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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Miketz/Chanukah 5773 "Futile Masses"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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June 1942 was an ominous and perilous time. On all fronts the Axis powers seemed unstoppable. After their successful attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese conquered the Philippine islands, and then Hong Kong, Burma, Malaya, and French Indochina. Meanwhile, the German blitzkrieg successfully ravaged and decimated Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium. France collapsed, as Operation Sea Lion threatened the survival of Britain. With Operation Barborossa the vast Russian army made hasty retreats until Germany began the Siege of Leningrad.

In Northern Africa, Nazi General Erwin Rommel known as the Desert Fox brilliantly maneuvered his troops as he hoisted the Swastika in country after country. As he made his way through Egypt he set his eyes on the strategic Suez Canal. The Allies feared losing the canal because it was their lifeline to India. For the Jews however, the fall of the Suez had far greater implications for if the Suez would fall, Palestine would quickly succumb, placing the entire population under the dominion of the Nazis, G-d forbid.

The Jews in Eretz Yisroel trembled as they listened to every news report. The British forces kept retreating and it seemed clear that they would not be able to withstand the might of Rommel’s forces.

One afternoon during this bleak period, the Ponovezher Rav, Rabbi Shlomo Kahaneman zt’l, met Rabbi Betzalel Zolty zt’l[2]. The Rav told Rabbi Zolty that he had just borrowed five hundred pounds and purchased land in B’nei B’rak where he planned to establish a new Yeshiva. Rabbi Zolty was shocked, “Is the Rav not aware of the terrible situation we are in? In a few days all of Eretz Yisroel can be destroyed. Is this the time to worry about building a Yeshiva?”

The Ponovezher replied by pointing out an occurrence in Sefer Yirmiyah. The Navi describes that in the eighteenth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian army surrounded Yerushalayim. Although the Jewish settlement of that era was about to be destroyed and the Jews exiled, Hashem instructed Yirmiyah that when his uncle Chanamel offered to sell him land he should purchase it. Not only did Yirmiyah purchase the land but he wrote up a deed complete with witnesses, ensuring that the document possessed judicial validity. Then Yirmiyah proclaimed to the Jews that in the future when their descendants would return this land would be awaiting them.

The Ponovezher Rav continued, “The Torah only records those prophecies that were not only relevant to that time but also to the future. If the Navi records this transaction in such vivid detail it is teaching us a lesson in current events. We cannot give up in the future even when the present seems bleak. Therefore, I purchased this plot because Eretz Yisroel will have a future and we must be ready for it.”

At the famous battle of El Arish the British General Bernard Montgomery finally penetrated Rommel’s forces and began to drive him back across Libya into Tunisia. Rommel’s greatest victories were behind him.

Chazal compare the culture of Greece to darkness. The verse[3] states “There was darkness on the face of the deep”. The Medrash[4] explains that this darkness is a reference to the Greeks who darkened the eyes of Klal Yisroel with their decrees.

I always found this Medrash enigmatic. Greece boasted the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the epic Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, the magnificent architectural advancements of the acropolis and the Parthenon, the aesthetics of Pericles’ Athens, the military prowess of Sparta, the tragic playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes. In fact, Western Culture with all of its advancements in medicine, science, engineering, art, drama and architecture owes much to the ancient Greeks[5]. Perhaps we can justifiably say that the Greeks did not act appropriately with the Jews and were an oppressive regime. Perhaps we can also say that many of their beliefs and morals are heretical to us. But how can we rationally say that Greece is analogous to darkness? How can we say that the most enlightened and advanced culture in the history of man, from whose wisdom we benefit today, is compared to sinister and bleak darkness?

Pharaoh, the mighty monarch of Egypt, has a dream; in fact he has a nightmare. It is such a disturbing nightmare that Pharaoh is shaken to the core and is very bothered by it (“Vatipa’em rucho”). In his dream, Pharaoh watches seven beautiful fat cows emerge from the Nile. They are the most healthy and robust cows that Pharaoh has ever seen in Egypt. Then seven feeble sickly and gaunt cows emerge from the Nile. Their grotesque appearance is nauseating and they can hardly be looked at. Suddenly, the seven weak feeble cows consume the robust healthy cows.

