Weeks of immersing ourselves in the ma’asei avos, the encounters and stories of our forefathers, as we move through Seder Bereishis, leads us to the Yom Tov of Chanukah. Though a mitzvah derabbonon, there are many threads binding it to the Torah, with references and hints that foreshadow Chashmonai uvonov at various points in the Chumash.
In the vastness of the Torah we find astonishing connections between seemingly unrelated scenarios. The fascinating parallels between Yaakov Avinu and Chanukah are a prime example.
The Arizal revealed that the angel of Eisov struggled to damage Yaakov’s middah of hod. This is based on the chapter from the Zohar referred to as Pasach Eliyohu, which is printed in many Nusach Sefard siddurim to be recited before davening. In that chapter, Eliyohu Hanovi reveals that the thigh corresponds to the middah of hod. It was in that area of the body that the angel tried to hurt Yaakov. It was with this in mind that Chazal established eight days of hoda’ah on Chanukah.
We are taught that Yaakov Avinu was niftar on the first day of the Yom Tov of Sukkos, and we know that Mitzrayim enacted seventy days of mourning for him. Thus, the mourning period ended on the 25th day of Kislev.
Let us explore the connection between Yaakov Avinu and Chanukah and Parshas Mikeitz.
The posuk (Bereishis 32:11) states that Yaakov thanked Hashem for His blessings. “Katonti mikol hachassodim umikol ha’emes asher osisu es avdecha, ki bemakli ovarti es haYardein hazeh ve’ato hoyisi lishnei machanos – I crossed the Yardein River with my stick and now I have grown to encompass two encampments,” Yaakov declared.
What is the significance of the fact that he crossed the Yardein with his stick?
Perhaps we can examine the depth concealed in these words.
The posuk (Bereishis 28:12) states that when Yaakov awoke from his dream, he consecrated the stone upon which he had slept with oil and called the place Bais El. But didn’t Elifaz, son of Eisov, chase him down and take all his possessions? From where, then, did Yaakov have oil?
Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer says that oil came down from heaven and Yaakov used that oil to anoint the stone. Daas Zekeinim MiBaalei Hatosafos, however, answers that Yaakov hollowed out his stick and filled it with oil, so that wherever he would be, he could create some light and learn Torah. He used that oil to consecrate the stone.
This answer of the Daas Zekeinim offers us an understanding of why Yaakov used the words “ki bemakli ovarti es haYardein.” By saying that he crossed the Yardein with his stick, Yaakov was stating that the only thing he had with him was Torah. All he had was the oil, which allowed him to learn Torah.
Despite having spent 14 years learning at Yeshivas Sheim V’Eiver and then later in Lovon’s house, scrupulously observing all the mitzvos of the Torah as evidenced by Chazal’s explication of Yaakov’s statement, “Im Lavan garti, vetaryag mitzvos shomarti,” he was not harmed financially. In fact, he was blessed.
Chanukah was established to commemorate the miracle that occurred with the small flask of oil that was found with the seal of the kohein gadol and burned eight nights instead of one. Prior to that miracle, the entire Am Yisroel was under threat by the mighty forces of the mighty Hellenists. A small band of tzaddikim went to war with them and vanquished the enemy. The much smaller army triumphed and the Jewish people were once again able to study and observe the Torah.
Why, then, does our celebration seem to revolve around the miracle of the oil and not the military victory? Wasn’t that a bigger deal than finding a small flask of oil with which to light the menorah?
To answer that, we should bear in mind the commentators’ exposition that following the war with the Yevonim, the oil that was required for kindling the menorah did not really need a special seal, because of the rule of tumah hutrah b’tzibbur. It was permitted to use oil without a seal. But Hakadosh Boruch Hu performed a nes and led the Chashmonaim to a flask of oil, it bore the seal of the Kohein Gadol. Then, Hashem caused the oil in that small container to light for eight days until new oil could be pressed under supervision for taharah. Their diligence was rewarded and they had tahor oil for the entire period and did not have to use oil which the Yevonim defiled, (see Shabbos 21b).
We commemorate and celebrate that miracle with a unique halachic feature that foreign to other mitzvos: We have levels in the performance of the mitzvah: a standard level, then a mehadrin level, and, finally, the way the mehadrin min hamehadrin perform the mitzvah. This is because Chanukah celebrates the will of the Jewish people to enhance and upgrade our performance of mitzvos. We observe the mitzvos because that is the will of Hashem. Therefore, we seek to perform them in the best possible way. We were reminded of that in the time of the nes Chanukah and we live with that philosophy until this very day.
