3761 BCE, the dead of winter
The world was coming to an end. No, not the Al Gore style world coming to an end in a few decades if we don’t stop man-made global warming, but the world really crashing into oblivion, and it was through man-made causes! Adam watched with abject desperation as every day got shorter than the previous one! Each morning the sun would rise later and set earlier. Soon there would be no more sunlight at all, soon the world would return to darkness and nothingness.
The worst part about it was that it was all his fault. Did he really have to listen to that ridiculous snake and eat from the one tree G-d asked him not to eat? Did he really have to bring death to the world? And now he was watching it slowly creep up on him. Soon the sun would shine no more and all life would cease to exist.
Not knowing where else to turn, Adam turned to G-d and cried out for eight days, begging G-d not to allow the entire world to end because of one sin. Then the winter solstice passed, and the days began to slowly get longer again. The sun rose earlier and set later! Adam realized that this was part of nature, that G-d had set up a world where just when it seems as if everything is closing on in you, and it is all over, suddenly the days began to get lighter, the light begins to shine brighter. And Adam celebrated for eight days.
It was really dark, things were looking calamitous. But Adam found it within him to reach out to G-d. The winter didn’t end, but G-d did open up the dark curtain and increase the light, showing Adam He was with him, and allowing him to make it through the winter.
164 BCE, the dead of winter
The decrees had been vicious. Jews openly practicing Judaism were being hacked to pieces, hung from walls, and violated. The smallest infraction, even simply declaring yourself to be part of the Jewish nation as opposed to being a Greek citizen could mean a swift death. Refusal to bow to foreign gods or slaughter pigs in honor of the pantheon of Greek gods also was a capital crime. Most of the Jews had already been Hellenized, and looked at Torah Judaism as anachronistic, shameful, and burdensome. Judaism was in its twilight, there was only a few hours left…
Backs against the wall, a tiny band of holy people took on the world’s largest army, under the cry of “Mi Lashem Eilai, Whoever is for G-d, come with me!” The battles were fierce, and bloody. This was not a Hollywood war, with the underdog heroically silencing hundreds of enemies without sustaining more than a scratch. No, the Macabbees watched brothers die at their sides, fathers fall before them.
After three years of war and blood, they finally took control of the abandoned temple, to find it looted, filled with idols, and decaying corpses of pagan sacrifices. But never the people to give up, they left no stone unturned in their search for just a bit of pure oil.
They lit their oil on a primitive menorah made of makeshift materials, the original menorah having been looted long before. But the light that glowed from it, just kept glowing, burning brighter and stronger for eight days. The Maccabees would battle for seventeen more years, losing all but one of the original Macabee family members in the process. But that light told them that G-d was on their side, the days were finally beginning to get longer.
1944, the dead of winter
They lay huddled together in the darkest corner on earth. The corner in which most people wished the world would just come to an end. With only a few hours to rest their weary bones, the freezing mass of Jews in Block B12 tried to find a comfortable position, despite being crammed six to a bunk. A hushed whisper could barely be heard over the unceasing scratching of the rats, “Shmuley, do you know that Chanukah is next week?” Suddenly, the entire block erupted with conversation. People began talking about the possibility of making a menora. Most of the inmates stated unequivocally that Chanukah was a just an ironic joke in Auschwitz, and that a menorah, if found, would be a death sentence to the entire block. There would be no menorah in Block B12 that Chanukah.
But there was one group of Jews that wouldn’t allow anything to hold them back, and they devised a plan for one of the most unique menorahs in history. One of them worked in the officers barracks, and he offered to bring a metal shoe polish cap to hold the candle. A few of them offered to use their weekly pat of margarine for fuel (in Auschwitz, margarine = calories = energy = life). A wick was easy, any threadbare striped uniform could provide a wick by simply donating a small strip. Unable to light in their own block, this small group of Jews rushed out to the fence at the far end of the camp, risking their lives by going outside during curfew.
There at the side of an electric fence in the darkest corner of earth a small group of Jews recited the blessings, and tearfully sang the songs of our people’s victory. But victory seemed especially far the next day. Knowing it was the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, the SS animals made sure to rain down extra holiday blows on everyone they could. But as the broken bodies of the Jews of Block B12 returned to their barracks, they straightened up with amazement and elation.
For there at the side of an electric fence in the darkest corner of earth the little candle still burned bright. There would be months of darkness yet ahead, but that little candle told them that G-d was still on their side, and their days just seemed to get a little longer.
2020, in the dead of winter
It has been a dark year across the globe and the darkness just seems to be getting deeper. Catastrophic loss of life, illness, isolation, businesses shut down and going bankrupt, people filled with anxiety about the future, and schoolchildren cooped up at home for months at a time. Add to that the most contentious election year in decades, a process that tore families apart. And finally, deeply felt debates about the proper protocols for community safety and health, arguments that seem to paint everyone as either an uncaring killer or a hyper-anxious stiflers of normal life.