Though very upset by his dream, Pharaoh coaxes himself back to sleep only to suffer another vivid nightmare that again shakes him to the core. This time Pharaoh watches a similar scene unfolding with stalks of wheat; seven weak chaff-like stalks consume seven strong stalks. After the second dream however, Pharaoh cannot go back to sleep. He is so upset by his dreams that he summons every advisor he has to interpret his dreams. As the Torah describes, Yosef was the only one who could grant Pharaoh an explanation that he felt acceptable, landing him a seat in the monarchy, second only to Pharaoh himself.

What was it about his dreams that so shook Pharaoh and consumed him so much that he could not relax until his dreams were explained? It seemed like an innocent silly dream. What was the big deal?

Rav Shimon Schwab zt’l explained that Pharaoh’s dreams undermined his entire ideology. Pharaoh - the reigning monarch of the greatest superpower in its time - fancied himself a deity. He felt protected by his glory, prestige, and wealth. He had the whole country believing he was divine and that his monarchy was godly. In Pharaoh’s dreams, when the feeble and emaciated cows/stalks consumed the powerful healthy cows/stalks it challenged Pharaoh’s whole weltanschauung. His dream represented the notion that supremacy, vitality, and dominion were all fallible.

Pharaoh saw in these dreams a threat to his imagined omnipotence. It was horrific for Pharaoh to watch the weak overcame the strong, the repulsive vanquish the beautiful, and the healthy decimated by the famished. He desperately searched for a sagacious individual who could reassure him that he was reading the dream wrong. He wanted to hear that there could be a different meaning of his dreams that would not call his ideology into question.

With this in mind, we can appreciate the beauty of why Parshas Miketz is always read on Chanukah or just after it. The message of Chanukah is that one should not be too impressed by military might or the aesthetics of this world. The mighty Greek army with all of its military training fell into the hands of a cadre of unskilled untrained ‘fighters’. The Greek culture, with all its glamour and physical beauty, was unsuccessful in its attempts to lure the Jews away from Torah and a life of holiness.

Rav Shimshon Pinkus zt’l quipped that the greatest darkness in the world comes from light! He explained with the following analogy: Let us imagine that Reuven becomes thirsty and decides to get a drink. He goes into his kitchen and finds a glass on the counter. He isn’t sure if the glass is clean or not so he holds it up and examines it. When he sees that it is indeed clean he fills up his glass with water and drinks. It doesn’t take long before Reuven is lying on the floor howling in pain. His wife immediately dials hatzoloh as she horrifyingly realizes that Reuven used the glass that she had filled with ammonia to clean the house. Although the ammonia was used up there was still residue on the bottom of the glass which had mixed with Reuven’s water.

If we had to analyze what occurred, what would we say caused Reuven to hurt himself? When Reuven looked carefully at the glass he surmised that it was clean because he did not see anything in the glass. In other words, it was his eyes and ability to see that got him into trouble.

It is undeniable that the ancient Greeks made incredible advancements in many areas. They probed the world, intellectualized life, and analyzed every facet of creation. However, the more enlightened they became the more they drifted from their belief in G-d. The more scientifically acclaimed they became, and the more of a grasp they felt they had over the world, the more they were convinced of their own greatness and sought to convince themselves that there was no concept of a Holy Immortal True G-d. They believed in polytheism and that their gods have corporeal characteristics because that posed no direct threat to their free and, often immoral, lifestyle. So, in a sense the light of their wisdom and progressiveness blinded them from recognizing the true light of G-d and His hand in the physical world. That is why they are referred to as darkness.

We express our gratitude in the prayer Al Hanisim, “You gave over mighty into the hands of the weak, the multitudes into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, the spiteful into the hands of those who engage intensely in Your Torah.”

The miracle of Chanukah was the fruition of Pharaoh’s nightmare. It demonstrated that there is indeed a G-d above and He wills who possesses power and wealth and no one is above His discretion. It was the victory of light – the light of truth – over the darkness and limits of human logic.

“There was darkness on the face of the deep”

“Let there be light”

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[1]The following is excerpted from my book “STAM TORAH: Perspectives and Reflections on Chanukah and Purim”. [It was originally Stam Torah for parshas Miketz 5766.]

[2] later Chef Rabbi of Yerushalayim

[3] Bereishis 1:2

[4] 2:5

[5] The United States Capitol in Washington D.C. is modeled after the Greek style of architecture.

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