To Heel the World

Our reading this week begins with an unusual word in its opening verse: “And it will be that as a consequence [Eikev] of listening to these judgments, guarding and doing them, that HaShem your G-d will guard for you the Covenant and the kindness which He swore to your fathers” [7:12].

Literally, the word Eikev is best translated as the “heel.” This is how our forefather Yaakov received his name, because he emerged from the womb with “his hand holding onto the heel [Eikev] of Esav” [Gen. 25:26 — The name “Yaakov” prepends a Yud to the three-letter root Eikev]. The blessings of the Covenant follow on the heels of listening. As soon as we listen, the blessings are there.

But this also means that the blessings are not guaranteed on their own, regardless of our actions. As we see so frequently in the Torah, when we turn away from the path, we are pushed back towards it, and often with painful events — such as the destruction of our Holy Temples — as tragic consequences of our misbehavior.

So we must listen… and to what must we listen? “To these judgments” – the voice of a Higher Power, the Supreme Being, a voice greater than our own. We don’t make the rules, we follow the rules. We guard and do these judgments, because we want the blessings of the Covenant. The blessings come on the “heels” of our following the Divine Command. We must “heel” — using our intelligence and capabilities, but following the Torah as surely as a dog follows its Master.

Recently, I was sent a review copy of a book called “To Heal the World?” It is an elaborate critique of a popular school of thought which the author digests down to a single phrase: Tikkun Olam, healing the world. It asserts that the “Jewish left” is both “corrupting” Judaism and endangering Israel.

Without getting into his politics, when it comes to Judaism he has a good point. The authentic Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam found in our tradition has no practical consequences, other than following certain rules that our Sages set out to help other people perform the Commandments. [Whenever the Sages instituted a Takanah, it was to help us fulfill the Commandments (or to commemorate events such as Purim, Chanukah and Fast Days). When it helped other people fulfill the Commandments, rather than the person directly affected by the Takanah, it was Tikkun Olam — for the benefit of the world.]

This has little to do with the way that the phrase “Tikkun Olam” is used today. Rather, today we are told that any number of causes (universally with a particular bent, as he emphasizes) are not merely worthwhile, but actually mandated under the Jewish concept of “healing the world.” And, of course, we are the ones to determine what is or is not Tikkun Olam.

It is not merely that this is not true Tikkun Olam… it’s not even Judaism.

Judaism is not about determining for ourselves what is right, but submitting to a greater judgment then our own. We are not promised blessings for finding a new ideal and associating it with repair of the world. We are promised blessings if we listen.

Our Torah is about listening, listening to judgments from a Higher Power. Our mission is not to “heal” as much as it is to “heel.” That is what brings the blessings of the Covenant, towards which we must strive.

Wisdom in the Skies

In the Talmud, the Sages tell us to study the skies, or more specifically the calculations of the calendar: “says Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeini in the name of Rebbe Yochanon: from where do we know that it is a Mitzvah to calculate the seasons and the months? For it says, ‘for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations’ [Dev. 4:6]. What is the wisdom and understanding which is [apparent] to the eyes of the nations? It is said that this is the calculation of the seasons and months.” [Shabbos 75a]

Given today’s scientific knowledge, the unique wisdom of the Jewish calendar is not as obvious as it once was. But let us look, for comparison, at the calendars used elsewhere in the world — and we soon realize that the Jewish calendar is unique, as it not only correctly determines the length of lunar months and solar years to extreme precision, but reconciles the two, ensuring that the Jewish holidays fall in their correct season.

The Muslim calendar is exclusively lunar. As the lunar year is roughly 355 days, Islamic holidays fall 10 days earlier in the solar calendar each year — Ramadan was from mid-May to mid-June this year, but in just thirteen years, it will begin in the middle of December. To this day, lunar sightings in Saudi Arabia are used to determine when new months begin for much of the Islamic world.

Christianity, of course, uses an exclusively solar calendar — and even determining its length, though much easier than the lunar cycle (as we will see), is still not simple. The Julian calendar was first created during the Second Temple era, and adopted by the Church in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea. By 1582, mathematical errors had caused their holidays to “drift” ten days out of place — Easter, for example, is supposed to fall near the spring equinox. At that time, the church recognized that the deliberate dissociation of their holidays from the Jewish calendar was done by individuals who chose to be “wrong with the moon rather than right with the Jews.”

