Friday, December 11, 2009

Parshat Vayeshev and Chanukah - פרשת וישב וחג חנוכה

"וַתָּסַר בִּגְדֵי אַלְמְנוּתָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וַתְּכַס בַּצָּעִיף וַתִּתְעַלָּף, וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם, אֲשֶׁר עַל-דֶּרֶךְ תִּמְנָתָה: כִּי רָאֲתָה, כִּי-גָדַל שֵׁלָה, וְהִוא, לֹא-נִתְּנָה לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה - And she put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she was not given unto him to wife."

Thus starts the intriguing and almost puzzling episode of Tamar, the widowed wife of Yehudah's son, Er. Prior to this Pasuk, Er had passed away and so, following the Jewish law of Yibum, whereby a childless widow is married off to her husband's brother, (ostensibly so that the family name may continue into future generations,) Tamar was then married to Onan. Because Onan failed to reproduce with her, Hashem had him killed.

At this point, Yehudah regarded Tamar as being accursed and was reluctant to hand her over to his remaining son, Shelah. Yehudah advises Tamar to behave like a widow until Shelah grows up, but when he does, Yehudah still refuses to allow Tamar and Shelah to marry.

The next part of the text seems highly controversial - after Yehudah's wife dies, Tamar acts in a rather peculiar manner; she "put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah." As we read on, we understand that Tamar concealed herself as a prostitute and seduced Yehudah. To the causal reader, this appears to be bizarre behaviour. What on earth is going on?

To understand this passage, we need to know who Tamar was. Tamar was no ordinary woman - she was of fine stock; the daughter of Shem, and a Prophetess in her own right. As such, Tamar was an exceedingly great individual, and to imagine that her thoughts and actions were base would be a gross misjudgement.

Rather, Tamar knew that she was to be one of the ancestors of Mashiach. When she did not have children with her first husband, and then her second, she was deeply worried. When Shelah wasn't even married to her, Tamar knew that she had to take matters into her own hands. According to one opinion, this state of affairs occured as a result of the effors of the angels attempt to prevent the Mashiach from being born, (apparently, they were concerned by his tremendous holiness,) and so it had to be done in the lowest form possible, in a manner that would "slip under the radar."

Tamar knew that she had to was part of the chain that led to the birth of Moshiach, and as such, she strove to ensure that this happened. Even though her action constituted prostitution, the ideal and the manner in which she did the deed was on the very highest level. Another aspect to be understood is learned by tracing the geneology of our Mashiach. In contrast to other religions, our Messiah is not immaculate; he is the polar opposite of a pure-blooded Messiah; he comes from a rather dubious background indeed. His lineage is shadowed and shameful: his father descended from Moab, a product of incest between Lot and his daughter after Sodom's destruction, and this chain goes all way down to Ruth, of whom he is a direct descendant of Ruth. Again, Ruth is no "pure-blood" either; she is a convert to Judaism. The lesson we may learn from all of this is that although some of the components leading up to King David and Mashiach are rather "shady," we see that this does not prevent their seed reaching the highest heights. I find this lesson particularly apt, given that Parshat Vayeshev always occurs in close proximity to Chanukah - the shared lesson is that out of the deepest darkness comes the greatest light.

Rav Avigdor Nevenzahl, former rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, raises an intriguing question about the Chanukah story. To perform the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah, two things were needed: שמן זית (pure oil) and the מנורת הזהב (The Golden Menorah). In the Chaunkah story, the magnificent Menorah of gold was stolen by the Greeks and although the Maccebees managed to take back the Bet Hamikdash, they were stuck without this glorious artefact.

As such, they were forced to make do with an impromptu, temporary solution; the Maccabees took their spears and cast them into a rudimentary menorah and a replacement forged of tin-coated-iron was made. Only years layer could the Jews replace this with an higher quality silver Menorah, and only decades afterward di they finally exchange this for a splendid Golden Menorah that was worthy of its place in the Bet Hamikdash

The question that Rav Nevenzahl poses is that if God decided to show the Jews where the last bottle of pure oil was hidden, why didn't He similarly produce another miracule whereby the Menorah would have been revealed to the Jews' eyes so that the oil would be utilised in the proper manner?

Rav Nevenzahl's answers by examining the qualities of the two components of the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah. One part is the pure olive oil, and the other is Menorah itself. The Golden Menorah was an emblem of physical beauty, and signified all that which is external. A menorah is only good for lighting as long as it has candles or oil in it. While it might be nice to look at, it serves no real purpose. The pure olive oil, on the other hand, represented a more refined type of beauty - it was the spiritual ingredient and was symbolic of that which is internal. So, says Rav Nevenzahl, the miracle of Chanukah was "limited" to the finding of the oil, and not to the finding of the Menorah. Through His actions, Hashem sent out a crucial message - that the inner, the more spiritual, is always more important than the outer, more basic and physical. Whereas the Greeks and the Helenists valued physical beauty, Hashem showed the Jews that real beauty will always out.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Urim Sameach!

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