Saturday, December 24, 2011

Chanukah - One Spark

The battle of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days are often treated as discrete phenomena. What after all does a military victory have to do with oil burning for eight days. The Al Hanissim prayer hardly mentions the miracle of the oil, instead it focuses on the military victory in the following terms. "Gibborim beyad Halashim veRabim BeYad Meatim", the strong fell into the hands of the weak and the many into the hands of the few. Only then could the lights be lit in the holy temple.

Last week's parsha, Parshas Vayeishev begins with a curious Rashi. After the previous parsha's conclusion had described the descendants of Edom and all the kings of Edom who had ruled before a single king had ruled in Israel, Parshas Vayeishev mentions the Toldos of Yaakov as being Yosef. And the Rashi uses a parable to explain that.

A flax merchant led a caravan of camels through the street loaded with flax. A blacksmith standing by the side of his small shop wondered out loud, "Anah yikones kol hapishtan hazeh?" Where will all this flax go. There's no room for it.

"Hayah pikeach echad meishiv lo," "One wise man told him", "Nitotz echad", one spark emerging from your forge would burn it all. But what kind of answer is this? The blacksmith wants to know where all the flax will go, and the supposed wise man tells him that a spark from his forge would destroy it. That doesn't answer his question.

Yet Rashi brings this down to explain the long list of Edomite kings in relation to Yaakov's much smaller family. "Mi yachol likevosh et kulon?" Yaakov wondered. And so Rashi quotes Ovadiah, "Vehayah Beit Yaakov Eish, uBeit Yosef Lehavah". And the House of Jacob will be flame and the House of Yosef a firestorm.

Often enough Jewish leaders had a similar reaction to confronting a massive empire. When the descendants of Yaakov left Egypt, the Meraglim toured the land and pulled back asserting that no one could possibly conquer it. Yehoshua, who was a descendant of Beit Yosef, asserted that with divine help we could. He was one of two men, a minority within a group from a small nation, and yet forty years later, Nitzotz Echad, that one spark consumed the land of Canaan.

A few centuries before Chanukah the Persian Empire decided to give the order for all its conquered peoples to wipe out the Jews. And at the gate sat one descendant of Binyamin. And when all of Haman's plans had come to naught, his wife and advisers warned him, "Im Mizera HaYehudim Mordechai HaYehudi Asher Hinhalta Linfol Lefanav, Lo Tuchal Lo Ki Nafal Tipol Lefanav". And the viceroy of the Persian Empire failed to prevail against that one spark.

Once again on Chanukah the few faced off against the many, against the forces of an empire and its collaborators. How could they possibly prevail against it? Like the poor blacksmith they stood studying the caravans of flax and wondering where it would all fit. But this was the advice of the wise man. The nature of flax is different than the nature of fire. A single spark outweighs all the flax.

Maccabee stood for Mi Kamocha Baeilim Hashem, their battlecry was Mi LeHashem Eilai. That spark was what consumed the flax. It was what burned for eight days. Flax is inert. Once it is loaded on a camel it is another dead substance. But flame has energy. As long as it is exposed to air then it is attached to its source of life.

Evil is described as already dead. "Reshoim Behayeichem Kruim Meitim, Tzaddikim BeMitatam Kruim Chayim" The wicked are considered dead even while alive and the good are considered alive even while dead. Yaakov was considered alive even after death, while Esav was considered dead even while alive. Why is that? Because evil has cut itself off from the source of life that is G-d, while good remains attached to it even in death. That is the source of the Nitotz Echad that can burn oil for eight days or armies of empires alike.

Time and time again the Nitotz Echad has emerged and the flax has gone up in flames, whether it is the armies of Sancheriv or the armies of seven arab nations. It takes only a single spark to rout evil. But the important thing is to remember it is there.

The enraptured blacksmith was too busy looking at the scale of the flax to realize its nature and to remember the flame that he possessed. It took the Pikeach, the wise man whose eyes were open, to remind him of him that. While you stand gazing at the flax, back in your shack is a flame that will put all that flax to shame, that would consume it all if you only remembered what it is capable of.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Parshas Beshalach - Through the Word of G-d

Moshe's leadership of the Jews in the wilderness is bookended by two incidents, that in Parshas Beshalach after the Jews have left Egypt when the people clamor for water and toward the end of their journey through the wilderness in Parshas Chukas where once again the people clamor for water.

What does water represent? Life. While people can survive for a time without food, they cannot live at all without water. Especially in a desert. Food is therefore livelihood and the manna represented explicitly livelihood, which is why it was not harvested on the Shabbat. But no such stipulation was made for the well. People always need water. Water is life.

The journey through the wilderness was a journey of faith. By depending on G-d for their life and their livelihood, their water and their food, they were meant to learn faith. Demanding water from Moshe both times demonstrated a lack of faith.

In Parshas Beshalach, we are told that they journeyed Al Pi Hashem, on the word of G-d. And so when they demand water, Moshe berates them for testing G-d. But in Parshas Chukas, there is no mention of G-d in their arrival. Yet when the people demand water, they call themselves Kahal Hashem, the congregation of G-d. After all these years, the people had come to see themselves not as a mob, but as a Godly congregation. So while both times it says Vayarev Ha'am, but in Chukas it says VaYekahalu, which means that they assembled as an assembly.

And so in these two times, G-d calls on Moshe to carry out two similar but different miracles, based on the context. The first He tells Moshe to strike the rock. The second time to speak to it.

What is the difference? To strike a rock is a wonder, similar to those that Moshe performed for the children of Israel. And a wonder has to be performed for people who lack faith and need a visible show that G-d is powerful and that Moshe is his servant. This is the Mofait or the wonder. But toward the end of their journey, the people of Israel had become elevated enough that they did not need a wonder in order to believe in G-d, they needed a sign that their journey was still being done Al Pi Hashem. Through the word of G-d.

And so G-d told Moshe to speak to the rock with the Pi Hashem, not to strike it. But Moshe was angered, and called the people of Israel rebels, treating them as if they lacked the faith for a sign and deserved nothing more than a wonder, and struck the rock instead.

When G-d reproves Moshe, He says, "Lo Heemantem Bi", not that the people of Israel did not believe in me, but you did not believe in me.

We are told that the first incident took place in Midbar Sin, the sin desert, while the second incident took place in Midbar Tzin, the desert of Tzin. Samech and Tzaddek are only a few letters apart in the aleph bet. The numerical difference between them is 30. But Sin is spelled with a Yud adding another ten. And so the difference between them is twenty or chaf.

Add the Chaf to Sin and you end up with Pe or Pi, the mouth of G-d. The difference between the two incidents was that the people needed the Word of G-d, not to be struck with a staff.

Both places are named after strife. Rephidim and Mei Meriva both suggest conflict. But there's still a difference. Kadesh was the location, and though there was strife over the waters, the Mei Meriva, when the section is completed, we are told that the place name derives not from the waters, but from something else. VaYeKadesh Bam. Though the people of Israel were still lacking, G-d was still sanctified through them.

The difference between striking a rock and speaking to it may seem like a small thing, but it is the same as the difference between striking and speaking to a human being. It's easy to resort to the stick, but G-d is made holy through the word.