As we know, we did not merely rely upon sightings, but had a very precise determination of the length of each month: 29.53059 days. This is stated as a day, an hour, and then a division of an hour into 1080 parts. To my knowledge, no one divides an hour into 1080 parts for any other reason than the calculation of the lunar cycle: 29 days, 12 hours, and 793 parts. How precise is this? Consider that 792/1080 is 11/15, or 44 minutes — so had the rabbis wanted to use a round number, one was easily available. Instead, they used a very precise number.

But how accurate is it? Even with all of our modern tools of measurement, the calculation of the lunar month is not at all trivial. The “synodic” month is based upon when the moon returns to the line between sun and earth — because the moon reflects light from the sun, and the new moon occurs when the earth blocks sunlight from reaching it. Because earth’s orbit itself is elliptical, the length of a month can apparently vary from 29.18 to about 29.93 days. The average used to calculate eclipses is … 29.530587981 days. Which is to say, 23.53059 to four more digits of precision, amounting to a net difference of 0.1744416 seconds.

The Sanhedrin knew precisely when the moon could appear, and what it would look like at that time, and thus they knew what to ask witnesses to ensure the new moon had indeed been sighted. This is also what enabled Hillel II to establish the calendar in use today, when, due to our dispersion, it became clear there would no longer be a Sanhedrin to announce each month — and why the calendar has needed no adjustments since then.

As a non-Jewish scholar recently wrote, this was “knowledge shared by the Jews with all who had interest.” Indeed, “for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.”

[Photo: Rabbi Sheeya Ostreicher teaching lunar cycles. Credit: NJ Jewish Link.]

Coming off the Back Bench

The Torah portion of D’varim, beginning the last of the 5 books of Moses, is universally read on the Sabbath proceeding the Ninth of Av, when we commemorate the destruction of both Temples and other tragedies throughout Jewish history.

Each week’s reading is divided into seven sections, one for each of the seven men called to read. But it is universal practice (or nearly so?) to stop the first person’s reading this week one verse prior to the end of the first section, and begin the second person’s reading at that point. This is because the first verse of the second section begins with the word “Eichah” — the same word the begins the Book of Lamentations (which is thus called “Eichah”). Literally, the word “Eichah” simply means “How” — but it has a sad connotation. In the Torah [Dev. 1:12], Moshe asks: “how can I alone bear your pestering, burdens and arguments?” [In the Book of Lamentations, Yirmiyahu [Jeremiah] begins, “How can she sit alone? The city of a great nation is like a widow…”] So rather than have the second person begin with such sad and even accusatory words, we have him begin a verse early.

Many have spoken about the connections between this verse in our reading, and the Book of Eichah. Perhaps one of the most straightforward is Moshe’s mention of Israel’s self-destructive behavior. What does Moshe mean by the “burdens” that Israel forces him to bear? Rashi explains:

And your burdens — this teaches that they were Apikorsim [heretics]. If Moshe would go out early, they would say “why is Moshe going out early? Perhaps things are not good in his house. And if he would go out late, they would say “why is he not leaving already? What do you think? He sitting there thinking of bad guidance to give you.”

“Heretics” is a strong word. Because they sat around speculating about Moshe’s behavior, even in an uncomplimentary fashion, that makes them heretics? Actually, yes it does. The Sifsei Chachamim says about Rashi that when he uses the word Apikorus, “he means to say rebellious… like a horse without reins.” We find this thought in the Talmud as well [Sanhedrin 99b]: one of the definitions of Apikorus is “one who disgraces a scholar.” That itself is the rebellion against the Torah’s guidance.

Sadly, in our day everyone imagines themselves to be an expert, and even demeans the experts for not being as wise as they are. And if this applies to every area of life, certainly it applies to Torah and its teachers! You can find essays today which describe Moshe in terms no less disparaging than those described by Rashi. And if that is what they say about Moshe himself, you can only imagine what they say about the leading scholars of our day.

