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Chanukah: Why Light Candles and Ignore the War?
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So in response to that question, let’s explore together two little bits of classic Jewish text. The first is a little piece from the story of Joseph. It’s interesting that the Torah portion that we read at Chanukah time, is the story of Joseph. I think hidden in this story, is a little piece of Chanukah too. The idea I am about to tell you was shared with by a Psychologist in Chicago by the name of Jerry Lowe. I had the good fortune of staying over at his house one weekend, and he shared with me a thought from Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz that goes like this: Chapter 37 of the Book of Genesis tells us the very difficult and painful story of the sale of Joseph. Right at the climactic moment, the Torah tells us that the Ishmaelite traders who picked up Joseph, hauled him out of the pit, and took him down to Egypt, bringing him into a life of servitude, were carrying a certain kind of cargo, they were carrying nechot utzri valot, “various different kinds of incense”. Why do I need to know that fact? Who cares what the cargo of the Ishmaelite traders was?
So in response, Rashi quotes a midrash that suggests that the incense was there so that Joseph, as he was taken down to Egypt, should have some nice smells to accompany him. The itinerant traders of the time, the midrash says, was often take really foul smelling stuff, but this time, it was beautiful incense that they were taking. Joseph should have a nice trip down to Egypt; something good to smell along the way. That’s what Rashi says. So Jerry relates to me Rabbi Shmuelevitz’s question: “Are you for real? Joseph cares about the incense? It’s the worst day of his life, every last thing is going wrong. The incense is a very small consolation prize, wouldn’t you say? It’s a trivial consultation prize; an unnecessary one. And,” Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz says, “that’s actually the entire point of the midrash. It’s conveying to you something of the essence of an unnecessary miracle.”
This is the day that everything changes for Joseph. If good fortune had seemed to smile on Joseph for the first seventeen years of his life, here was, second in charge to his father that all completely gets destroyed in an instant when he is stripped of his clothes, thrown into a pit and then sold off as a slave to Egypt. You can imagine, what it like was to scream out as your clothes were stripped of you, to cry out for your father who is not there, for help from your bothers who won’t give it and then you turn to God, but wherever he turns, ever single door is closed. The answer is just “no, no, no”. That’s the context in which you have to understand the incense. Rabbi Shmuelevitz says, “It was God’s way of saying ‘right here in that darkest of time, I am still here with you. I cannot answer your prayers the way you want them to be answered right now. Here is what I can give you, a little bit of incense, fragrant smell.’ It says, If nothing else, you are not alone. If I can’t offer you the protection that you want now, at least I could offer you my presence. Despite appearances, I am here with you now.” And that is the enduring meaning of that incense.
When Jerry finished telling me this, he mentioned that in his practice, his therapy practice, when people come to him during very, very dark times in their own lives, he sometimes tell them about this comment of Rashi, this interpretation, and he asks them this question, “Yes, every door is closed, but do you see any incense?” And often they answer, “Yes”, they do. And there is some comfort to be found there. The pain is just as painful, the tragedy is just as tragic, but if I am not alone, then it’s the miracle of the light all over again.
And now let me take you into one last piece of text. There is a blessing at the end of the end of grace after meals, it’s called Hatov Vehametiv, “the God who is good and who does good”. This blessing, the Torah records, was instituted by the Rabbis after the burial of Harugei Betar, “those who were killed at the fortress of Betar”. In this blessing of Hatov Vehametiv is another one of these little unnecessary miracles in times of tragedy, a miracle that’s kind of like Joseph’s incense, but it occurs for a whole nation.
The fortress of Betar was the great last stand of the Bar Kokhba revolt. The rebellion of Bar Kokhba against Rome took place about sixty years after the destruction of the second temple. And Bar Kokhba initially won some successes in battle, he got this triumphant name Bar Kokhba, ‘Son of the Star’. For about two years, he actually managed to establish kind of a mini state, a nascent independent Jewish state in the shadow of Rome; but it was brutally crushed.
Now when we think of Jewish tragedy in those days, we often think of the destruction of the second temple that happened about sixty years later at the hands of Titus. But the truth is, as devastating as the loss of the second temple was, the crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt, was probably even more significant. Over five hundred thousand people were killed; many thousands more were sold as slaves. If you take into account the comparative size of the Jewish population at the time, this was a Holocaust level event. Adrian, the Roman Emperor at the time, he was incensed by it. He displaced six full Roman legions, along with auxiliary troops to crush it, until they finally won the day. Adrian felt that the revolt had the support of the Rabbinic authorities, and because of this he waged a ruthless law not just against the military leaders, but against any vestige of Judaism within Judea.
In the aftermath of the revolt, Jews were entirely banned from entering Jerusalem, the city was renamed Aelia Capitolina, a temple to Jupiter was erected on the ruins of the second temple. Even the name Palestine itself, dates back to the new name the Romans gave Judea; a name designed to erase all remnants of Jewish presence from the land. The last stand of the Bar Kokhba revolt took place at a fortress outside of Jerusalem called Betar. Upon its capture, the Romans took no prisoners, they massacred everyone. The Roman fury was so great that when it was all over, they didn’t even initially allowed any Jews into Betar to bury the dead. And so Betar remained the ghost town, with the corpses of his defenders laying there outside in the sun.
Finally, the Romans relented, and allowed compatriots of the fallen to come into Betar and to bury the victims of the massacre. When they arrived, they found something astonishing; despite the passage of time, none of the bodies had decomposed. The bodies were able to be buried with dignity.
Now put yourself in the shoes for a moment, of a member of the burial delegation who entered Betar at that moment, this will stand to be the darkest moment of Jewish history for the next thousand years. Everything is gone, all the hopes of the Bar Kokhba revolt. Hundreds of thousand is dead. The revitalization of the Jewish state, independence, freedom; it’s all gone. Israel is virtually destroyed as a center for Jewish life. All the prayers for a Jewish nation had gone to naught. The answer from above is “no”. But there as one little miracle, an unnecessary miracle. What good did it really do? But the sages took note of that miracle and the response was to make this blessing Hatov Vehametiv – “the one who is good and who bestows good”; they saw in this a little spark of goodness.
It’s not that they didn’t see the darkness, the pain, the tragedy, the suffering; they saw of that, but they still spoke of good. Hu hetiv, in the past he did good. Grace after meals speaks of the glorious time when God gave them a land that would provide for them, and that was good. And it looks forward to a future hu yetiv, “that he will do good for us”. A future when uvenei Yerushalayim, “Jerusalem will be rebuilt”, when that goodness will be revitalized once again. But the Rabbis who made this blessing were confronted with a problem in the present; is there good now in the blackest of times? They saw in that miracle that the dead could be buried in dignity; a little bit of Joseph’s incense. A little bit of Chanukah’s lights. And they say, “Yes, there is good in the present too”.
Had good been entirely absent in the present, we could wonder whether our link with the goodness of the past has been severed, and there would be no hope for goodness in the future. But that’s not the case. There is goodness in the present, there is this little unnecessary miracle. God did not save us this time, but he was there with us and that itself is a kind of goodness too. That’s the legacy of these unnecessary miracles. At Betar, with Joseph’s incense, with Chanukah’s light; it’s true in tragedy and it’s true in triumph. There is a kind of miracle whose main purpose is simply to drive away the dark, even for an instant, to give you the comfort of accompaniment in your darkest hour. A comfort that means hope for a better future is not absurd, but is to be firmly grasped your God has not, has never, abandoned you.
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