Dvar Torah on Parshat Vayeshev

Parashat Hashavua Vayeshev 2004 / 5765 - Light the Lights

02.12.2004 by

Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage against the dying of the light - Dylan Thomas

The Rabbis learned: When Adam saw the days getting shorter and shorter, he said, 'woe is me, perhaps it is because I sinned that the world is becoming dark, and will return to chaos and disorder, and this is the death sentence that was decreed upon me from heaven'. He went and sat and fasted and prayed for eight days. When he saw the winter solstice arrive, and the days began getting longer and longer, he said, 'it is just the way of the world'. He went and made an eight-day holiday. - Tractate Avodah Zara (Idol Worship), 8a

The Rabbis learned: The Mitzvah of Chanukah is the light, the person, and his home. - Tractate Shabbat, 22a

Rav Kahana said: Rav Natan bar Minyumi taught in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: The Chanukah light which was placed higher than twenty cubits is unacceptable... - Tractate Shabbat, 22a,b '...Is Unacceptable' - Because the eye can not see it. - Rashi's explanation

The above halacha, about the permissible height of the Chanukah lights, is only one of many laws pertaining to the visibility of the Chanukah Menorah. Strangely, and famously, this one is followed in the Talmud by another lesson, about the pit into which Joseph's brothers threw him, taught by the same exact Sages: "And Rav Kahana said: Rav Natan bar Minyumi taught in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: What is meant by the verse [from this week's parsha, Vayeshev] 'and the pit was empty, there was no water in it'? From the fact that it says 'and the pit was empty' , don't I already know that 'there was no water in it'? But, rather, what does it come to tell us? Water wasn't in it, but snakes and scorpions were in it."

This section is famous for an obvious question: what is this cute little drasha (well, not so cute for Joseph) about Joseph's pit doing in the middle of a discussion of the laws of the Chanukah lights? The most obvious answer is that, in fact, it has nothing to do with the topic, and is only put here because it is material taught by the same Rabbis who taught us the twenty-cubits-high law; the editors of the Talmud couldn't think of a better place to put it. The other well-known answer is that since we read the parsha of Vayeshev, which contains the Joseph story, every year on or around Chanukah, while talking about Chanukah the Rabbis of the Talmud thought of this little drasha from the parsha they were reading in synagogue that week. One problem with this answer is that in the time of the Talmud they had a different system of reading the Torah - it took them three years rather than one year to finish it - and so this may well not have been their portion of the week around Chanukah time. So, we are left with this rather strange piece about the pit stuck in the middle of our Gemara about Chanukah. What to do? What to do?

Well, let's take a closer look at the case of the empty pit. The point of the Midrash would seem to be that the very emptiness of the pit, which might be seen as a good thing - with no water there, Joseph won't drown in it - is, in fact, a dangerous thing; the empty pit is the home of deadly, venomous animals. The story seems to be a warning against the apparent neutrality of emptiness: an empty pit looks harmless, but that lack of content (in this case, water) invites danger, even death. By extension, we are, perhaps, being told that nothing is really empty, neutral, null. The apparent emptiness, in fact, is fraught with danger. Emptiness, actually, is an illusion; it is really a full-ness of all kinds of potential destructive energy.

It seems to me that we can now postulate a connection between the empty/not empty pit and the lights of Chanukah.  Adam's eight day winter solstice holiday, which clearly prefigures and is paralleled by Chanukah, is about his response to the diminishing of the light, the darkening of his days. In both that and the Joseph story, the enemy is emptiness, lack, nothingness, which, rather than being neutral is, in fact, threatening; fraught with danger and intimations of oblivion. Adam feared the emptiness implied by the shrinking days, the possibility that the universe would return to a dark nothingness. Joseph's empty pit illustrates the dangers of that very emptiness; nothingness is dangerous, frightening, a place which is in reality full of "snakes and scorpions". The eight day holiday created by Adam celebrates a commitment against the dark, a commitment to life, and content, as opposed to an acceptance of nihilistic emptiness, which is not empty at all, but is, rather, full of negative tendencies.

When, during the darkest days of the year, the very days that so frightened Adam, we light the Chanukah candles, and fill our homes with light, and at the same time remember the dark days of the Hellenistic attempt to wipe out Judaism, we are, in effect, making a claim about our commitment to life, to meaning, to content. The natural world has a thanatotic pull, a tendency to death, darkness, chaos and meaninglessness. Certain political and philosophical systems are similar: their insistence on the lack of ultimate meaning, the lack of a moral center, their very celebration of emptiness, is not neutral at all but, like the pit into which Joseph was thrown, is actually crawling with the snakes and scorpions of moral and ethical nihilism, which would excuse, allow, and even encourage the basest of crimes, and the most reprehensible of behaviors. By lighting the Menorah we fight the darkness, which is, of course, simply an absence; the absence of light. We show that we are on the side of meaning, and content. We affirm our commitment to a life of light, of values, and to a Maccabi-like dedication to those values. We want our Chanukah light to be seen by others, so that we may communicate to the world that our homes, and the people in them, have a message, and a belief system, and are not simply dark, empty shells. We know that an empty pit - a life without a moral center - is not empty at all. In reality, it harbors the snakes and scorpions of nihilistic, value-free, death-embracing behavior. It is that emptiness, that darkness, which we dispel when we light the Chanukah candles.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah sameach,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Torah Portion Summary - Vayeshev

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