“What is Chanukah?” asks the gemara (Tractate Shabbat, 21b). The answer it gives is well known: the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. But this answer, says Maharal (Hidushei Aggadot, ad loc.), makes no sense! First of all, since when do we have holidays to celebrate miracles? Holidays celebrate days of national-religious significance – exodus, revelation, salvation – not miracles for their own sake. Moreover, the al ha’nissim prayer, the single way we mention Chanukah in the liturgy, makes no mention of the miracle of oil, but rather focuses on the victory against the Seleucid-Greeks and the rededication of the Temple. What then, asks Maharal, is the point of the miracle of oil? An examination of our parasha will be helpful in answering this question.
Parashat Miketz presents us with two very different personalities – Yosef and Yehudah. Yosef is known by the Rabbis as Yosef Ha’Tzaddik, Yosef the Righteous. Why a tzaddik? Because he is always thinking and talking about God. When he refuses Potiphar’s wife, he says to her that he cannot sleep with her for it would be sinning before God. More to the point is the verse stating that “his master saw that God was with him, and all that he did, God brought success at his hands” (Breishit, 39:3). Considering that his master certainly did not believe in God, the Rabbis ask, how did he see that God was with Yosef? It is because “the name of God was regularly on his lips.” His master would say, “Yosef, great job!” And Yosef would respond, “Baruch HaShem.” His master would say, “Yosef, good work today,” and Yosef would say, “Baruch HaShem.” “Baruch HaShem. Baruch Hashem,” that was Yosef’s response.
Yosef sees God working through him; he sees God in all things. It is for this reason that Yosef is so captivated by his dreams. Not because they augur his future greatness but because they are a message from God. If God is communicating, how could you not be enraptured? This is also why Yosef tells Pharaoh in this week’s parasha, as he told the wine steward and baker earlier, that the interpretations of the dreams are not from him but from God. When I interpret a dream, he says, it is really just God who is working through me.
There is tremendous religious power in this approach – to be always seeing God in the world and crediting God for one’s good fortune and accomplishments. This approach allows Yosef to console his brothers and tell them, “Behold you did not send me here, but God” (45:8). But seeing God controlling everything is not always a good thing. It was good to console the brothers, but was Yosef correct in what he said, are the brothers really blameless? However much Yosef’s descent into Egypt was part of the divine plan, this does not exonerate the brothers. God must be given credit, but one cannot relinquish one’s own, or another’s, responsibility as a result.
Yehudah is the opposite of Yosef. Yehudah never talks about God. Yehudah is all about personal responsibility. He had the courage to stand up and say, “I did it,” and admit that it was he who slept with Tamar. It is he who is able to convince his father to let Binyamin go down to Egypt because he is ready to put himself on the line: “I will be surety for him; of my hand shall you require him” (43:9). If something goes wrong it doesn’t matter who was at fault or who was to blame, Yehudah takes the responsibility on himself: “If I bring him not unto you, and set him before you, then I will bear the blame to you forever.” Thus, at the fateful moment, it is again Yehudah who steps forward and who is willing to sacrifice himself and his freedom to allow Binyamin to go free. The turning point of the entire story is this moment – when the man who takes personal responsibility confronts the man who sees all his actions as directed by God. And it was Yehudah who was triumphant. It was up to him to act, he acted, and God’s plan was realized. God works through us when we take responsibility for our own actions.
Yosef is indeed a tzaddik, but I wouldn’t want a tzaddik running my business. I would want Yehudah as my CEO. And I would want Yehudah as my political leader. Indeed, it is Yehudah from whom the kingly Davidic line descends. But I am not sure I would want Yehudah as my spiritual leader. A spiritual leader needs to be both a Yehudah and a Yosef: a person who will say, “Baruch Hashem; it is all from God” and at the same time say, “The buck stops here.”
This takes us back to Maharal’s question: Why focus on the oil? Because, says Maharal, if we only spoke about the miracle of the military victory and the dedication of the Temple, we might come to think that it was all our doing. We might fail to see God’s hidden hand. The visible miracle of the oil allowed the people to see the hidden miracle of the war, that the victory was both theirs and God’s.
At the time of the Maccabees there were those who were in the Yosef camp. According to Maccabees I, the Pietists refused to take up arms and fight the Greeks, refusing even to defend themselves on Shabbat. “If God wants to save us,” one can imagine they reasoned, “then let God bring about a miracle.” The Maccabees rejected this. “It is up to us,” they said. “We must do what is necessary, and this is what God wants.” The Maccabees embodied the fusing of Yehudah and Yosef. They were the miracle of the war and the miracle of the oil.
This synthesis is actually part of the al ha’nissim prayer itself. Although only speaking of the military victory, the prayer mentions not the victory of the Hasmoneans, but the victory of God. Ravta et riveinu, danta et dineinu. You, God, fought our battles, came to our defense. This was the war that we fought and the miracle that You, God, brought about.
This message is very much the message of Religious Zionism. There are some religious Jews who reject Zionism. If they are not anti-state, they are at least apathetic to the state. It holds for them no religious meaning. “If God wanted to bring about a new State of Israel,” they say, “then we would have seen visible miracles.” They are the Pietists of old. They are the Yosefs.
Thank God for the secular Zionists, for the Yehudahs of the last generations. It is because of them that we have the miracle that is the State of Israel. And yet they built the state driven by a nationalist vision, not a religious one. For them, the state is no miracle. Their song on Chanukah is Nes Lo Kara Lanu, “A Miracle did not Occur to Us.” We did it. They are Yehudah without Yosef.
In fact, one of the popular Chanukah songs sung by religious Jews everywhere is actually a song of the secular Zionists, Mi yimalel gevurot Yisrael. “Who will speak of the valorous acts of Israel?” says the song. Of course, the Biblical verse is, “Who will speak of the valorous acts of God?” (Tehillim, 106:2). It is the gibor, the song continues, the courageous one, not God, who is the redeemer who arises in each generation. Makabi moshiya u’fodeh, it is a Maccabee – not God – who saved us and redeemed us. It is we who have done it in the past, and it is for us to do it now. Mi Yimalel is the song of Yehudah and Yehudah alone.
It was left for the Religious Zionists to take their share of the responsibility in building the State of Israel, and to bring to their actions a vision that all that was happening was from God. It was for them to bring both Yehudah and Yosef together: “Behold, I will take the stick of Yosef… and will put them with the stick of Yehudah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand” (Yechezkel, 37:19).
This Chanukah, I will continue to sing Mi Yimalel because, as religious people, we need to be reminded again and again of our obligation to be a Yehudah. But I will sing with renewed emphasis the al ha’nissim, thanking God for the victory of the war, the victory of the Hasmoneans that was the victory of God, and for the miracles that God has done bayamim ha’hem, in those days, and also so very much bi’zman ha’zeh.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Samayech!