Joseph, Natan Sharansky, and a Hanukkah Miracle for Our Time

Dec. 14 2015

The yearly cycle of readings from the Torah is arranged so that the story in Genesis of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams almost always coincides with Hanukkah. Dore Feith elicits from this reading a hidden message about the holiday and relates it to the story of how the Israeli public figure Natan Sharansky, as an imprisoned Soviet dissident in the 1980s, succeeded in lighting a menorah in the Gulag:

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams by explaining that the seven fat cows and seven healthy sheaves represented years of plenty, or satiety, while the seven lean cows and seven ill-looking sheaves represented years of famine. The roots of the Hebrew words for “seven” and “satiety” are nearly identical, and they are written identically in the Torah’s un-vocalized text. The two words appear next to each other several times, suggesting a relationship between the notion of satisfaction and the number seven.

The number seven signifies wholeness in nature. . . . Though we usually associate Hanukkah with the number eight, the miracle’s essence relates to the number seven, not eight. The Maccabees expected the oil to burn for just 24 hours, so [arguably] the first day was unremarkable.

But there’s a further lesson. By recalling the miracle of Hanukkah, we can recall, and appreciate, the satisfaction experienced both by the Jews of biblical times and by modern Jews who have witnessed the formation and rise of the state of Israel: [then and now], there was, in fact, a profound happiness—or, satisfaction—that came with winning national freedom against terrible odds. . . .

This point is driven home by a story of another Jew who, like the biblical Joseph, advanced on the path from prison to a high seat in government. Like Joseph, Natan Sharansky, who was charged with spying for the United States, was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. . . . In his memoir . . . Sharansky describes one Hanukkah in which he managed to light a makeshift hanukkiah in his cell until the guards confiscated it on the sixth night. In protest, Sharansky declared a hunger strike. . . .

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More about: Genesis, Hanukkah, Joseph, Natan Sharansky, Religion & Holidays, Soviet Jewry

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays