Torah Fax

Friday, November 30, 2007 - 20 Kislev, 5768

Torah Reading: Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1 - 40:23)
Candle Lighting: 4:11 PM
Shabbat ends: 5:14 PM

Superficial and Supernatural

Joseph's brothers were about to kill their own flesh and blood. Reuben, however, convinced them not to spill his blood. Instead, he suggested, Joseph should be thrown into an empty pit. The Torah attests to the fact that Reuben's intention was to later return Joseph safely to his father.

The Torah describes the pit as "an empty pit, without any water." The Talmud, cited by Rashi, makes the observation that the words "without any water" are unnecessary. "If the pit was empty, do we not know that it contained no water?" the Talmud asks.

However, the Talmud answers, this is to teach us that "while there was no water in the pit, there were snakes and scorpions."

It is interesting that the Talmud makes this observation about the empty pit in the context of a discussion of the laws of Chanukah. The Talmud states that a Chanukah menorah that is placed higher than twenty cubits (approximately 30 feet) above ground is not acceptable for the fulfillment of the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah menorah. The reason for this is that a menorah placed so high is out of sight.

Commentators have grappled with the juxtaposition of the laws of Chanukah with the throwing of Joseph into a pit filled with snakes and scorpions. There must be a thematic connection between the two teachings. What, we are therefore entitled to ask, is the connection between not placing a Chanukah Menorah above 20 cubits and the fact that the pit into which Joseph was thrown into at the behest of his brother Rueben was filled with snakes and scorpions?

One possible explanation is that lighting the Chanukah candles is a reminder of the great miracles that occurred at the time when the Syrian Greeks sought to extinguish the flame of Judaism.  The lighting of the Chanukah candles reminds us of the miracle of the lone cruse of oil that lasted for eight days instead of one. It also reminds us of the incredible miracle of the small band of Macabees who defeated the powerful Syrian-Greek forces.

Any time a miracle occurs it is meant to inspire us. When we experience a miracle in our own lives, or commemorate (more accurately: relive) a miracle of the past, it should serve at least three functions:

A miracle, first and foremost, is a reminder that there is a G‑d. Even one who believes in G‑d may not always be aware of the truth of His existence and may harbor some doubts. A miracle is a stark reminder that G‑d exists.

Secondly, a miracle alerts us to the fact that G‑d is in control of His world. While there are many people who profess belief in a Creator, they do not believe that the Creator has any control over the universe; they believe that He left it in the hands of nature and cannot alter the way the affairs of the world run. A miracle demonstrates that G‑d is intimately involved in the goings on of the universe He created.

Thirdly, the miracle we experience inspires us to perform a miracle in our own lives. Just as G‑d "went out of His way," as it were, to perform the supernatural event, so too we are inspired to reciprocate and go out of our way, go beyond our own nature, to do something special. A miracle inspires us to live a more wholesome, meaningful, G‑dly and self-transcendent way.
However, the degree to which the miracle will have any effect on our awareness of G‑d's presence and role in our lives depends on the way we perceive the miracle.

If one views the miracle as some awesome manifestation of G‑d's power that overwhelms us it will eventually "underwhelm" us. When something goes over our head it does not enter our consciousness and cannot have the desired effect. Thus, experiencing a miracle, while it might impress us and even jolt us, it may not leave an enduring mark on us.

Proof of this premise can be provided for from the way the Jewish people reacted in the desert just months, weeks and even days after they viewed the most spectacular miracles associated with the Exodus from Egypt such as the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Red Sea . They complained, rebelled and even doubted that G‑d was with them. All the effects of the miracles they experienced wore off. They were clearly not prepared to internalize the miracles and reap the full benefit of their experiences.

This then is the symbolic meaning of the statement that if one placed the Menorah at a height of twenty cubits he has not fulfilled his obligation to light the Chanukah menorah. If we allow the realization of the great miracles go way over our heads the message of Chanukah will be missing.

And the number "twenty" is also significant. In Kabbalah the number twenty is said to refer to a transcendent level of spirituality, for the Hebrew word for twenty-esrim, has the same numerical value as the word keter-crown. Just as a crown is above the head that it adorns, so too, if we experience a miracle that goes above our head; that is not internalized and made relevant to our lives, it will not do the trick. It may add some adornment and nobility to our lives, but when the crown is removed we remain the same as we were before.

The message of the Chanukah menorah placed too high is that we should not let our remembrance of the miracles of Chanukah simply elicit a "wow!" from us. It goes without saying that we should not look at the entire ritual of lighting the Chanukah menorah as a cultural and historical event that has no or minimal relevance to our lives today. We must place the Chanukah menorah at a height that allows us to be nurtured by its message. The miracle has to be reflected upon during and we must refine ourselves even before Chanukah to be receptive to the miracle. Otherwise the miracle will have but a superficial effect on us.

Thus the message of the law that negates placing the Menorah too high is a message against superficiality. It is a message to use our minds and tune our hearts to the message of Chanukah and all that is good and holy in Judaism. Superficial remembrances will not have the desired effect.

We can now understand the juxtaposition of this law concerning the desired height of the Chanukah menorah and the statement that the pit Joseph was thrown into at Rueben's request was filled with snakes and scorpions:

An obvious question can be raised about the manner in which Rueben sought to save his brother Joseph from his brothers' decision to kill him. If Rueben was so keen about saving his brother's life—and we have no reason do doubt his sincerity—how could he have considered throwing Joseph in a pit infested with deadly snakes and scorpions?

The obvious answer is that Rueben was not aware of the fact that the pit was not empty. He might have given a superficial glance at the pit and saw that it was empty, but he did not check it out more thoroughly.

Rueben was indeed inspired to save his brother; he was ready to do something unconventional and bold. Yet he was not prepared to make his good intentions viable and successful. Rueben "suffered" from a syndrome from which we all suffer: we are often content with our good intentions and a minimal amount of effort to make these good intentions materialize. Thus, the effects of our actions will be short-lived.

The Chanukah message and the failure of Rueben are essentially this: While G‑d gives us the miracle-inspiration, we must do our part to make the inspiration a fixed part of our being; one that will crown our efforts with success; one that will endure forever.

We are living at the tail end of the period of exile and ready to enter into a permanent state of peace and goodness, with the advent of the Messianic Age to be ushered in by Moshiach.

What is it that distinguishes our Judaism now and our Judaism in the future? One salient difference is the degree to which our efforts are real and enduring. In exile, we have lost our ability to keep the Chanukah Menorah burning close to us. We find it difficult to see the G‑dly light that illuminates our lives. And even when we are inspired, the inspiration quickly fizzles out. But in the Messianic Age, we will be able to internalize the light of Chanukah and allow the inspiration to have a permanent effect on us.

As we stand at the nexus of exile-galut and Redemption-geulah, it behooves us to take the Chanukah message of anti-superficiality especially when dealing with supernatural-ity more seriously. 

Moshiach Matters      

The verse tells us tat “Joseph was Hurad (lowered) into Egypt” (Genesis 39:1). The same word is used in connection with King Moshiach: “V’Yerd (and he will rule) from sea to sea.” This teaches that the inner intent of exile, initiated with Joseph’s descent into Egypt, is to bring about the revelation of Moshiach.”
(The Rebbe, Parshas VaYeshev, 1980)
Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit

© 2001- 2007 Chabad of the West Side