Rabbi Binyamin Blau
Former Rosh Kollel in Cleveland
Let us begin our analysis of this weighty topic by posing four distinct questions that, theoretically, can be independently answered, but hopefully will collectively provide insight into the relationship between G-d`s master plan and human activity. Our first query is attempting to understand a cryptic midrash dealing with Yoseph languishing in the pit.
The midrash explains why various personalities were too busy to save him. Reuven was engaged in the process of teshuva; he felt that he should have initially exerted himself as the eldest brother and was presently so engaged in introspection that he could not assist Yoseph. Hakadosh Baruch Hu was busy preparing the “light of mashiach” and was also too preoccupied to save Yoseph. While the midrash continues in this vein the latter example is clearly quite perplexing. Is the Almighty incapable of doing two activities at once that he could not intervene on Yoseph`s behalf? What lesson is the midrash trying to impart?
Leaving that issue in abeyance, let us move on to another puzzling midrash, this one in Rut Raba (5 – 6). There the midrash recounts how three famous personages – Reuven, Aharon and Boaz – all acted nobly in given situations but each one would have done much more had they only realized that their actions were being recorded for posterity. Yes, Aharon went to greet his brother Moshe when he returned from years of exile but had he only known that this episode would be written in the Torah he would have prepared an entire entourage etc. The words of the midrash are rather disturbing; do we really mean to imply that these righteous individuals, who were engaged in wonderful deeds, would have done more merely because of greater publicity? Surely there is more to these words than meets the eye.
Moreover, the midrash concludes by noting that in olden times when a person performed a mitzvah it would be recorded by thenavi (prophet) of the generation. Who records our deeds now asks the midrash rhetorically. Eliyahu writes it down, answers the midrash, and both melech hamashiach and Hakadosh Baruch Hu himself sign off on the matter. While a beautiful image this too requires explanation – both in terms of the words themselves as well as the connection to the previous discussion regarding those famous personalities who would have done more had they only known.
Two additional problems arise when examining the observance of Chanuka: Generally the festival occurs concurrently with the reading of Parshat Mikeitz. The obvious question emerges as to whether there is a correlation between these two events or is it merely a calendric quirk? An interesting suggestion has been that the dream of Pharoah, where seven lean cows swallow seven corpulent cows, corresponds to the fact that the “small” defeated the “many” (the Chashmonayim were victorious against overwhelming odds). Hopefully, however, a more profound explanation can be offered.
Finally the celebration of Chanuka – while joyous – seems rather muted when compared to other festive events. There is no formal obligation to eat a seuda, and there is not even a custom to adorn oneself with Shabbat clothing. Why is this so? Admittedly, the festival is only rabbinic in nature but could there not still be a more elaborate means of observing this momentous occasion?
Perhaps the solution to all these problems is as follows: Human beings must exhibit a blend of faith and action. While it may seem almost inherently paradoxical, human involvement can play a role in fulfilling the divine master plan. On the one hand there are instances when we simply step back and observe the events unfolding around us and all we can do is believe that what we are witnessing is part of the Master Architects` design. This is the message of the first midrash depicting Yoseph languishing in the pit. The sale of Yosef down to Egypt was a necessary step for our ultimate redemption – as powerfully symbolized by the “light ofmashiach” – and therefore not even the Almighty Himself could intervene at that instant.
In truth, not only was this part of Hashem`s plan, it was also the initial fulfillment of Yoseph`s own dream. Only after his descent to Egypt followed by his emergence as viceroy, would the image of the sheaves bowing (from his dreams) become a reality. A powerful parallel emerges between the story of Yoseph and that of the Maccabees` success for that too was the unlikely fulfillment of what had been seen as a wild dream. (Mattisyahu too, could only dream that his revolt would result in a great military victory) Perhaps that is the deeper connection between these two events.
The parallel continues in the fact that both victories are temporary in nature. Yes, the fulfillments of Yoseph`s dreams causes his family to be saved but it eventually leads to 210 years of bitter slavery. While the Chanuka victory and the restoration of the Beit Hamikdash are surely reasons to be joyous, unfortunately, this too proves to be short lived and we soon descend into exile. Perhaps the diminished expression of simcha reflects this principle.
Returning to our primary point, however, there are instances where our actions do matter; when we are not allowed to merely sit back as observers content that we are in good hands. This is the message of the second perplexing midrash. Boaz, Aharon, and Reuven all conducted themselves with tremendous nobility but they had no way of knowing the full impact of their deeds. Had they appreciated the total effect, even they would have behaved differently. The conclusion of the midrash is a powerful illustration of this idea. Indeed our actions are no longer recorded in the cannon of TaNaCh but they do have meaning and purpose. Every deed is noted by Eliyahu – a figure symbolically linked in rabbinic literature to our ultimate redemption – and signed and sealed by none other than the Almighty and mashiach himself. They watch our every move with great scrutiny waiting for us to tip the scales and bring about the complete geula. We are not impartial observers, but rather we are actors with a dramatic mission to implement and hasten the fulfillment of the divine master plan.
The task of blending faith and action, of knowing when to step back and when to forge ahead, is indeed quite daunting. Nonetheless, it is what we as individuals and as a community must attempt to do. May we all be successful in our efforts