But if we can reach deep inside, searching for that one flask of pure oil that still remains inside… If only we can just get it lit despite everything holding us back, surely it will miraculously burn bright and long. We will be able to feel it’s security and warmth, the warmth of knowing that we are G-d’s children and He will take care of us. We will be able to see our fellow community members as they look bathed in the light of the menorah, glowing with goodness. The winter wouldn’t be over, but we would know that G-d is on our side, and the days would finally begin to get longer.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week I saw a Dvar Torah from my friend Rabbi David Zuderer that impressed me so much, that I had to share it with you! Please enjoy,
You remember the famous Irving Berlin song – “I’m Dreamin’ of a White Chanukah”? Well, this week’s Torah portion tells a story about Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and what he was dreamin’ about. And it’s a very strange story indeed.
Pharaoh has this seemingly silly dream about seven fat cows being swallowed up by seven skinny ones, and another dream about seven healthy, full ears of grain being consumed by seven thin ears. And if that’s not ridiculous enough, Pharaoh then calls together his entire cabinet and all the wisest men of the land to discuss the possible meaning of these dreams! Don’t you think he would be a little embarrassed to relate to them such insignificant and childish dreams that are obviously the product of a very fertile imagination?
My late grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Baumol zt”l, once explained as follows: To gain some insight into the dreams of Pharaoh, it might help to examine other great Biblical personalities and the dreams that they had. The first great person to dream in the Torah was Jacob – and he had two of them. His first dream was about the ladder that was set earthward and its top reached heaven ward, and angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it. This dream was of a spiritual nature, reflecting Jacob’s connection to G-d and the Higher Worlds. His second dream was more rooted in the physical world. He said, “I raised my eyes and saw in a dream – Behold! The he-goats that mounted the flock were ringed, speckled, and checkered ….” (Genesis 31:10). In this dream, Jacob saw how G-d was watching over his sheep, enabling him to gain material wealth.
Joseph also had two dreams – one dream in which eleven sheaves were bowing down to his sheaf, and another in which the sun, the moon, and eleven starts were bowing down to him. The first dream symbolized Joseph’s acquisition of great material wealth, so much so that his own brothers would bow to him because of their need for grain, while the second talks of Joseph’s more spiritual aspirations for greatness.
So there seems to emerge a pattern among the great personalities of ancient times in which they would dream of both material and spiritual pursuits simultaneously. It was only natural, therefore, for Pharaoh to assume when he had two dreams, that one dream would be of a material nature while the other represented spiritual greatness. So Pharaoh took these dreams very seriously, and even convened a meeting of his wisest counselors to see if they could interpret the exact messages of these two dreams.
When their interpretive efforts failed to satisfy Pharaoh, Joseph was brought in to give it a shot. So the first thing Joseph tells him is – “Pharaoh, you are making a big mistake in thinking that you are in the company of other great Biblical personalities who dreamed of both material and spiritual greatness – ‘Chalom Paraoh echad hu’ (see Genesis 41:25) – your two dreams in reality are only one dream repeated twice. Your dreams are purely materialistic in nature, representing the years of plenty and the years of famine that are to come. You have no connection to spirituality; hence your dreams are limited to material wealth and nothing more.”
Each and every one of us has dreams – dreams of great and promising careers, big houses, exotic vacations, dreams for ourselves, dreams for our children (“my son, the doctor”) – and it is imperative to the human condition that we have these dreams and aspirations. The greatest of our people had such dreams as well. But let’s not forget that, at the same time, these great people also dreamed of ladders to the heavens and of becoming more refined and G-dlike.
These two dreams don’t have to conflict with each other. As we climb the corporate ladder of material success, we should remember not to neglect our spiritual goals as well. We can take some time off during our busy work schedule to climb a different ladder – the kind of ladder that Jacob dreamed about, which connects us with our more spiritual side and with G-d. Maybe we can join a Torah class, or just take some time during the day to read a book of Jewish content (like the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash, for example. It is extremely readable and you can gain so much knowledge of the Torah by just reading a page of it a day!).
As we help our children realize their (and our) dreams of success in life, we can simultaneously give them the opportunity to dream about spiritual greatness. Maybe we can read to them stories of great Jewish men and women who did special things and lived their lives for others – which is the essence of spirituality. And we can teach them to appreciate the wisdom and insight of the Torah by appreciating it ourselves and involving ourselves in more study. Let our children dream about being great and special as they dream about being successful and prominent.
We should never sell ourselves and our kids short. What we dream about reflects greatly on who we are. Maybe Pharaoh just didn’t “get the spiritual thing”. But we are the descendants of that “dream team” Jacob and Joseph, and their legacy of greatness in both the material and spiritual realms is for all of us to emulate and aspire to.
This Parsha begins with Pharaoh having two very strange, yet similar, dreams. In the first one, he sees seven fat cows grazing in the marshes. Suddenly, seven thin, sickly cows consume the seven fat cows, but they don’t gain any weight. In the second dream, the same episode occurs with fat and thin stalks of grain. Pharaoh brings in all the wise people to help him interpret the dream but no one can do so.
Suddenly, the king’s butler remembers that there had been a Jewish boy in prison with him who properly interpreted his dream. He tells Pharaoh about Yosef, and Yosef is taken out of prison, bathed, barbered, and brought before the king (how did you like that alliteration?).
Yosef tells the king that with the help of G-d he will interpret the dreams. He explains that the dreams portend of seven years whence the land will experience great abundance (the 7 fat cows/ stalks), which will be succeeded by seven years of such hunger (the 7 thin cows/ stalks) that no one will be able to tell that there had once been an abundance (the thin cows/ grains not gaining weight). The fact that there were two dreams indicates that what they reveal will begin immediately.
Yosef then continues to advise Pharaoh to store up all the extra grain during the seven years of abundance so that there would be enough food to keep everyone alive during the famine. Pharaoh likes the idea and gives Yosef the job. He grants Yosef the title vice-king (Viceroy = Vice Roi, roi meaning king in French), and declares that Yosef shall run the entire Egypt, and that the only person with more power than Yosef will be Pharaoh himself.
Sure enough, things go as foretold. There are 7 years of plenty, Yosef gathers massive stores of food essentials, and then the famine begins. Oh, I forgot, in the middle Yosef gets married and had two children, Ephraim and Menasheh.
Soon enough, the famine reaches Israel and Yaakov sends 10 of his children down to Egypt to procure provisions for his progeny. He keeps Binyamin with him as he can’t bear to lose both of Rachel’s children, and he already lost Yosef (or so he thought). Now, it is important to remember that the string of events which follow were all devised by Yosef to help his siblings see the mistake they made in selling him, so that they could properly repent.
When the brothers come into Egypt they are rounded up and brought before Yosef who begins to interrogate them. They explain that they are from a family of 11 brothers and that they had another brother who is no longer with them. Yosef accuses them of being liars and spies and tells them that the only way they can prove that they are saying the truth is by bring down their remaining brother so that Yosef can see him.
Yosef instructs his servants to load up their donkeys and send them back home. However, he keeps one brother (Shimon) as a hostage and tells them that they cannot get any more food unless they bring Binyamin down with them. He then instructs his son Menashe to put each brother’s moneybag back into their sacks. When the brothers find their money, they become even more nervous, as now it looks like they stole!
The brothers go back to their father, Yaakov, and relate to him the events that transpired. He refuses to allow Binyamin to go down. Finally, the food runs out again, and Yehuda, the brother with inherent leadership capabilities, tells his father that he will take personal responsibility for bringing Binyamin back, to the point that he is willing to use his share in the World to Come as security. Yaakov relents and the brothers go back to Egypt with Binyamin.
The brothers bring money to the head of Yosef’s home and explain that they found it in their bags, but they are told to keep it. Yosef arranges for them to have a special meal with him. Yosef enters and inquires about his father, then turns to Binyamin and blesses him. Overcome with emotion, Yosef rushes out to weep and then comes back after regaining his composure. He then seats the brothers in order of age, telling them that his magic goblet told him their ages. He gives Binyamin a special portion 5 times larger than the brothers’ portions.
The next morning, when the brothers set out, he again instructs Menashe to put their money back in the bag, but he also tells him to hide his goblet in Binyamin’s sack. Soon after they set out, Menashe chases them down with a small army and asks them why they returned Yosef’s kindness with thievery, stealing the goblet they know is especially dear to Yosef. Yehuda speaks up for them and denies any liability, going as far as to say that if the goblet is found with any of the brothers, they can kill that brother and the rest of the brothers will be slaves.
Of course, they find the goblet with Binyamin, and Menashe tells the brothers that he won’t kill Binyamin, he will just take him as a slave, and the rest are free to go. They all go back to the palace, where Yehuda pleads before Yosef and tells him that all the brothers wish to remain together and that they will all become slaves. However, Yosef refuses, saying that he is not corrupt and he won’t take the others because they did no crime, but that Binyamin has to stay. In that tension-filled palace room, the Parsha ends, and I know you will be back next week to see what goes down!!
Quote of the Week: Instead of being annoyed with roses that have thorns, marvel at thorns encircled by roses. – Mishle Yehoshua
Random Fact of the Week: A ten-gallon hat actually holds a little less than one gallon of water.
Funny Line of the Week: Funny Line of the Week: About a month ago I got a cactus. A week later, it died. I was really depressed because I was like ‘Gosh! I am less nurturing than a desert.’
Have a Bright Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham