hard to understand. This is probably Yosef’s worst moment in his life. His brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery. He is going to be going to Egypt, one of the most illicit and lewd places in the world. As well, no slave has every escaped the land. He’s probably thinking he’ll never see his beloved father again. As well, all of this happened incredibly suddenly; Yosef wasn’t anticipating this turn of events. At this time of great darkness in Yosef’s life, was he really concerned with what the caravan ride would be like? If it had smelled foul from the tanned skins and tar, would it have made any difference to him? What did he really gain by this “kindness” of Hashem, who sent the sweet-smelling spices?

However, if we delve deeper, we’ll see that these spices contain a tremendous idea. At this time of great tragedy and darkness, Yosef could have fallen into despair. He could have lost all hope of ever escaping this nightmare. Maybe Hashem had abandoned him! At this very hard time, Hashem sent him a message: “I have not abandoned you!” Yosef was still under Hashem’s careful watch. Hashem was Himself carrying Yosef to Egypt. This was evident in the message of the spices. Yosef noticed the unusual situation he was in, and knew that Hashem was still with him. He didn’t despair, and this opened for him a window of hope for what the future held.

We find many cases where Hashem performed a miracle for things which on the surface seem insignificant[7] [8]. One example is with David and Goliath. David famously killed Goliath by striking him in the head with a rock, launched from his slingshot. Instead of flinging backwards, as the laws of inertia would dictate, he miraculously flung forward headfirst[9]. David was tasked with bringing Goliath’s head to the King, and Our Sages say[10] that this miracle was to save David the effort of having to walk all that way to retrieve it. By Goliath falling forward, David didn’t have to go anywhere for his head. This minor effort the miracle saved him seems almost inconsequential. What was the point?

The answer can be demonstrated by a parable. There was a family which had inherited a great fortune. However, it was somehow misplaced. Everyone was devastated, and frantically searched everywhere to find it. After much time, one of the little children chanced upon it. The family was overjoyed beyond belief, and the child joined in the celebrations. Then, the child’s father went over to him and kissed him. Even though the child was happy along with everyone else that the inheritance was found, he had a unique reason to be happy. He received a kiss from his father.

This is the same way Hashem, our Father, treats us, his Children. Sometimes, Hashem creates a miracle which is “unnecessary”. It is to accomplish something seemingly insignificant. The purpose of it is to show us that His countenance is with us. It’s like a kiss from above. This is how Yosef felt when his caravan was carrying sweet-smelling spices. It’s also how the Jews felt after their victory against the Greeks. Even though that was a miracle in its own right, Hashem did for us something extra special. He made the oil last for eight days. This kiss from above is what we celebrate.

Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah!

[1] Based on Sichos Mussar § 1605

[2] Targum Onkelos to Genesis 37:25. Cf. Torah Sheleimah ad. loc. § 151 who brings manuscripts of Midrashei Teiman who say they were descendants of Keturah (presumably not Yishmael, if Keturah is Hagar)

[3] Genesis loc. cit.

[4] Shabbos 21a

[5] Tosefta Berachos 4:14; Bereishis Rabbah 84:17; Tanchuma Yashan Vayeishev § 14; Mechilta Beshalach Maseches D’Vayehi § 5

[6] Torah Sheleimah loc. cit. points out that the Tosefta and Mechilta loc. cit., as well as other sources, connect this teaching to the blessing of Borei nefashos rabos vechesronan. He explains that this juxtaposition is to stress that Hashem’s oversight provides even the tiniest of man’s lacks, as evident from Yosef being provided nice smells at the time of his sale to slavery

[7] My assumption is that Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz is implying that the Arab caravan transporting sweet-smelling spices was one of these miracles. Even though the others he brings were supernatural, there is one other that he brings which is also “naturally” occurring. See the next note. Otherwise, I’m not sure what the connection the first half of the piece has to the second

[8] Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz brings two other examples: 1) Based on the Ohr HaChaim to Genesis 13:14, that Hashem showed Avraham the entire land of Israel, in every direction, in a way in which he wouldn’t have to turn his head. 2) Yocheved, after seeing that her son Moshe was saved from near death, and will be raised by the daughter of Pharaoh, is not only asked to be Moshe’s wet-nurse, but she’ll even get paid to nurse him (See Exodus 2:9 and Shemos Rabbah 1:25)!

[9] I Samuel 17:49

[10] Rashi ad. loc., quoting Midrash Tehillim 18:32