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Parshas Mikeitz (5771)

The Most Famous (Torah) Question of All Time

Rabbi Yosef Caro, in his commentary Beis Yosef on the Tur Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim chapter 670, asks what is arguably the most famous Torah question ever. Well over 100 (!) answers to this question have been suggested by various rabbis ever since Rabbi Caro first asked it in the 1500’s!

Here’s the setup for the question: Everyone knows the story of the Chanukah miracle. In the 2nd century BCE, during the Syrian-Greek occupation of the Holy Land, the Jews were being persecuted by the bad guys, who entered the Temple in Jerusalem and defiled all the oil that was there to be used to kindle the Menorah (Candelabrum). When the great Hasmoneans, led by Judah Maccabee, miraculously defeated the Greek army on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kisleiv, they rushed into the Temple to salvage whatever they could. All they could find was one tiny flask of olive oil that had enough oil to burn for only one night. A miracle occurred and "the little flask that couldn't" burned for eight nights. For this reason we light the Menorah for eight consecutive nights to commemorate this great miracle which G-d performed for the Jewish nation. [To read the whole story of Chanukah, click on:]

Now here’s the question: If there was enough olive oil to burn for the whole first night, then the miracle only occurred on the next seven nights. Why then is Chanukah, the holiday which commemorates that miracle, celebrated for eight nights?

The Beis Yosef himself offers three possible answers. One of them is that in the evening the Hasmoneans poured the entire cruse of oil into the Menorah and kindled it. In the morning, they were amazed to find that after burning the entire night the cups were still filled with oil! Thus, on the first night a miracle had already occurred.

Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik of Brisk takes issue with this answer due to a technicality – the Halachah (Jewish law) requires that only pure oil that comes from an olive is suitable for use in the Menorah, and not oil that comes from a miracle!

Rabbi Yosef Mordechai Baumol ZT”L, once suggested the following unique approach to answering this question:

In the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Torah relates that Moses was shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro in the wilderness, when he came upon a strange site. He saw a bush burning, yet the bush was not consumed by the fire (see Exodus 3:1-4). The Torah then tells us that G-d called out to Moses from amid the bush, and revealed Himself to him.

From this story we see that ‘heavenly’ fire differs from ‘earthly’ fire. Whereas ‘earthly’ fire has two properties – it illuminates yet it also consumes and destroys, ‘heavenly’ fire - the kind which G-d used at the Burning Bush - only illuminates but does not consume.

With this in mind, we now return to the answer that the Beis Yosef gave to his own question, i.e., that the miracle that occurred on the first night was that after burning the entire night the cups were still filled with oil. Yet here’s the twist… It wasn’t the oil that came back miraculously the following morning, for then the oil would technically be disqualified for use in the Menorah since only oil derived from olives may be used and not oil derived from a miracle. Rather, the miracle was that when the Hasmoneans lit the Menorah, a miraculous ‘heavenly fire’ came down for them – the kind that gives light and illuminates yet does not consume and destroy. Thus even on the first night there was a miracle that the oil lit the entire night and was never consumed by the heavenly fire.

I think that this is a very powerful lesson for all of us as we celebrate the Festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the victory of the ‘light’ of Torah over the ‘darkness’ of Greece.

You see, the ancient Greeks and many others like them throughout history sought to enlighten the world with their contributions in the fields of art, science, philosophy, etc. At the same time, the Jewish people have also endeavored – as part of our national mission – to bring light to the world through the illuminating teachings of the Torah.

And both have changed the world in numerous significant ways. As Sir Winston Churchill once wrote: “No other two races have set such a mark upon the world. Each of them from angles so different has left us with the inheritance of its genius and wisdom. No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Personally, I have always been on the side of both.”

Yet even though Churchill claimed to be on the side of both Athens and Jersualem (typical politician!), the major theme of the holiday of Chanukah is the celebration of the victory of our Torah over Greek philosophy – which means that, in certain ways, these two worldviews are really on opposite sides. The fundamental difference between Greek enlightenment and the Jewish religion is that theirs is a homo-centric world, revolving around Man and Nature, while our world is theo-centric, revolving around G-d and His Torah. And this difference changes everything.

[This clash between the primacy of Man versus the primacy of G-d has been around for millennia and is not going away anytime soon. In fact, this past weekend in Toronto, we had the Monk Debates in which former British-Prime-Minister-turned-Catholic Tony Blair debated with outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens on whether or not religion is a force for good in the world.]

So if both sides lay claim to being the true ‘light’, how can the Rabbis who instituted Chanukah be so sure that our fire burns brighter and that theirs is really darkness? Who is to say which light is ‘heavenly’, i.e. it emanates from a spiritual place and is a true force for good in this world, and which light is ‘earthly’, i.e. it comes from a physical place and is ultimately selfish and self-serving?

The answer is that we need to examine the source of that light – if it illuminates yet it doesn’t destroy, then you can be sure that it is heavenly. But if it destroys and consumes even as it gives light, then it is certainly from the earth.

When we take a look at the personal lives of those who claim to be “enlightened”, what do we find? Do they live up to that which they preach to others – or do they consume and destroy anyone who comes between them and that which they seek and desire?

In a fascinating book titled Intellectuals, Paul Johnson explores the lives of many “intellectuals” whose influence during the twentieth century has been strong. He includes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell and many more - all the way to Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. Their lives are often shocking and embarrassing, and in many cases Johnson makes a strong argument that their intellectual contributions are seriously undermined by certain personal details. Rousseau, for example, was a major figure of the French enlightenment, but the record reveals that he was a contemptible, perverted monster. Marx argued that socialism and communism were scientific doctrines, but the record reveals that he performed no research, never observed an industrial concern—never went to a mine or a factory in his life—falsified facts in many important places, and flew into a tyrannical rage whenever he was challenged for these things. And the list goes on and on.

Each and every one of these so-called “enlightened” intellectuals, while publicly espousing great philosophical ideas and moral teachings, privately lived selfish lives in which they consumed and destroyed everyone and everything that got in their way.

Now let’s take a look at the private life of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, a famous rabbi who lived in Jerusalem and who brought the light of Torah to the masses for more than half a century and who died only 15 years ago:

Reb Shlomo Zalman married Chaya Rivka Ruchamkin, the daughter of Rabbi Chaim Leib Ruchamkin, in the year 1929. The sublime relationship that existed between Reb Shlomo Zalman and his wife was revealed by his astounding words at her funeral in 1983: “Although it is customary to ask forgiveness from the deceased,” he said, "I shall not do so. Throughout our entire marriage (54 years!) we never offended or hurt one another. We conducted our lives according to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), and I have no reason to ask her forgiveness."

This amazing statement made by Reb Shlomo Zalman could only be the result of his living a life of Torah which allowed him to give light to others but never to destroy them.

And from all of the biographies that I have read about other great Torah scholars throughout the centuries and millennia, it is absolutely clear to me that the source of their light was heavenly – and that their personal lives were full of light and goodness and entirely devoid of selfishness and destruction. [Of course, there will be always be exceptions to every rule, but, by and large, I believe what I am saying is true.]

This Chanukah, as the Jewish people once again celebrate the victory of Torah light over Greek darkness, let us take pride in the unbelievable track record we have as a nation in illuminating the world for the past 3300 years with the ‘heavenly fire’ and beautiful teachings of our Holy Torah.


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