We Cannot Abandon Our Brother to the Pit
Can you imagine if the Chanukah story were to take place today? Would the Hasmoneans be called heroes or terrorists? Would they be lauded for saving the Temple from defilement, or be derided as religious zealots who were intolerant to modernization? Let’s try and apply a lesson from “bayamim hahem,” from those days, and see if we can apply them to “bizman hazeh,” to our times.
Only one section of Talmud discusses Chanukah in any real depth, in the second chapter of Tractate Shabbat. In the course of discussing the laws of Chanukah, the Talmud cites a halakhah taught in the name of Rabbi Tanchum (TB Shabbot 22a): “If one places their Menorah higher than 20 cubits above ground level, it is invalid.” It is necessary for people on the street to be able to see the Menorah, and if the Menorah is so high that no one can see it, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah.
The Gemara then immediately launches into another statement of Rabbi Tanchum, which seems to be completely disconnected from the previous statement, and has nothing at all to do with Chanukah: The Torah in our portion describes the pit into which the brothers threw Yoseph (37:24) “The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” “If the pit was empty, doesn’t that automatically imply that there was no water in it?! Derive from this that the pit wasn’t completely empty. There was no water in it, but there were snakes and scorpions in it.”
Imposing beliefs on others
What’s going on? Why does the Gemara feel that this non sequitur is relevant amidst a discussion of Hilchot Chanukah? Let’s consider the condition of our society today to see if we can find another answer. There’s a common refrain in today’s culture: What gives people the moral authority to impose their beliefs on others? Isn’t it annoying when someone tries to impose their beliefs upon you? Isn’t it annoying when another Jew comes along and tells you you’re not observing Judaism correctly? No one likes to be chastised or condescendingly told they’re not religious enough. “Why don’t they mind their own business?”
I can only imagine the resentment that some progressive Jews must have felt upon seeing the Hasmoneans violently reject the Greeks and their “modern modifications” to our holy places. “Who are you to tell me how to practice Judaism? I’m happy with the Greek innovations; why are you throwing us backwards?” This is one of the reasons why Hashem introduced an overt miracle to the Chanukah story. When the priests brought out the Menorah to the public and showed everyone how the oil of one day miraculously kept on going, they were quelling the internal protests of those Jews who felt that the Hasmonean revolt was wrong. The Hasmoneans accomplished their message by demonstrating to others that Hashem was with them in restoring the Temple to its traditional mode.
The Chanukiah: A message of love
When we light the Menorah and place it in our windows or doorways, we are unquestionably sending a message to the entire world. But we’re also sending a message to our fellow Jews. That message is one of love: I care for you and I want to share my traditions with you. You may feel that this is an archaic practice that commemorates something that doesn’t resonate at all with you, but I wish to show you differently. Chanukah is still relevant in my life and it can be in yours, too. “Tradition” is not a dirty word, but is something you should embrace with me. I’m not chastising or berating, merely sharing my light with you and teaching by example.
But still: “Why don’t you mind your own business?” Because if I don’t share my Menorah light with you, in all likelihood you will succumb to the prevailing attitudes of the world around you, which is to reject God, reject religion, and reject tradition. If I don’t care about you, who will?
When the brothers initially thought to kill Yoseph outright, Revuen protested and suggested that they instead throw him in a pit. Some commentaries understand that Reuven was essentially arguing: We should not proactively harm Yoseph. Let’s just throw him in the pit and leave it up to God to decide what his fate will be. This way, the blood will not be on our hands. Even though Reuven only made his point as a straw argument in order to later save Yoseph from the pit, the other brothers thought his argument was sound.
The light of the Chanukah candles
But this is where they were wrong. “The pit was empty of water, but it still contained snakes and scorpions.” That is, don’t think that by being passive and leaving someone to their own devices you can feel you’re innocent of any wrongdoing. When there’s no water in the pit, when there’s not Torah in the general society, you are condemning the other to be indoctrinated by the prevailing values of where you have abandoned them.
That is why we all have a mandate to reach out and try to help others find their way. I can’t just say, “It’s not my business, let them do what they want.” By leaving them in the waterless “pit” of the outside world, I’m consigning them to be consumed by the “snakes and scorpions” of that world. Just as I have to share my Menorah light with others, I must be aware that if I don’t share my light, if I light it too “high” for others to access, I’m condemning my brother or sister to potential oblivion in a world that disdains that light.
That is why Rabbi Tanchum’s two statements align with each other, and why it’s no coincidence that we always read the Yoseph story around Chanukah. We are our brother’s keeper, and we must continue to care and try to seek our brother and sister out, and bring them home to the religion of their parents and grandparents. As Yoseph so properly stated when looking for his brothers in the field (37:16), “אֶת־אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ” – “I just seek my brethren.”
Sharing the light
We are losing Jews to assimilation at a precipitous rate. It’s not only Jews from non-Orthodox homes, but young Jews from our own homes are also checking out. We need to do whatever we can to seek out our brethren. That is one of the integral messages of Chanukah, to share our light with others.
One of the silver linings to the very dark cloud of the Gaza war is that Jews have become much more unified. One of the focal points of that reunification has been a return to tradition. Jews realize that if the world hates us, we need to return to the source, to our origin point, and regain whatever it is that made us a people in the first place. We are also seeing a reduction in the resentment factor that had turned people away from tradition in the past. The light that emanates from every Jewish home is palpable, and we are feeling each other’s love.
May our living the Torah by example provide ample light to others and bring the light of the ultimate Redemption, bb”a.