The celebration of the Chanukkah is confusing. The holiday commemorates winning a war against the Hellenisation of Judaism and removing Greek idolatry from the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet, we celebrate the holiday by recalling the miracle of a miniscule amount of oil which burned in the Temple’s menorah eight times as long as expected. The long lasting oil is minor when compared to the victory over the Greeks and the freedom to rededicate the Temple to God. Why, then, do we use this as the focus of our celebration? A small point in the Joseph story may give us some insight.
In our parasha, Vayeshev, Joseph is his father’s favorite child and a dreamer. He incurs the wrath of his brothers both because of his favored status and because his dreams involve the rest of the family subjugating themselves to him. As a result, his brothers (at least some of them) plot to kill him. Thanks to the interference of Reuben, they instead throw him into a pit. The Torah describes, “The pit was empty; there was no water in it,” (Genesis 37:24). Sandwiched in the middle of a discussion over the placement of the Chanukkah candles, the Talmud (Shabbat 22a) discusses the Joseph’s pit. It notices the apparent redundancy of describing an empty pit as lacking water; if it is empty, it of course has no water. The Talmud concludes that the pit must have only been empty of water but not of other dangers found in a pit, such as snakes and scorpions. Amazingly, then, Joseph survives this pit, though it is full of dangerous creatures, channeling his inner Indiana Jones. Midrash Tanchuma (Vayechi 17) reifies the miraculous nature of Joesph’s survival in the pit. It teaches that when Joseph returned from burying Jacob (have no fear, the death does not happen for another 3 parshiyot), he stopped by the same pit and recited the traditional blessing said over a place where one experienced a miracle.
The Meshekh Chokhmah (Meir Simcha, 19th-20th Century Latvia) notices an issue with Joseph reciting a blessing over the pit. The main miracle experience by Joseph was not surviving the pit; the miracle was that as a foreigner sold into slavery in Egypt, he rose to second-in-command and saved the country and the greater region from a famine. Being saved from scorpions is impressive, but it pales in comparison to Joseph’s rise to power. So too, he notices, the miracle of the oil on Chanukkah pales in comparison to the military victory. Yet, in both cases, the commemoration occurs over a relatively small event. The Talmud recognizes this Chanukkah-Joseph relationship by placing its explanation of Joseph’s pit in between discussions regarding Chanukkah lights.
The Meshekh Chokhmah solves his challenge by explaining that a miracle is only a miracle if it is actually a deviation from nature. While the Channukah war and Joseph’s rise to power were incredibly improbable, they are not supernatural. However, oil lasting for eight times its expected duration or a person surviving a pit of dangerous creatures is a supernatural event.
However, I am not convinced that surviving dangerous creatures or oil lasting longer than it should is any more supernatural than Joseph’s ascendency or the Maccabean conquest. Instead, I would like to suggest my own explanation of the Meshekh Chokhmah’s question as to why these two miracles become focused on small events which barely touch on the larger, improbable events surrounding them. To do that, I want to consider another holiday in which we commemorate a large miracle by, instead, focusing on a rather small one.
That other holiday is Passover. Passover is a holiday about God’s triumph over Pharaoh and removing us from slavery into freedom, including miraculous plagues and a split sea. Yet, we celebrate by recalling the time during the tenth plague where, with chaos floating all around us, we were able to sit comfortably in our homes and eat a meal in praise of God. We do not even celebrate the plague itself, which was a deviation from nature, as much as we celebrate the safety from God’s miracle. Because, in the end, God performs great miracles not for the sake of the miracle, but for the sake of providing us with the ability to have security and comfort. Which is what the Maccabees received from the small amount of light the were able to cast while cleaning the Temple. It was also gifted to Joseph in the safety he received as he sat among the scorpions and snakes with an uncertain future. Hopefully, it will be gifted to us from God during the uncertain times in which we live (though I am unsure anyone has lived in certain times).
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום and Happy Chanukkah!
Reb. Joel Goldstein