Thursday, December 21, 2006

Halachic Process? In Your Dreams!

Every year we read Parshat Mikeitz on Shabbat Chanukah. Biblical commentators and pulpit rabbis have expounded on the Mikeitz/Chanukah connection for centuries and their ideas are many and varied. But there is always room for an original take.

The daily service in the Holy Temple revolved around several pieces of “furniture.” It goes without saying that there’s more to Temple furniture than aesthetic design or feng shui. Each piece has a specific message.

It is well established in Midrashic and Kabbalistic literature that the Temple is a microcosm of creation. It follows that the Temple furniture would represent G-d's gifts to His people and humanity. Probably the most famous of the Temple’s furnishings, the Menorah has long served as a symbol of the Jews and Judaism. What does it symbolize?

The easy answer would be to say that the Menorah symbolizes Torah. After all, we do have verses like these: “A mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23) and “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path” (Psalms 119:105). Unfortunately, Torah is already taken. The Holy Ark must represent the Torah for it contains the Tablets. These Tablets, received by Moshe from G-d atop Mt. Sinai, have the Ten Commandments engraved upon them. Undoubtedly, it is the Holy Ark that represents the gift of Torah.

Well then, we are back to our question. What does the Menorah represent?

The Netziv (R. Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817-1893) resolves this difficulty by pointing out that there are actually two Torahs. There is, of course, the written Torah, the Bible text. But then there is another Torah, the Torah SheBa’al Peh, the Oral Tradition. Taught to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, the teachings of the oral tradition explain the written Torah and provide legal definitions of the mitzvot. This tradition also includes tools for mining the text for fresh insight and guidance. Otherwise known as the “Halachic Process,” these tools allow Judaism to respond to new questions. The Oral Tradition was eventually put into writing as the Mishnah and Talmud.

The ark represents the Torah, but the Menorah represents Jewish Tradition, the teachings which flow from and illuminate the otherwise impenetrable Torah text. This is indicated by the design of the Menorah itself. Out of its central pillar, which represents the written Torah, flow six branches corresponding to the six orders of the Mishnah. (heard from Esther Schlisser)

There is a fundamental difference between the written Torah and the oral Torah, and this difference is clearly expressed by the Ark and the Menorah. The Ark is sealed in the Holy of Holies and is untouchable by man. The same is true of the Torah text. But when it comes to the oral tradition, man has an active role to play. We light the Menorah.

Let's turn now to our parsha. Parshat Miketz tells the the story of Yosef's swift rise to power. Yosef is a Renaissance man, but his knack for interpreting dreams proves to be his most valuable gift. This mystical talent gets him out of prison and into the court of the king. In the end, Yosef's understanding of Pharaoh’s dreams saves the world from famine.

Every time Yosef is presented with a dream, his response is the same: Dreams are G-d's business. Yosef told his first clients, the royal butler and baker, "Do not interpretations belong to G-d?" (Bereishit 40:8). And when Yosef won the contract to interpret Pharaoh's dreams, he said, “It's not me. Pharaoh's welfare is in G-d's hands” (41:16). Nevertheless, Yosef's recognition of the divine nature of dreams does not prevent him from taking an active role in interpreting them.

Yosef's approach to dreams can teach us a thing or two about the appropriate attitude toward the Oral Tradition. Yosef does indeed come up with his own original interpretations, but only after he acknowledges that the ultimate meaning of dreams goes far beyond mortal understanding. Only with this foundation of awe and humility before G-d can Yosef successfully interpret a dream. The same must also be true of our approach to the Oral Tradition and the Halachic process.

Chanukah celebrates a Jewish victory over the religious oppression of the Assyrian Greeks. Our enemies had nothing against the written Torah — on the contrary, they translated it into Greek! Their issue was with the Oral Torah, i.e. Jewish tradition. They were trying to destroy our Menorah.

The Maccabees defeated the Greeks, rededicated the Temple, and relit the Menorah. But first they had to find pure oil, unsoiled by the Hellenists. They found enough oil for just one day, but the Menorah miraculously kept burning for eight. The message is clear. Yes, the Menorah is not the Ark and it is our privilege to do the lighting. But we must first strive for the purest of oil, free of secular influences and personal agendas. When we respect the divine nature of the light, there's no telling how long our Torah will shine.


  1. Good Vort!
    I know this is a little pedantic, but your opening sentence is not true. There are rare occasions when Chanuka only comes out on Parshas Veyeshev (5761, for example). This happens in a year similar to this one, except that Cheshvan will only have 29 days instead of 30.

  2. i agree - my raya is that there is a haftorah printed in the chumash for parshas mikeitz. when would that be read?

  3. If you'll permit me to get back to the content of your post. I noticed that the Midrash describes the Greeks of that period as similar to the darkness that encompassed the world before creation (Genesis 1:2). I thought it very interesting that, although the Torah existed before creation, the world was still "Dark". Apparently, the light of Torah does not come from the Written Torah, rather through the human interaction with the Torah, the Oral Torah. The Greeks are likened to that darkness because they wanted to return the world to that state. They wanted only a Written Torah and attempted to rid the world of the Oral Torah.

  4. Avromi,

    Where is that midrash? Is it the midrash that finds within that verse the destiny of the four rulers over Israel?

  5. are you not confusing the Greeks with Karaites or Tzadukim? I think you are misinterpreting that Midrash.

  6. Avromi-
    Besides creating the possibility for Chiddush and human input, the Oral Tradition also includes the legal definitions of the mitzvot. These definitions were taught to Moshe on Mt. Sinai and are arguably the more important component of the tradition. According to your theory, why didn't this Oral Torah light up the world before creation?

  7. The Midrash that I'm referring to does indeed mention the 4 exiles. The Greeks did share the anti Oral Torah view of the Karaites and Tzadukim, but were distinct in their philosophy and beliefs. They didn't have the same value for the Written Torah, just a more mild objection. They felt that every nation is entitled to their storybook and legends. However, they didn't view the Torah as being binding in any way.
    Rabbi Gordon-
    I feel strongly that the refernce to darkness/ light in the world is specifically referring to the application of Torah principles to worldly issues. The fact that there was an Oral tradition for how to make Tefillin, for example, may illucidate the Torah but doesn't "light up the world". I think the refernce to a dark world is a world without the proper tools for navigation. When researched and understood properly, the Torah becomes that moral compass and in fact does light up the world. This was antithetical to the Greek philosophy. They believed that if the forces in the world allowed a specific conduct, there is nothing wrong with it.
    My understanding of the Midrash is partially based on the example of Greek persecution cited there. The Jews of that time were forced to write... 'We have no portion in the G-d of Israel' This 'portion' referred to is the partnership expressed in our ability to innovate and apply the Torah concepts to new situations. The Greeks wanted us to proclaim that we don't have this ability. This was the darkness they created.