There are always people who seek to convince us that we don’t have to extend ourselves all the way. “There is no need to be punctilious in mitzvah observance,” they tell us. “You can observe the mitzvah in a much easier, cheaper fashion. Why go through all the effort of performing the mitzvah the extreme way – like they do in Brisk, for example – when you can be yotzei by simply following the laws?”
It’s become acceptable to mock those who embrace hiddur mitzvos, toiling to find perfect hadassim, exerting themselves to bake matzos and rejoicing in the effort, or reciting Krias Shema with punctiliousness and focus.
In Lita, it was common for poor bochurim to sleep on shul benches. Once, a group of baalei batim complained to Rav Yisroel Salanter about the yeshiva bochurim who slept in their shul. “Besides the fact that the shul is messy when we come to daven, the bochurim don’t smell all that pleasant. For them to sleep there represents a lack of respect for tefillah,” one of them said.
“It is very likely,” Rav Yisroel replied, “that the aroma of ameilus baTorah of the ameilim baTorah is more pleasing in Shomayim than the smell of your tefillos.”
On Chanukah, we are celebrating the answer, both the thrill of hiddur mitzvah and the strength of ignoring the mockers, scoffers and apologists. We know that what brings honor and joy in Shomayim is not always what brings us the best P.R. Nor is it always a feel-good cause or something that appeals to the masses.
We don’t have to apologize for being ehrliche Yidden. We cherish those who live to do mitzvos in the best possible way and invest their energy in Torah and ameilus baTorah.
“You don’t have to learn that much. A little in the morning and a little at night is enough,” our antagonists tease us. “You can be yotzei talmud Torah that way. Hashem doesn’t want you to be engrossed in study. He values everyone – the ignoramus and the world’s greatest talmidei chachomim – equally, so why knock yourself out?”
It is interesting that the very people content to just get by when it comes to mitzvah observance want and expect higher standards when it comes to their pursuits of this world.
The story is told of a well-meaning businessman who informed his son’s rosh yeshiva that he was removing his son from yeshiva and taking him in to the family business. “Look,” the father said, “I know my son. Even if he sticks around in yeshiva, he will never become the Chazon Ish anyway. So let’s be real.”
The rosh yeshiva smiled and responded, “I also know your son, and I can assure you that if he goes into business, he will never become Rockefeller!”
Somehow, excessive toil and concentration in the pursuit of the physical world is considered commendable. Derision is reserved for people who are very diligent and intense when it comes to spiritual pursuits.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach once overheard a fellow in shul boasting about his beautiful esrog. After the people he was showing his esrog to complimented his beautiful choice, he challenged them to guess how much he paid for it. The guesses went higher and higher, but no one got it. Finally, with a big smile, the man proudly related that he had paid a mere twenty-five dollars for the gorgeous cheftzah shel mitzvah.
“I know that the demand is highest before Yom Kippur, and as Sukkos approaches, vendors are worried about being stuck with unsold inventory, so I waited until the very last minute, late in the afternoon of Erev Sukkos, to go and purchase my daled minim. My brilliance paid off and I was able to buy this for very cheap.”
After davening, Rav Shlomo Zalman sat down with the man and showed him the words of the Gemara in Maseches Beitza (16). He read him the machlokes there between Bais Shammai and Bais Hillel. If Bais Shammai saw a nice cut of meat early in the week, he purchased it for Shabbos, reasoning that he might not find a nicer one. The Gemara states that Hillel was different – “middah acheres hoysa lo” – as he always had faith that he would find what he needed before Shabbos.
Why, asked Rav Shlomo Zalman, does Chazal call this a “middah acheres, another way”? It would seem that Hillel had traditional bitachon, which allowed him to believe that things would work out well and he would be able to obtain the best foods for Shabbos.
Rav Shlomo Zalman gently explained that Chazal are teaching that Hillel didn’t just use this approach when it came to mitzvos, like honoring Shabbos. It wasn’t a lackadaisical approach. It was a middah acheres. It was Hillel’s personal attribute; he always assumed that Hashem would help.
“Someone who lives that way can use the same approach for mitzvos, too. But if you spent time selecting the right suit for your daughter’s wedding and you booked the hall early, or you invested time planning the perfect vacation, then apparently you don’t have that middah, so why for an esrog is it okay to wait for the last minute?”
On Chanukah, we get our priorities back. We recommit to exerting ourselves to be mehadrin Jews. By holding out for the oil with the seal of the kohein gadol, the Chashmonaim were declaring to the Jewish people not to be apathetic when it comes to tumah, taharah and kiyum hamitzvos.
