Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Rabbi Yaakov Haber

VaYeishev and Chanuka : A Different Outlook on the World

After Yehuda's tragic loss of both his wife and two of his children, the Torah describes his encounter with Tamar, his former daughter-in-law - whom he refused to allow to marry his third son, Shaila - disguised as a harlot. Midrashim and commentaries offer widely diverse interpretations of this apparently unseemly act. (See Rambam (Hilchos Ishus 1:4) and the classic Mikra'ot G'dolot commentaries.) One famous Midrash posits that Yehuda instinctively turned away from this mysterious woman, only to be drawn back by a supernatural desire placed within him in order to set the stage for the birth of two children who would, by their peculiar birth, be a harbinger for the eventual redemption of Israel (see 38:28-30 and Rashi there), and one of whom would be the ancestor of the Melech HaMashicach, the anointed redeemer of B'nai Yisrael.. In the words of the Midrash (B'raishis Rabba 85):

"R. Yochanan stated: He wanted to pass [her] by, but Hashem placed sent him the angel appointed over desire. He [Hashem] said to him: 'Where are you going, Yehuda? From where will kings arise? From where will redeemers emerge?' 'And he turned to her on the road...' - against his will and better judgment."

On a simple plane, the Midrash describes how, often unknown to us, Hashem guides us on the correct path toward our destiny, even if sometimes in mysterious ways. In light of the fact that Yehuda's act, before the Torah was given, was permissible (see above cited Rambam) even if unseemly, the utilization by Hashem of this encounter for producing righteous children from two righteous parents from the seed of Yehuda who was to father the Davidic dynasty - once Yehuda refused to allow Tamar to marry his son, Sheila - is understandable.

On a metaphorical plane, perhaps this Midrash informs us of a deeper lesson as well. R. Bachya ibn Pakuda, in his classic Chovot Ha'L'vavot (Sha'ar 'Avodas Ha'Elokim 2) describes the tension of body and soul. The soul, from a higher, spiritual world, where it only cleaved intensely to its Creator, strives to separate itself from all physicality and leave the mundane, disappointing, shallow, dark world behind. The body does not allow it to do so. It craves this world, its physical pleasures and its mundane pursuits. These physical desires, states R. Bachya, assure that Man will survive on this world by pursuing his craving for food and will produce additional generations by pursuing marriage. We can expand on R. Bachya's approach. Many sources indicate that the whole purpose of the soul's descent to this world is the creation of this tension between body and soul. To be holy in an all spiritual environment is easy. To engage a physical world masking a deeper reality and sanctity and elevate every mundane desire and activity by using them as a vehicle to connect to one's Creator is the supreme calling of the combined soul-body entity. Perhaps the above Midrash highlights this same theme. "Yehuda," Hashem calls out, "do you seek to divorce yourself from the physical aspects of the world? Can you realize your mission solely with spiritual contemplation?" To this question, the Midrash answers a resounding: No! The human being must engage the world and elevate its passions and drives for a higher calling.

Another R. B'chaye (ben Asher), in his commentary on the Torah, makes a related statement. On the passage "v'ahavta eis Hashem Elokecha" - "and you should love Hashem, your G-d" (D'varim 6:5), he asks why the Torah did not use the more intense "v'chashakta BaShem Elokecha" - "and you should crave (or desire) Hashem, your G-d". To this question, he answers that cheishek leaves no room for any other desire or love. Ahava allows for other loves as well. Since Man, in order to survive and serve Hashem with every aspect of his existence, must also pursue food, money, and marriage, he must "make room" for other loves in his life besides G-d and love G-d above all of them. This statement is truly shocking! In light of the above, I believe R. B'chaye's remarks can be amplified by stressing that it is precisely through these vehicles of engaging the world in a pure, dedicated way geared ultimately toward Divine service that one arrives at the ultimate, unadulterated love of G-d. Rav Soloveitchik once stated in a lecture that it is through the love of a spouse that one ultimately comes to the love of G-d. Through the finite one arrives at the infinite!

Another Talmudic passage (Kiddushin 30b) also sheds light on this same broad theme. "Barasi yeitzer hara, barasi lo Torah tavlin" - "I created the Evil Inclination; I create the Torah as its antidote!" Whereas the word tavlin is usually translated as antidote, its literal meaning is "spice or flavoring." How is the Torah the spice for the Yeitzer Hara?! A Chassidic giant explained that the "ikkar is the Yeitzer Hara; the Torah guides its application!" In other words, human drives, desires, and ambitions cause the person to engage the world, strive for greatness, yearn for goals and aspirations. The Torah informs us as to how to channel these same urges for a higher purpose.

The upcoming festival of Chanuka is normally associated with the victory of the spirit over the physical, the family of Kohanim over the paganistic Greeks, the Torah outlook over the diametrically opposed Hellenistic outlook. Indeed, Levush explains why the Shulchan 'Aruch (670:2) rules that festive meals eaten during Chanuka do not have the status of se'udot mitzva. Since the danger was a spiritual one and the victory was of a spiritual nature, we celebrate in a purely spiritual way with the lighting of the menora symbolizing the light of Torah. In the events leading up to Purim, by contrast, the danger was physical, and the salvation was a physical one. Hence, we celebrate in a physical way through a meal of thanksgiving. However, other pos'kim quoted by Rema maintain that meals eaten during Chanuka do have the status of se'udot mitzva and certainly if shirot v'tishbachot are sung and offered at these meals. Perhaps our approach above helps explain this view. The Jews rising up against the Hellenistic Greeks - famous for their glorification of the body alone and for the hedonistic pursuit of bodily pleasure for the sake of pleasure itself - were fighting to reestablish the message of a Torah lifestyle in Israel. This lifestyle urges us to elevate the physical by channeling all aspects of life for a higher calling which is exactly the message of a se'udat mitzva. Perhaps this also explains the practice of eating latkes and sufganiyot, or, more generally, foods cooked in oil. By using food to commemorate the miracle of the oil of the menora and express our thanksgiving to Hashem, we elevate the most basic of human activities - eating - and inject it with additional meaning. May the renewed sensitivity which Chanuka brings to kiddush hachomer - sanctifying the material - remain with us throughout the year!

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