The Torah is telling us that this behavior is truly self-destructive. It is the same behavior that Moshe talked about, in the verse tied to the Book of Lamentations itself. Without guidance we are indeed like a horse without reins, imagining we ourselves know the right way forward through the darkness.

On the Ninth of Av, we are not merely looking back at the past, we look at the promise of a bright future. By seeking guidance and following the Torah’s path, we will come out of the darkness of exile and into the light of Final Redemption. May we see that happen quickly, in our days.

What Do you Live For?

The Talmud, at the end of the first tractate, Brachos, learns a fascinating lesson from the verse: “This is the Torah [the law]: when a person dies in a tent…” [19:14] This verse speaks about impurity that attaches to everything in the same building as someone who passed away. But Rebbe Shimon Ben Lakish says that the beginning of the verse is hinting that Torah is not truly established in a person unless he ‘kills himself’ over it.

In order to truly acquire Torah, he says, a person has to work himself to exhaustion trying to understand.

The truth is that this applies to any endeavor or field of study. The more time we spend on it, the more effort we put into it, the better the results we will achieve. Certainly natural talent is important, but effort is just as crucial. And in the case of Torah study, it is actually far more so.

While a person might “kill himself” to acquire Torah, it is not about choosing what we die for — but what we are living for. What is our goal? How do we find satisfaction?

Rabbi Moshe Luzzato tells us, at the beginning of his famous work “The Path of the Just,” that his work is intended to remind us of things which we probably already know ourselves. And then he goes on to say many things which we would never have recognized on our own. But one thing he says, which we must admit is rather obvious when we think about it, is that a soul cannot find true satisfaction in the material world.

The Rabbi gives us a parable of a princess who marries a peasant. Nothing the peasant can bring her could possibly compare to the wealth found in the palace of her childhood. Similarly, the soul cannot find satisfaction from money, material goods, or physical pleasures. True happiness and satisfaction are found in spiritual endeavors — charity, doing kindness for others, prayer and study.

I was reminded of this after seeing an article regarding the recent, tragic suicide of a famous chef, Anthony Bourdain.

Bourdain had a true love for good food, which he was able to articulately share with others. He was an author, he was a TV host, he traveled the world sampling exotic dishes.

But there was one particular clip of him that accompanied the news reports, which to me was a warning sign. People say that they were worried about him when he didn’t come to dinner the night before his death. But long before that, there was this particular clip.

It shows Bourdain sitting in a Vietnamese street restaurant, with assorted dishes and a local beer before him. He is holding a traditional bowl in one hand and a pair of chopsticks with the other, picking up Vietnamese noodles. And he says:

“Fellow travelers, this is what you want. This is what you need. This is the path to true happiness and wisdom.”

I’m not mocking him; it’s tremendously sad, and a commentary on the world today. I think it’s obvious he wasn’t completely serious, no matter his entirely straight delivery. No one could truly imagine that the path to true happiness and wisdom lies in a bowl of Asian pasta.

And obviously, none of us knows the true nature of Bourdain’s personal struggles. But it also seems that he didn’t know anything better, that he had no other source for happiness and wisdom.

Do we, also, find ourselves pursuing trivialities, giving them undue importance? It goes back to the question, what do we live for? A person who “kills himself” over Torah certainly knows the path to true happiness and wisdom. And that is the road on which we all hope to find ourselves.

The Importance of Good Company

This week, we witness Moshe throwing up his hands in despair. Moshe, Moshe Rabbeinu, our master teacher, he who transmitted the entire Torah directly from G-d to the Jewish People, has had it with the Jews. He’s done. “And Moshe said to Hashem, ‘why have You done such a bad thing to Your servant, and why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that You would place the burden of this entire nation upon me?'” [Num. 11:11]

What did Israel do that was so wrong, so horrible, that Moshe gave up?

Think about it. The nation believed the report of the spies, and mourned their (supposed) inability to inherit the land of Israel, and Moshe did not give up. So this was a bigger problem than their refusal to believe Hashem’s promise.

The people tried to replace Moshe with a Golden Calf, and not only did Moshe not give up, he demanded that God forgive them. “Why, Hashem, should your anger flare against Your nation, which You brought out from the land of Egypt with great strength and a strong arm? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He brought them out for evil purposes, to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from off the face of the earth?’ Return from your flaring anger, and set aside the bad for Your nation.” [Ex. 32:11-12] Moshe even said, “And now, if you will lift their sin [from upon them, then that will be good], and if not, erase me from Your book which You have written!” [Ex. 32:32] So what Israel has done here must be far, far worse than trying to undermine Moshe himself.

What did they do? They asked for variety on the menu! They asked for meat. They got tired of eating mahn all the time, so they wanted to go to a restaurant for a day. And this was the thing Moshe found unbearable. Why was it so wrong?

The answer is that Manna was a perfect food which took care of all their needs. In fact, it had whatever flavor they wanted, so they could have been tasting the finest broiled steak if they so chose. Those who ate it produced no excrement, as it provided full and complete nutrition with no waste. And it was provided each and every morning (except Shabbos) with no effort, so Israel did not have to worry about their physical needs, and could devote their time to Torah.

And that was the problem. Israel was demanding less spirituality. They couldn’t handle such a perfectly spiritual food, ingesting an open miracle all the time. They wanted to go down a few levels.

What inspired something so patently crazy? How did they come to think such a silly idea? “The gathered ones that were among them had a desire, and they sat and cried, also the Children of Israel, and they said ‘who will feed us meat?'” [11:4] Who were “the gathered ones?” Rashi explains, this was the “mixed multitude” who came out of Egypt with the Jews.

The mixed multitude was a corrupting influence. They were the first to worship the Golden Calf, and the first to demand meat. If not for them, the Jews themselves would never have thought about wanting a less holy food, but once somebody else was talking about it, suddenly it became “the rage.” It became the “conventional wisdom.”

I recently made the mistake of posting to a forum on Facebook which purports to be for open discussion of Jewish topics. Someone had posted, essentially, “how can some Jews be so foolish as to disbelieve {X}?” Now I’m sure some of you will immediately figure out what {X} was, but the scientific topic is not my point. I simply called to their attention that many (in fact, among the ‘charedim’, nearly all) who had attained an advanced education in the hard sciences, and also adopted Jewish observance as adults, had come to no longer believe {X}, so perhaps the issue is not as settled as they imagine.

If I imagined that an intelligent discussion would follow, I was to be sorely disappointed. For every person who attempted to address the issue, there were five who focused upon discrediting religious thought, the experts who dared buck the conventional wisdom, even my own credentials. The people I described, they said, must have had a psychological need to “fit in” with their new group (never mind that becoming observant requires willingness to deviate from a peer group). These scientists must reject scientific facts, ones that I had already mentioned they continue to regard as accurate. I was even told that I, personally, had “falsely” claimed a science or engineering degree by someone who didn’t understand the difference between a degree and a major — and someone restated the fallacy even after I showed that it was obviously wrong. To be certain, some also insisted that knowledge of mathematics and statistics is less relevant than biology to understand a question of mathematical probabilities. That was the tenor of the entire discussion.

It was an exercise in groupthink, in order to avoid critical analysis. Two days later, someone contacted me privately to tell me that he found my arguments very interesting, and that it was obvious to him that many in the so-called discussion were unable to respond objectively. “Anyone,” he wrote, “should have been able to see the prejudice in their approach.”

And he was right. Anyone should have been able to see that they were being irrational, but you had to be willing to question conventional wisdom in order to do that.

How do people imagine that soldiers defending lives are doing a bad thing? Because they are told by their neighboring influences, which is to say the media, that people were shot “protesting the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem,” rather than that armed terrorists were answering a call to “tear down the barrier, and tear out the Jews’ hearts.”

Thanks to radio, TV and the Internet, we are constantly barraged with false facts and false priorities. We have the “mixed multitude” close at hand, in fact in our hands, on little screens, telling us what to think and what is correct — to drop spirituality and embrace materialism and falsehood.

It is so obviously wrong to do so, that it is incredibly disheartening to those trying to lead us in a better direction. This is what brought Moshe to throw up his hands in dismay. May we have the discernment to reject false thinking, no matter how common, in order to embrace the truth.

