Divrei Torah

PARSHAS VAYEISHEV 5780

One of the calendar rituals is that Parshas Vayeishev is always read either on Chanuka or the Shabbos immediately preceding Chanuka. The question is asked by a variety of variety of commentators, from Rabbi Moshe Sofer - the Chasam Sofer, chief rabbi of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the early 18th century - to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik: what is the connection between Parshas Vayeishev and Chanuka? Further, we can ask, what does Parshas Vayeishev teach us about the miracle of Chanuka?

There appear to be two main subjects of focus in the parsha. The main focus of the Parsha is Yosef the son of Ya’akov. His brothers were jealous of him and sold him. Yosef ended up in Egypt as a servant to Potiphar – either the chief butcher for the Pharaoh or his chief executioner. Potifar’s wife took a liking to Yosef. Yosef rejected her, and she made a false accusation against Yosef, resulting in jailtime for him. When Potifar’s wife falsely described what Yosef did, she referred to him as “the Hebrew servant.” In next week’s parsha, when the butler brought up Yosef’s name to the Pharaoh for interpreting his dreams to him, the butler referred to Yosef as “a Hebrew lad.”  Apparently, that is how Yosef referred to himself – as an “Ivri – a Jew.” He was proud of his lineage, stood up for it, determined to live by it and nobody could take that away for him. He was a Jew – not only in name – but also in practice.

In the middle, the Chumash interrupts the story of Yosef, switches gears, and tells us the story of Yehuda and Tamar. After his first two sons – who were successively married to Tamar - passed away due to their own sins - Yehuda refused to allow his third son to marry her. But Tamar was determined that the family of Yehuda would carry on through her – that she would be a part of the family of Ya’akov and the Jewish people. She was so dedicated to that thought, that G-d rewarded her that Jewish royalty descended from her.

The Maccabees had this same characteristic - that similar idea of determination and loyalty to their lineage and religion. They saw the spiritual destruction that Greek culture brought upon the Jews. Hellenism had gained much ground and took hold of a significant majority of the Jewish people. The Maccabees were greatly outnumbered, but they were determined to restore Jewish life to its proper form and G-d rewarded their efforts.  They were five brothers – Kohanim – with a small band of followers, taking on a vastly superior and talented Syrian-Greek army – the strongest army in the world - more than ten times the size of the Maccabees' army.  The Maccabees’ attitude was that they had to fight for the sake of G-d and the Torah at all costs. Their fight was not just a physical battle but a battle for the spiritual future of the Jewish people. 

The Gemara in Shabbas tells us that ideally, the Menora should be lit in the doorway, opposite the Mezuza. Why is this? The doorway represents the separation of the Jewish home from the outside world, The Maccabees risked everything to defend the idea that a Jew should be separate from the rest of the world. We cannot lose our identity as Jews. The notion that the Jewish people are special, and to be a member of the Jewish people is an honor not to be forsaken…this was the idea of the Maccabees, and it was also the belief of both Yosef and Tamar. All of them wholly devoted to the ideal of being part of the Jewish people, so much so that they all endangered their own lives for that sake.

An essential message of Chanuka and Parshas Vayeishev is that we should all be grateful for the blessing G-d has given us to be included in the Covenant of Abraham. G-d has blessed all of us to be Jews, and we should not throw away that blessing for nothingness.