In parshat Veyeishev, Yaakov, having finally endured the hardship and travails in the house of Lavan, and having finally returned to his homeland, the land of Canaan, and having reconciled with his brother Esav who (implicitly) agreed to relinquish his claim to the land, is now able to finally settle in the land of his fathers and to put all his troubles behind him: “And Yaakov settled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.” However, as soon as this point is reached, the narrative turns to Yosef and his brothers, and Yaakov completely fades into the background: “These are the generations of Yaakov – Yosef was seventeen years…” Perhaps responding to this shift in the narrative, Chazal – as Rashi reminds us – comment on the first pasuk, “Vayeshev Yaakov – bikesh Yaakov lashevet bishalva” – Yaakov wanted to dwell in tranquility, but God would not allow it because “there is enough tranquility for the righteous in the World-to-Come.” What is the meaning of this midrash? Don’t the righteous deserve some tranquility, some respite from hardship and travail? Does being a tzaddik mean that one must suffer?
I would suggest that the point here is not about respite, but about complacency. To be righteous, to be dedicated to serving God, means that one must always be striving to achieve more. The gemarah recounts, “Said R. Chiyya bar Ashi in the name of Rav: Talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars, have no rest, neither in this world nor in the next, as it states: ‘They shall go from strength to strength; every one of them will appear before God in Zion’ (Tehillim 119:165)” (Berakhot 64a). To be driven by a vision, a passion and an ideal is to never rest on one’s laurels, but to go from one strength to the next, to constantly strive for the next challenge, or – to quote the title of the Tracy Kidder book – to look to scale the mountains beyond mountains. If Yaakov is prepared to settle down, then his story has ended, and the story of Yosef and his brothers must begin.
The week in which we read Parshat Vayeshev coincides with Chanukah. Chanukah is – in many ways – the chag of religious striving, of religious maximalism. When Hellenism permeated the Land of Israel, many Jews fully embraced it. They were not deeply, profoundly committed to a life of Torah and mitzvot. They were not interested in struggle and in striving to see this ideal achieved. Torah was a lifestyle, not a passion, and they were happy to adapt, to be complacent, to go with the flow. When Antiochus demanded that the people worship pagan gods, desecrate the Shabbat, and refuse to circumcise their sons, many lacked the inner strength and conviction to resist. It was only Matityahu, with his cry, “Let everyone who is passionate for the Torah come after me” (Maccabees I, 1:27), only Matityahu with his depth of commitment and passion, who was able to inspire and lead the revolt that ultimately culminated in the defeat of the Seleucid-Greeks, the recapturing and rededication of the Temple, and the miracle of Chanukah.
And, so, Chanukah is the chag of religious striving, of rejecting a disposition of complacency and passive acquiescence. It is thus that we find that the laws of martyrdom were crystallized at the time of Chanukah, at the time when so many were willing to sacrifice their lives because they realized that there was more to life than just getting along, that there was something of ultimate and transcendent value, something worth giving up one’s life for.
However, such passion can also be dangerous. It can lead to a dismissal of human realities and human concerns. All that is important is the ideal, the vision. We find sometimes that activists for causes can act in obnoxious or unethical ways to the people around them. For them, only the cause matters – real people are insignificant.
This actually was an early misstep of the Maccabees – not to be inappropriately dismissive of others’ lives, but of their own. We are told that when they were attacked on Shabbat, they refused to fight and defend themselves, and were slaughtered in great numbers. It was then they realized that serving God required attending to the lives and realities of human beings as well:
And one of them said to another, If we all do as our brethren have done, and fight not for our lives and laws against the heathen, they will now quickly root us out of the earth. At that time therefore they decreed, saying, Whosoever shall come to make battle with us on the Sabbath day, we will fight against him; neither will we die all, as our brethren that were murdered in the secret places. (Maccabees I 2:40-41)
They intuited that it was God’s will that Shabbat can and must be violated to save a human life, a ruling that was later endorsed and given prooftexts by the Rabbis.
This, then, is the message of Chanukah. It is the necessity of religious passion, commitment and striving, but a passion that must not become a zealotry that is blind to human concerns and human realities. It is a religious maximalism that refuses to use impure oil for the lighting of the menorah and the dedication of the Temple – although possibly halakhically permissible to do so based on the principle of tumah hutra bi’tzibuur, that impurity is superseded when the entire community is impure. It is a maximalism that insists that only pure oil be used for such a momentous religious occasion. And it is this ethos that we commemorate every Chanukah by not doing the minimum halakhic requirement – lighting just one candle per household – but on insisting that we do the mitzvah mihadrin min ha’mehadrin - in the best of the best possible ways. And yet, if one must choose between lighting Chanukah lights and Shabbat candles, Shabbat candles come first (Shabbat 23b, Shulkhan Arukh OH 678:1), because shalom bayit, household tranquility, takes precedence over such expressions of religious passion.
As we enter into Chanukah, let us all consider how we can internalize the ethos of Chanukah, how we can bring religious maximalism into our lives. It is easy to be complacent, to live our lives day by day without striving. But if we are committed to a life of serving God, then we must always be asking ourselves – what does God want from me and how can I do more? “More” need not mean more stringencies. Rambam in his Shmoneh Prakim rejects stringencies as a religious value. And yet, immediately after so doing he states that we must dedicate every thought and action to intellectually knowing God. That was Rambam’s view of religious maximalism. What is ours? Is it learning and internalizing Torah? Is it careful attention to performing all the mitzvot? Is it connecting to God through prayer? Is it serving the Jewish people? Is it alleviating poverty and injustice in the world? Is it defending and strengthening the State of Israel?
Let us not dwell bishalva, in complacency. Let us strive – each one for him or herself – to understand what it is that God wants from us, and then constantly strive to achieve that day after day, conquering mountains beyond mountains, going from strength to strength. God-forbid that we should trample on others in this pursuit. God-forbid that it should be a maximalism that becomes a zealotry. We must always remember that in a contest between ner Shabbat and ner Chanukah, that ner Shabbat always come first. But let us also never forget that Chanukah demands that we live our lives mihadrin min ha mihadrin, always striving to serve God to our utmost ability, in the best of the best possible way.