Self Preservation

In this week’s Torah reading, the double portion of Tazria-Metzorah, most of our attention is directed to the phenomenon of Tzara’as, a spiritual blemish. People erroneously compare it to leprosy… but clothing and buildings don’t become leprous. The Talmud (Ehrchin 15b) tells us that the cause of Tzara’as is Loshon Hara, speaking evil of others — Reish Lakish teaches that Metzorah, the word for one who has Tzara’as, should be read as an acronym for “Motzei Shem Ra,” one who defames another.

Why should it be that when a person gossiped about someone else, that his skin would turn white, as if it were dying, and he would have to leave the community until he healed? [Our Sages teach that today we are not on the spiritual level necessary to receive such a miraculous punishment, but nonetheless the concept remains the same.]

The ability to speak, to communicate intelligently, is what separates us from animals. It is our human soul that gives us the ability to think and reason, and then to communicate those thoughts to others. We can use that gift for the greatest and highest of purposes, to teach and learn Torah, and we can use that gift to tear down and destroy. We choose how to use this gift.

And every person is susceptible to making the wrong choice. The two examples of people who were punished with Tzara’as in the Torah are none other than Moshe and Miriam — the recipient of the Torah and his sister. [In reality, Moshe did not truly speak Lashon Hora, as he merely told G-d that the Jewish Nation would not believe him (Ex. 4:1). And concerning Miriam (Num. 12:1) Rashi says that it is clear that she did not say anything to disparage Moshe — Rashi warns: “all the more so one who speaks about another to disparage him!”]

Every person, on his or her level, must be extremely careful to only speak appropriately about others. Tehillim (Psalm) 34 says: “Who is the man who desires life, loves days to see good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from trickery, turn away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”

Today there is an organization named for Rabbi Israel Mayer Kagan, who became known by the name of his work on avoiding Lashon Hora, which he entitled “Chofetz Chaim,” “desires life” from the Psalm. The organization pointed out that today we are tested in this area in a way that earlier generations were not:

The anonymity of social media makes matters worse. In Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, author Dr. Elias Aboujaoude cites a study revealing that on-line users convince themselves that their on-line behavior is “not me,” and therefore, they do not feel responsible for the consequences of their posts. Thus, a person who would feel constrained to say loshon hora out loud feels far less inhibited about posting and sharing it.

Language gives us the ability to do greater deeds than animals. Whether they are marvelous or terrible deeds, that is our choice — and language is the most powerful expression of our choices. Let us choose the path of life in every conversation!

Always New

For seven days and nights, Aharon and his sons sat at the entrance to the Tabernacle, as they were commanded to do. Then the eighth day arrived, the first day of Nissan, a year after leaving Egypt, and it was time to bring the first offerings to G-d.

Aharon first brought sin and elevation offerings for himself, and then the sin offering on behalf of the nation. The verse reads [9:15]: “And Aharon brought the offering of the nation, he took the goat of the sin offering of the nation, and he slaughtered it and offered it like the first one.”

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky zt”l (o.b.m.) is struck by that last expression, “like the first one.” Why does the Torah emphasize this point? Yes, the Torah describes the process in more detail the first time, in the previous verses. But we have a model for how a sin offering is to be done, as there is a (different) process for an elevation offering. It is unnecessary to tell us that Aharon did it the same way — and indeed, in the very next verse it says, “And he brought the elevation offering, and he prepared it according to its laws.” So what was the point of underscoring that Aharon brought the sin offering “like the first one?”

Rabbi Galinsky explains: the Torah is telling us that Aharon prepared the sin offering on behalf of the nation, the third offering which he brought in the Tabernacle, with precisely the same excitement that he had the first time, exactly as if this were the first sin offering he had ever brought! That is what it means, “like the first one.”

It is simply human nature that when we do a particular action repetitively, or even see a particular site often, that the impact naturally diminishes. The tour guide leading people down to the Grand Canyon does not gasp along with the tourists. Even those who pray at the holy Western Wall every day may no longer feel as they did the first time they touched its stones — but we know that we all should.

When I was a student in Lakewood, Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l, a tremendous scholar and teacher of Mussar (spiritual and ethical improvement) came from Israel, and spoke in the yeshiva during his visit. People came from everywhere for the special privilege of hearing him, including people who were no longer in the school or who studied elsewhere. Needless to say, most every student was sure to attend.

