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VaYeshev 5784  | Rabbi David   Wolkenfeld

01/26/2024 10:27:09 AM


Between Persecution and Salvation

When Sara, Noam, and I lived in Jerusalem we befriended a Christian family whom I met in the playground. There was some exchange among the  parents where my ability to speak both in English and Hebrew was very helpful to them and after spending several Shabbat afternoons together at the playground, I invited them to our home for a Shabbat meal and learned more about their specific religious beliefs and their work which had brought them to Israel.

They practiced a very austere form of Protestant Christianity which attempted to purify Christianity from what they saw as foreign accretions that, in their opinion, Catholicism had grafted onto a biblical faith. Since Leviticus says “Eleh Mo’adei Hashem” these, and only these,  are the festivals of the Lord, they were opposed to celebrating any non-Biblical holidays. Christmas, to these Christians was an unacceptable corruption of faith which they blamed on the Catholics. Some of the Puritans who settled in New England in the 17th century also objected to the celebration of Christmas for similar reasons. So next time a politician complains about the “war against Christmas,” you can remind them that this country was built by people who wanted to wage a war against Christmas!

Given this background I was very surprised to hear about their celebration of Hanukkah. The biblical Books of Maccabees are part of the Catholic Old Testament, but the Protestant Bible, like the Hebrew Bible, does not include those books. How could these strict Biblical Protestants celebrate Hanukkah as a biblical holiday if their bible, like our Tanakh does not contain Maccabees? They explained to me that Daniel predicted the persecutions of Antiochus in his prophetic vision recorded in Daniel Chapter 11 and in this way Hanukkah is a holiday endorsed by Scripture. I think it is kind of cool and very  interesting that they celebrate Hanukkah as Christians. But I think they are wrong about Hanukkah being a Biblical holiday.

It is true that Daniel contains a detailed prophetic vision of a persecuting monarch whose life and actions line up very closely with what we know historically about Antiochus and his persecutions. Historians even go so far as to see these details as being definitive proof that, at least those sections of Daniel were written by an eye witness in Eretz Yisrael of the second century BCE and not by a Babylonian Jew centuries earlier. But from the perspective that most  interests me, it doesn’t matter if Antiochus was described in a detailed prophecy or by an eyewitness.  What interests me is the fact that Antiiochus and his persecutions made it into Tanakh and the Maccabees did not.

One way to explain this phenomenon is to elaborate on all the ways that Hazal and their predecessors were skeptical of the Hasmonean dynasty established by the Maccabees. We know that within three generations the Hasmonean kings were thoroughly Hellenized and even persecuted religious Jews. The fourth generation devolved into civil war and invited the Romans to come to Eretz Yisrael. And Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi famously declined to give Hanukkah its own tractate in the Mishnah and the holiday itself is barely mentioned in the Mishnah.  

But I think there is a greater significance to that moment between suffering and redemption. That space is where Scripture comes to an end.  That moment is when God’s voice and inspired prophetic message to humanity come to an end. And we must wait, with uncertainty, to find out what happens next. 

Hanukkah is a celebration of what happened next but it could not have been predicted or prophesied or foretold because the fate of Jewish history hinged on the decisions of human beings.

Redemption comes when human beings take action in search of God and in response to God’s call, and the interaction of human initiative and human creativity and God’s voice is properly the domain, not of Scripture, but of Torah she’Be’al Peh, the oral Torah. Hanukkah therefore represents a moment of historical transition from a biblical paradigm of prophecy and open miracles to a Torah sh’be’Al Peh paradigm of human beings partnering with God to bring redemption. We treat Hanukkah as a religious holiday and we treat Torah she’Be’Al Peh  as Divine no less than the written Torah, because redemption and revelation that follow human initiative are still Divine actions.

Insurance policies sometimes have clauses that make reference to “Acts of God” which are catastrophic losses that are the result of uncontrollable events that people cannot cause and with which people cannot contend. But, in truth, if I lend my car to someone who needs it and they then crash into my neighbor’s house, isn’t that also an act of God? Why else would I lend my car to someone if not inspired by generosity by the mitzvot of the Torah and the message of Scripture. I’m not sure that is an argument that will carry weight in court but, fundamentally, an eight day holiday of gratitude to God for events carried out by human beings is an argument for a far more expansive understanding of what can be considered an Act of God.

Parashat Vayeshev also comes to an end in between suffering and redemption. Yosef has been given a rare gift to understand dreams as a window into the future. He dreams of leading his family  and he dreams of sheaves of wheat being harvested in a field, a radical departure for a family who have been shepherds for generations. Yosef seems to be a blessed figure who is successful wherever he is sent. His father trusts him to look over his family. Potiphar appoints him head of his estate. Even the prison warden notices that Yosef succeeds in all his endeavors and places him in charge of the prison.  

Yosef’s insight and ability, with God’s help, to peer into the future, allows him to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and butler. And then the parasha comes to an end. The butler forgets about Yosef and we pause our reading. We pause this morning in between suffering and redemption. Yosef is forgotten. He is languishing in prison. What will happen to Yosef’s dreams? We are just going to have to wait to find out.

This Hanukkah represents just over two months of war since the massacres on Simhat Torah. And a war straddled between those two holidays draws our attention to the dichotomy of those days. On Simhat Torah we rejoice at our opportunity, year after year, to continue to read and study a written Torah that was given to us by God. And on Hanukkah we celebrate miracles of human initiative that we commemorate by observing rituals and mitzvot that were not commanded in the Torah. And, indeed, the only path forward after the massacres of Simhat Torah is through human initiative and hard human choices that will be made without the benefit of explicit prophetic guidance.

On Thursday I saw video clips of students at the Erloi Hasidic yeshiva in Jerusalem setting up 138 Hanukkah menorot in the hall of their yeshiva with a name next to each one of an Israeli hostage held in captivity as Hanukkah begins. These yeshiva students were taking upon themselves the responsibility to light on behalf of those who could not. It is unlikely, in any other context, that any of the hostages from the kibbutzim of the south would have ever come in contact with the Hasidic court of Erloi, but Jews taking the initiative to act in solidarity with one another has accompanied moments of redemption for centuries and so may it be this year.

And I see more examples of human initiative in pursuit of goodness represented by the Israeli NGO leadership coming to Washington next week and to our shul on Wednesday evening. When I spoke with the professionals planning the delegation I tried to express some notes of caution and manage their expectations. “You might not be able to raise a lot of money on this trip,” I said, “since people have been opening their hearts and their wallets for Israel for weeks and weeks now.” In response I was told that they are coming here not primarily to raise money, but to share inspiration with us by telling us what they have been seeing and learning and doing. Israeli civil society sprung into action in a vacuum left open by the government. 

For each of the ten NGOs that are sending representatives to our shul, there are hundreds more that have similar stories of human initiative and acts of solidarity. I hope they are able to change Israel forever. 

Maharal, the 16th century rabbi of Prague, wrote about the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days and questioned its relevance to a commemorative celebration. What difference did it make that one cruze of oil lasted eight days? How would history have been different if the oil had not lasted eight days or if no pure oil had been found? Where else do we ever commemorate miracles that are nothing more than supernatural occurrences that accomplish nothing? Maharal answers that the miracle of oil was a sign from God to pay attention to the miraculous victory over the Greeks and their Jewish supporters. It was a sign from God that the Maccabees’ victory was endorsed by Heaven. The Hanukkah lights commemorate a miracle that saved no one and redeemed no one, but which taught us that in the quiet that remains when age of Scripture came to an end, we are charged with acting in response to God’s ancient call and in solidarity with one another, as it was in those days and so may it be today.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784