This is why we celebrate the miracle of the shemen more than the military victory. Hard work and military triumphs are nice, but any nation can achieve that. Toiling for a mitzvah and laboring to do it perfectly is our legacy. It is a gift from the Chashmonaim.
Yaakov stated that because he traversed the Yardein with only the stick that enabled him to study Torah, and because he fulfilled the 613 mitzvos during the time he was in the home of the villainous Lovon, he was thus blessed with a large family and many possessions.
So too, Chazal established the eight days of Chanukah to remind us that loyalty to Torah and its ideals is what is paramount to us. There were many Misyavnim at that time who mocked the people who remained loyal to Torah and mitzvos. The chachomim wanted to establish for all time that more important than winning battles and more important than everything else is dikduk b’mitzvos.
Perhaps this is what is meant by those who say that the oil that the Chashmonaim found in the tahor flask was from Yaakov. It was that determination of Yaakov to observe mitzvos in difficult circumstances that inspired the Chashmonaim to hunt down a pure flask of oil and not rely on leniencies. It was in the merit of that dedication that the lights remained lit for eight days. Yaakov’s diligence in the middah of hod led to the annual celebration of eight days of hoda’ah.
Yaakov remained pure and undaunted, courageous in the face of all sorts of attacks. He emerged unscathed from Bais Lovon and divested himself from Eisov, all while maintaining his lofty shlichus as the ish tam yosheiv ohalim.
What, they no doubt wondered, is he doing for society? Why doesn’t he open a yeshiva, as his father and grandfather did (see Rambam)? Why does he worry so much about his children and their values? Why doesn’t he relax and allow them to be exposed to what was going on around them? What is he worried about? It will all work out well in the end.
We know the questions. We are still getting them. After all, we are Yaakov’s people.
Chanukah provides us with renewed resolve. The parsha gives us strength to remain loyal to what we learned from Yaakov.
We learn in Parshas Mikeitz that Paroh summoned Yosef from jail to interpret his dreams. Yosef informed Paroh that he was not gifted with special dream-interpretation abilities. He said that he was able to understand the meaning of the dreams of Paroh’s ministers strictly because Hashem had enabled him to. L’Elokim pisronam. The solutions come from Him.
Instead of taking credit for himself and portraying himself as the wise man Mitzrayim’s leader thought he was, Yosef was honest about how his power was obtained. He could have accepted the credit for the actions Paroh attributed to him, assuming that if he could impress the king, his legal situation would change and the king would free him from jail so that he may become a royal advisor.
However, having been brought up in the home of Yaakov, Yosef would not allow himself to be careless in speech and action. Just as his father was always cognizant of the Source of all power, Yosef lived with that awareness, too. Sheim Shomayim was shagur befiv. Yaakov had taken those first few drops of oil and consecrated the space, creating the kedusha of the eventual makom haMikdosh. As Yaakov started out, he promised that should he be blessed with wealth, “vechol asher titen li, aser a’asrenu Loch. I know, Hashem, that it is all from You.” As a faithful student, Yosef deflects his abilities to the Source of all. “I can do nothing,” he tells Paroh, “without Hashem helping me.”
Yaakov set out to build a nation with a makel in his hand. He had nothing but his faith, Torah and hidden oil.
Once, at the annual Chanukah gathering at Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, entered. The crowd knew that their rosh yeshiva was weak from illness. They were so enthused that they burst out in song. The scene was surreal. The dancing talmidim shouted themselves hoarse with devotion to the rosh yeshiva. Rav Nosson Tzvi himself, barely able to speak, exuded such love for the talmidim.
A question hung over the room: How? How could a man so limited by illness be able to say shiurim and shmuessen, give chizuk and advice, and spearhead programs and raise many millions of dollars to keep the yeshiva going? How was he constantly building and expanding? How could he inspire such enthusiasm?
Rav Yitzchok Ezrachi took the microphone and answered the question in everyone’s hearts. Looking at the rosh yeshiva, he quoted a posuk from the haftorah read on Shabbos Chanukah. The novi (Zecharyah 4:6) says, “Lo bechayil, velo bekoach, ki im beruchi amar Hashem… Not with strength, nor with might, but with My spirit, Hashem says.”
That is the secret of how we accomplish. Yaakov had only a makel. Yosef was in prison, alone, sold into slavery. He had no power, bilodai, he said. It’s up to Hashem.
They had nothing, but, nevertheless, Yaakov founded a nation, Yosef ruled over and sustained the world, and the Chashmonaim beat the most advanced army on earth.
Ki im beruchi. Chanukah is a time to allow our spirits to soar, courageous and proud to give honor to the mitzvos and the One who commanded us to fulfill them, lemehadrin min hamehadrin.