Mah Nishtana

At the end of last week’s parsha, we studied the story of Yosef and how he was thrown into jail, where he languished for ten years. He then interpreted the similar dreams of two former ministers who had fallen out of the king’s favor and were jailed alongside Yosef. One would be beheaded in three days and the other would be reinstated to his former position. Yosef asked him to return the favor, mentioning him to Paroh and soliciting a pardon.
In this week’s parsha, we learn how Paroh was troubled by a pair of his dreams and nobody was able to offer him a successful interpretation. The minister who had been helped by Yosef was reminded of the incident and suggested to Paroh that he tell his dreams to Yosef. He told Paroh that Yosef would be able to offer a proper interpretation of his dreams.
In his first dream, Paroh was standing at the edge of the Nile River, which sustained all of Mitzrayim. Out of the water rose seven beautiful healthy cows that began to graze in the marsh. Then seven ugly thin cows rose from the water and stood next to the first group and ate them.
Upon seeing that sight, Paroh awoke. He went back to sleep and had a second dream. In that dream, he saw seven stalks of healthy, good grain rise together. They were followed by seven thin beat-up stalks, which swallowed the healthy full stalks.
When Paroh awoke in the morning, his heart was beating fast, as he was very disturbed by his dreams. He quickly sent for the country’s expert dream interpreters and wise men to offer him an explanation of what he had seen. None of them were able to satisfy Paroh.
Acting upon the suggestion of his minister, Paroh sent for Yosef and retold his dreams, albeit with some changes and embellishments. Yosef cautioned the king that his interpretations would be Divinely inspired. He foretold that the country would experience seven rich years of plenty, which would be followed by seven poor years of famine.
Yosef advised Paroh to appoint a minister to conserve food during the good years so that the people would have what to eat during the unfortunate years. Paroh was overwhelmed by Yosef’s brilliance and appointed him as a viceroy of the entire country.
We learn the parsha and wonder about the brilliance. To us, it seems so obvious. Of course the hindsight vision helps. We fail to see the unparalleled wisdom and wonder why none of Mitzrayim’s many wise men could come up with that interpretation.
The answer is that none of those wise men in Paroh’s rolodex and none of the professional dream interpreters were interested in the true meaning of Paroh’s dreams. They were looking to enhance their image in the eyes of Paroh so that they would become closer to the king and benefit from the relationship.
They all gave explanations that made Paroh look good. They ingratiated themselves with the king, and each in his own way told him that the dreams pointed to Paroh’s great wisdom and power. Like American election pollsters, each pundit saw the events through the prism of his own professional advancement and was blinded as to the obvious truth.
Yosef, however, as an Ish Elokim, and a student of Yaakov Avinu, whose trait was emes, truth, removed himself and his situation from the equation. He viewed the incidents objectively, without involving his ego and personal prejudices, and thus he was able to explain that the future would bring good years and very bad years. The others, who could never bring themselves to tell the powerful king that something awful was in his future, could therefore subconsciously never entertain the possibility that the dreams were foretelling anything so drastically negative.
It is only someone who, as Paroh himself said (Mikeitz 42:38), has “the Divine spirit within him” who can properly understand that which is transpiring. For he who knows that everything that happens to him is from Hashem does not fear fellow men and is not blinded when trying to understand that which is brought to him for interpretation. Yosef, who feared only Hashem and was loyal to the truth, wasn’t encumbered by personal biases and prejudices.
This is perhaps the explanation of how there can be a prohibition in the Torah not to fear any people: “Lo soguru mipnei ish.” To be scared is a human emotion. If a person feels threatened, how can he be commanded not to fear the danger? The answer is that if a person has proper faith in Hashem, then he knows that everything that happens to him is only Hashem’s will and nobody can harm him if it is not meant to be. Yosef, as the talmid of Yaakov, feared no human.
Truth is always under threat and often appears to be losing to lies and fabrications. In our day as well, especially in this period of time, we see how the forces of evil lie and cheat to advance themselves and their agenda. People fret and worry about the future. They perceive our existence as threatened in a country that doesn’t value morality, integrity and allegiance to ideals. They see many falling prey to various enticements that appear harmless and provide much gratification. Many times, people don’t even realize that they are engaging in acts that dull their minds and deaden sensitivities that have been baked into our DNA.
The Bnei Chashmonai were neither warriors nor military leaders. They were people in whose hearts burned an insatiable desire to rid the world of evil. As we recite in Al Hanissim, they were few and they were weak. But they were righteous. And they had the courage of their convictions. They refused to subjugate themselves to the culture and philosophy of the Hellenists. The glitz and glamour failed to impress them. As heirs to Yosef Hatzaddik, their only loyalty was to the truth of Hashem and His Torah. Armed with emunah and bitachon, the anshei emes went to war to defeat the forces of darkness and sheker.
Under the leadership of Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadol, the handful of die-hard tzaddikim and oskei Torah rose up to provide leadership for a dejected, subjugated people. Hashem took note of their courage and self-sacrifice and empowered them with the ability to rally the Bnei Yisroel and to emerge victorious over a powerful and deeply entrenched enemy.
