Monday, November 26, 2007

Parshat Vayeshev 1

The Talmud states (Shabbat 23a), “Rav Kahana said Rav Natan bar Minyuma expounded in the name of Rav Tanchum; What does the verse mean ‘The pit was empty, there was no water in it’? If the pit was empty, isn’t it obvious that it doesn’t have water? Rather, the verse teaches us that the pit contained no water, but had snakes and scorpions instead.”1 Yosef’s brothers didn’t want to kill him directly. They had judged him deserving of death for his rebellion against the kingship of Yehuda, yet they were unable to actually shed the blood of their baby brother. Therefore,they threw him into a pit full of venomous snakes and scorpions in order to kill him. Yet miraculously Yosef escaped unharmed; G-d prevented the reptiles from biting him. Why is this miracle not mentioned explicitly in the Torah? Surely something as extraordinary, and important for the future, as an escape from death by the father of two tribes should be stated openly, rather than just alluded to.

To answer this we have to find out the nature of miracles in general. Surely if G-d created the entire universe, then the mere fact that gravity remains constant, or that DNA replicates itself correctly, is as much an act of G-d as the splitting of the Red Sea, or manna falling form heaven. Yet we find that Judaism recognises ‘miraculous’ miracles as important. For example, there is a blessing to make upon seeing the site where a miracle happened for our ancestors. And the Torah states several times “Remember this miracle that occurred”.

G-d doesn’t perform miracles to ‘show off’; He doesn’t do ‘magic tricks’. In fact, praising G-d for performing a special action which goes against the natural order is an insult to Him. It is like describing a multi-billionaire as having at least a couple of pounds. In other words, it is totally demeaning. To say how wonderful G-d is for changing nature occasionally, when He is the one who keeps everything going constantly, is not praising but limiting.

In fact the question is even stronger. Why should we praise G-d for miraculously saving us, when He is the one who put us in the predicament in the first place? In our case, wouldn’t it have been better if G-d had never created poisonous reptiles, rather than having to perform a miracle to save us from them?

The answer to these questions is that a miracle is meant as a wake up call. Sometimes we forget about G-d and about our purpose in life. Though we thank G-d every day for all the things He has given us, most importantly life itself, we can begin to take these things for granted. When that happens we need a reminder; G-d puts us in a position where we can clearly see His hand in our lives. Each of us has had times when we could clearly see G-d intervening for us. Often we can utilise this to strengthen our relationship with the Creator. A miracle is a sign where G-d says to us “Here I am”. This is why the Hebrew word for miracle, ‘ness’, also means ‘flag’. A miracle is a proclamation to the world.

It is to our benefit, not G-d’s, that we remember the miracles that He has done for us; what we learn from them and how they affect our lives. Therefore the miracle of Yosef being saved from the snakes and scorpions is not recorded by the Torah because the brothers didn’t learn from it. Instead of realising that G-d was vindicating Yosef from the crime with which he was charged, they sold him into slavery. Since they were unable to learn from this miracle, it is not appropriate to record it in the Torah.

Perhaps this is the reason that the preceding statement of the Talmud that we quoted above is “Rav Kahana said Rav Natan bar Minyuma expounded in the name of Rav Tanchum; A Chanukah candle that is placed higher than twenty amot (cubits) is invalid”. The purpose of the celebration of Chanukah, and the lighting of the candles, is not only to brighten mid winter. It is to remind us of the miracle that G-d performed in the time of the Maccabees, and the reason He let the Greeks defile the Temple and persecute the Jews before He miraculously saved us. A Chanukiah placed higher than twenty amot is too far removed from us. It is not a reminder that we can learn from, therefore it becomes just another light in the dark.

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