To me, this was the biggest lesson of his address that day.

The reason is that I had previously studied in “Lakewood East,” the branch of the yeshiva located in Jerusalem. Rav Wolbe was the father-in-law of the Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) of the Jerusalem branch, (ylctv”a) Rabbi Yaakov Schwartzman shlit”a, and Rav Wolbe spoke in that yeshiva once every two weeks.

While I would hardly say the room was empty, people naturally try to postpone other tasks until they are done studying with their partners (which is how most learning is done in a yeshiva). People are much less particular about staying for “mussar seder” when other things arise. So the room was much emptier than earlier in the afternoon. They didn’t “pack in,” they “packed out.” It’s that same element of human nature: people specifically came to hear him when they knew they might only be able to do so once, but those who could hear from him biweekly willingly gave up the opportunity.

The Haggadah tells us that every person is obligated to see him or herself “as if he left Egypt,” personally experiencing the miracle of the Exodus, and the gratitude to G-d for bringing us out of slavery. We are told that every Jewish soul was at Mount Sinai, that we ourselves experienced the Revelation. And we say in our prayers that G-d “renews the work of Creation, every day, constantly.”

It is a similarly great challenge to renew ourselves that same way, to experience each day as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the same way G-d constantly renews His Creation around us. But it is the truth: every day is our one and only opportunity to experience that day. We will only experience Parshas Shmini 5778 once in our lives. We will only pray tomorrow morning once in our lives.

Like Aharon, we must learn to take advantage of each once-in-a-lifetime spiritual opportunity!

Egyptian Amnesia

As we concluded Sefer Bereishis, the Book of Genesis, last week, the nascent Jewish People found themselves in very good circumstances. Yosef was second only to Pharoah himself, having saved the entire country from famine. There was no reason to expect what actually transpired.

The verses themselves suggest what happened. “Yosef passed away, and all of his brothers, and that entire generation. And the Children of Israel multiplied and spread, grew and were very strong, and the land was full of them. And a new King rose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef.” [Ex. 1:6-8]

The generation to whom the Egyptians owed gratitude passed away. As long as Yosef was alive, no Egyptian King would imagine that the Jews would be disloyal, but now Yosef is gone. And the Jews were successful, so much so that “the land was full of them.” In other words, “there were too many Jews.” And that is when a new king arose who forgot all that Yosef had done, all that the Jewish people had done to benefit Egypt.

There is an argument in the Talmud about what it means that the king “did not know Yosef,” as Rashi tells us. One school of thought is that there was truly a new king, but the other says that the same Pharoah stopped thinking of the Jews as a benefit to the country, as if he had never known Yosef.

In truth, these opinions are not as different as they might seem to be. The Egyptians wrote and depicted what happened in their country. There were records of what Yosef had done. They presumably did not knock down the storehouses. Certainly Egyptians were telling the story of how they had famously saved themselves and even fed neighboring countries during the years of famine. Even common people knew this, much less the successor to the throne. He did not need to have known Yosef to know what he accomplished on behalf of all Egypt.

Fundamentally, the new Pharoah expressed a lack of gratitude to the Jewish People, and demonstrated the familiar pattern of anti-Semitism. The reality was that the Jews had only benefited the Egyptians and the entire region. The myth was that the Jews were disloyal, and would exploit the Egyptians and the resources of the country. And the myth won.

Look at what is happening in the Middle East today. The reality is that Jews built a flourishing country on their ancestral homeland, inventing new technologies to make it fertile, advancing medicine, and bringing democracy, limiting the power of government, to that portion of the world — not just for themselves, but for everyone. Arab citizens of Israel have rights and opportunities found in none of the dozens of Arab countries. The myth is that the Jews are occupiers, exploiting the resources of the country, creating problems throughout the region. And before the United Nations of the world, the myth wins.

Our obligation is always to do better. We must model gratitude. When someone does a kindness for us, we have an obligation to recognize the generosity of that person, express our thanks, and above all not reciprocate good deeds with bad ones. That is the Egyptian model, the one we help eradicate every time we thank those who help us!