The true leader is not the one who cheats his way up the political ladder. The true leader is not the one who repeatedly lies to his people and engages in subterfuges in a desperate bid to maintain his hold on power. He doesn’t merely pontificate and blame the consequences of his ineptitude on someone else. The true Jewish leader is not crippled by arrogance and ignorance.
The Jewish leader sits bent over a book in a small nondescript room studying the word of the Creator. He imparts his knowledge to others with love and devotion. He parcels out his advice and guidance with humility and subservience only to Hashem. People flock to him not because they are forced to, but because they want to. There are no enforcers and party chairmen to keep everyone in line. Good Jews have an inbred sense of where to go for leadership and whom to follow.
Every night, as we lit the menorah, we remembered this lesson. With its roots branching out from the avodah of Aharon Hakohein in the Mishkon, the lighting of the menorah reminds us how Aharon and his family ascended to the kehunah.
At the time of the chet ha’Eigel, Moshe Rabbeinu proclaimed, “Mi laHashem eilay – Whoever is with Hashem, please gather to me.” The entire shevet Levi rallied to the side of Moshe.
Aharon and his shevet did not take a poll to see which side would win. They didn’t take a head count to try to determine which side would have more people and would be more likely to emerge victorious from the battle. Moshe needed them, so they rose to the occasion. Hashem caused them to win and beat back the idolaters, and thus the plague that threatened the Jewish people was squelched.
That same fire for Hashem and His Torah burned in the hearts of their grandchildren, the Chashmonaim, and because of them and their fearless dedication to the truth, the forces of evil were defeated. They, too, didn’t check to see which way the wind was blowing before taking action. They were not manipulated by public opinion. They did not resort to self-promoting press releases or straddle the fence with diplomatic doublespeak in the face of the campaign to separate the Jewish people from the Torah.
As Aharon Hakohein and his shevet did when they heard the call of “Mi laHashem eilay,” they answered without hesitation. They found the strength within their souls to battle evil and thus caused the spirit of Hashem to return to the Bais Hamikdosh.
Therefore, we celebrate the miraculous military victory of Chanukah by lighting the menorah just as Aharon Hakohein, Matisyohu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadol and millions of fearless Jews have done in all corners of the world under all types of circumstances.
It is the same menorah that my grandfather and your grandfather lit. It is the same menorah kindled by all the valiant Jews throughout history who stood up to those seeking their destruction, all those who answered the call of “Mi laHashem eilay” throughout the generations.
In our day, too, there is a kolah delo posik, a silent call emanating from Sinai and from the Har Habayis and from every bais medrash around the world. “Mi laHashem eilay,” it proclaims. Those of us who light the menorah hear it and answer, “Hineni shlucheini – You can count on me. I will make myself worthy of this mission.” We lit the menorah and reminded ourselves that we are up to the sacred task. Now we have to act on it.
We must conduct ourselves as people of truth, who appreciate the truths of life and live by them. We need to work to keep ourselves and our families pure and untainted by the sheker that envelops us, seeking to tempt us to forsake what makes us great.
People who fight for the truth remain loyal to the types of behavior that have kept us going throughout the golus despite being referred to as backward and irrelevant. They are said to be unrealistic and not with the times. Sheker invariably has the support of the media, which promotes it and its derivatives. People who fight for the truth are maligned, discredited, and referred to as conspiracy theorists and worse. Since the forces of sheker are unable to defeat them in the arena of ideas, they mock, marginalize and ignore them.
The news of the day, the dumbing down of our people and the temporary ascendency of sheker, should not deter us from remaining optimistic about the future and remaining faithful to the Torah values we grew up with.
This week’s parsha (Mikeitz 41:1) begins with the words, “Vayehi mikeitz shenosayim yomim,” and the Medrash (89:1) states, emphasizing the word “keitz,” that Hashem put an end to the darkness. He set a given time for how long Yosef would sit in jail, and when the time was up, Paroh had his dream.
During the First World War, as the battlefront approached, the bombings came closer to the people. One dark night, the bombs fell very close to the population. The people were terrified and went running to the home of the Chofetz Chaim for support and consolation.
He said to them, “I am surprised at you. Is this the first darkness our people have suffered that you are so overcome with fright? We have been through so much as a people. In every generation, there are threats to our very existence and Hakadosh Boruch Hu saves us. He ends the night, shining light into the darkness and saving those who are drowning and cowering in the shadows.
“So, I ask you: Why are you more afraid this night than on any other night? ‘Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol haleilos?’ Know that every night ends, and when it does, ‘yiboka kashachar oreinu,’ the light will burst forth and a new day will begin.”
Those who are faithful to Hashem have no fear, for even if they are enveloped by darkness, they know that soon the light will shine upon them and the world, and they will be spared further pain and anguish.
May we all merit, very soon, seeing that great light, glimmers of which were evident in the 36 lights of the menorah.