Today is May 20, 2024 / /

The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Piety and Power – A Combustible Mix

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on December 10, 2015)
Topics: Chanuka, God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Mikeitz, Moadim/Holidays

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The gemara asks, “What is Chanukah?” (Tractate Shabbat, 21b). The answer given is well known: the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. But according to Maharal, this answer makes no sense (Hidushei Aggadotad loc.). First, 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 recognition of Chanukah in the liturgy, makes no mention of the miracle of oil. Instead, it focuses on the victory against the Seleucid Greeks and the rededication of the Temple. This leads Maharal to question the very point of the miracle of oil. An examination of parashat Miketz will help to answer his 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. He is always thinking and talking about God. He cannot sleep with Potiphar’s wife because it would be a sin to God. When he works for Potiphar, “his master saw that God was with him, and all that he did, God brought success at his hands” (Breishit, 39:3). The Rabbis explain that Potiphar saw that Yosef’s success was due to God since “the name of God was constantly 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.”

Yosef sees God working through him; he sees God in all things. Yosef is captivated by his dreams not because they augur his future greatness, but because they are a message from God. God was communicating; how could he not be enraptured? Yosef tells first the wine steward and the baker, and later Pharaoh himself, that the true interpretation of the dreams belongs not to him, but to God. Tell me your dreams, says Yosef, and God will provide the interpretation through me.

There is tremendous religious power in constantly seeing God in the world and always giving God credit for one’s good fortune and accomplishments. This worldview allows Yosef to console his brothers and to tell them not to blame themselves too much for what has happened: “Behold you did not send me here, but God” (45:8). But there is also a danger in this approach. If God is the author of all events, what happens to human responsibility? Were the brothers really blameless for selling Yosef into slavery? However much Yosef’s descent into Egypt was part of the divine plan, this does not exonerate the brothers for their actions and their choices. God must be given credit, but in so doing, one cannot relinquish one’s own – or another’s – responsibility.

Yehudah is the opposite of Yosef. Yehudah never talks about God; he is all about personal responsibility. He had the courage to stand up and say, “I did it.” He comes forward at the critical moment and admits that it was he who slept with Tamar. And when the other brothers fail, he alone is able to convince his father to send Binyamin down with them to Egypt. Why? Because he is ready to put himself on the line: “I will be a surety for him; of my hand shall you require him” (43:9). Yehudah is saying to his father, if something goes wrong then it will not matter who was at fault or who was to blame; I will be responsible. “If I bring him not unto you, and set him before you, then I will bear the blame to you forever.” And Yehudah is as good as his word. At the fateful moment, it is he who steps forward willing to risk all, to give up his own freedom and become a slave to Yosef, to ensure that Binyamin may return safely to his father.

The entire story turns on that fateful encounter at the beginning of next week’s parashava’yigash eilav Yehudah. The man of personal responsibility confronts the man of God. And Yehudah is triumphant. It was up to him to act and he did, and his taking of personal responsibility allowed God’s plan to be 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 from Yehudah that the kingly Davidic line descends. Our kings, our leaders, have to be able to say, “The buck stops here.” But I would not want Yehudah as my spiritual leader. I would want Yosef as my spiritual guide, to remind me that no matter how much effort I expend or which choices I make, it is ultimately not kochi v’otzem yadi, my strength and my abilities alone, that have gotten me where I am. I need Yosef to remind me to deeply and sincerely say, “Baruch HaShem,” to see God as the ultimate author of all of my success and good fortune, ki hu ha’noten likha koach la’asot chayil.

Which 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 clung to Yosef’s approach alone. According to Maccabees I, the Pietists refused to take up arms and fight the Greeks, refusing even to defend themselves on Shabbat. One can imagine their reasoning: “If God wants to save us, then let God bring about a miracle.” The Maccabees rejected this. Their way of thinking would have gone something like this: “It is up to us. 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. Even though it only speaks of the military victory, the prayer mentions the victory of God and not the victory of the Hasmoneans. “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.

The fusion of Yosef and Yehudah can come in different forms. In one, a religious person, a Yosef, knows that he or she must show initiative and take responsibility for his or her choices, not waiting for God to control events or act through him or her. In another, a leader, a Yehudah, is able to look back on his or her accomplishments and see God’s hand in all. But there is one fusion that can be dangerous and potentially destructive. This is when a Yosef is also a Yehudah, when a religious leader is invested with political power. Such a person might not just look back at his choices and thank God; he or she might make choices – choices that affect the lives of thousands if not millions of people – with the absolute and unwavering confidence that those choices are God’s will. We have to look no further than Iran and ISIS for object lessons on what happens when a religious leader is also a political leader.

This, says Ramban, was the sin of the Hasmoneans (Breishit, 49:10). The kingship was the sole right of the descendants of Yehudah, but the Hasmoneans were kohanim from the tribe of Levi. Their task was to be religious leaders, not political ones: “And they should not have reigned, but rather to have devoted themselves to the Divine worship.” Power and piety do not easily mix. True piety requires humility, and power often begets arrogance. Those with power must take personal responsibility for their choices without invoking God to justify their actions, for when the latter happens, many are bound to suffer as a result. Our response to our own choices should not be “because God has told me so,”  but rather, “anokhi e’ervenu,” “I am taking full responsibility, right or wrong.” Our response to our successes, however, must be “baruch HaShem.” When we invoke God’s name it should be, as we say on Chanukah, “li’hodot u’lihallel li’shimkha ha’Gadol,” to give thanks and praise to God’s great name.