The Misunderstood Maccabees and Miketz Miracles

There is a lot of misinformation about the Chanukah holiday. People teach that the Greeks took over Israel, the Jews fought back, the Jews won the battle, and then there was the miracle of the oil — enough oil to explain the Menorah, Latkes, and Sufganiyot (Israeli jelly doughnuts). That one small flask of oil certainly went a long way.

But if there is one phenomenon that exemplifies the confusion, it would have to be the Maccabiah Games. It offers young Jewish athletes from around the world the opportunity to participate in… a pale imitation of the Olympics, which are, of course, modeled after the original Greek games. We, too, can be just like the ancient Greeks!

And that is exactly the wrong message. Because the victory of Chanukah came from being as unlike the Greeks as one could imagine.

The war that gave us Chanukah was not fought between Jewish Maccabees and the Greeks alone, but the Jewish Maccabees versus Hellenized Jews as well. There were many Jews who fell for the Greek ways, and their glorification of the human body — the reason behind the original Olympic Games. Jews competed in those games, and worshiped Greek idols.

The Maccabees were the very opposite of the Greeks. They neither celebrated nor possessed physical or military prowess; it made no sense that they won the war. The Medrash says that with prayers alone they felled thousands of Greek officers, leaving the military in disarray. The miracle of the oil was only one of many miracles that happened at that time, but showed Divine favor towards the Maccabees. The war did not end before Chanukah; it continued for several years after the miracle of the oil. But at that point to the Maccabees knew that they would emerge victorious.

In this week’s Torah reading, which is always read during Chanukah, we find a similar sequence of miracles happening to Yosef. He was sitting in an Egyptian prison, jailed because of a false accusation. Thus he could have despaired — but instead knew that everything came from G-d. And when it was time for him to leave that prison, he went from prisoner to viceroy, second only to Pharoah, in just a few hours. Another person could have lost his mind from this sudden, bizarre change of circumstances, but Yosef knew that it was all in accordance with a Divine plan.

Yosef knew that the dreams he had as a young man were prophetic revelation: he would eventually rule over his brothers. And it was the plot of those same brothers, their selling him to be a slave in Egypt, which led to the fulfillment of that prophecy! It makes no more sense than the idea that a single prayer could kill Greek military officers, but there it was.

The lesson of Chanukah is that, just as with Yosef, things are not as they seem. Everything is happening according to a Divine plan, though it may be beyond our comprehension. The Jewish obligation Is to recognize that “many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but it is the prescription of G-d which will be fulfilled” [Proverbs 19:21]. Chanukah tells us that our path is not one of physical, intellectual or business prowess, but Divine Intervention. And in the end, victory is preordained: the Jews survive against all odds.

War & Peace… Together

Our reading begins with Yaakov returning to the land of Cana’an, re-encountering his brother Esav after several decades of separation. This was, however, no ordinary family reunion.

After Yaakov received his father’s blessing intended for Esav, Esav decided to kill Yaakov. It was for this reason that Rivka, their mother, advised Yaakov to run to the house of her brother Lavan [27:41-43] Rivka told Yitzchak that she wanted Yaakov to marry a non-Canaanite woman, and thus Yitzchak sent Yaakov there to marry Lavan’s daughter [27:46-28:2] — but this was engineered by Rivka to save Yaakov’s life.

Now, Yaakov is returning. Will 34 years of separation have placated Esav, or will he greet Yaakov with murderous intent? Yaakov was afraid, and sent messengers ahead with gifts for his brother “to find favor in your eyes” [32:6]. To which Rashi adds, “for I am at peace with you, and request your love.” Yaakov did not want to fight, he wanted peace.

Yet we also learn that Yaakov divided his caravan into two camps — so that at least half would escape if they were attacked. Rashi quotes the Medrash which says that Yaakov prepared himself in three different ways: with gifts, with prayers, and with preparation for war.

Modern day pacifists would claim that two of these things were contradictory, that one cannot simultaneously claim to want peace while arming for battle. Our Sages say, “the stories of the fathers are signposts for the children.” On the contrary, sometimes being well prepared for war is the best way to ensure peace!