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It’s the Pits (Channukah)

A quick Channukah thought:

Jewish tradition teaches that the Second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed on account of sinat chinam: the sin of unwarranted hatred between brothers. Officially, we commemorate that destruction on Tisha B’av. But what we often forget is that, under different circumstances, Channukah might itself have unfolded as an early “Tisha B’av.” The Beit HaMikdash was, after all, under serious threat of destruction during the reign of Antiochus. And the same infighting which ultimately led to its destruction showed roots already by this point in history, in the form of Jewish civil war between the chassidim and the mityavnim.

When we realize this, we gain a profoundly deeper perspective upon a feature of Channukah which gets far less attention than it probably should—namely, that the holiday always overlaps with our communal reading (during the cycle of weekly Torah portions) of the “Yosef story:” the story of Yosef’s brothers selling him into slavery. For if indeed the motif of “brotherly hatred” is lurking there in the background of Channukah, as a sort of darker dimension of that whole era (and one which we just barely overcame), then it’s hardly a coincidence that the Yosef story serves as the scriptural backdrop for Channukah’s celebration. To read this story is to relive, in a sense, our people’s very first struggle with the hatred that can unfortunately fester between brothers – and to remind ourselves how, left unabated, this hatred led to the very same sort of exile which we narrowly postponed on Channukah.

chanukah-menorahAnd this, in turn, casts in radically new light one of Channukah’s most central liturgical texts: Psalm 30, i.e. Mizmor Shir Channukat Ha-Bayit L’David. Psalm 30, as its title line tells us, is “a psalm of song by David, on occasion of the dedication of the Temple.” We recite it twice each morning on each of the eight days of Channukah, yet few of us ever pause to notice the remarkable ways in which its lines echo those of the Torah portions we also read over the course of this holiday.[1]מה בצע בדמי,” “what profit is there in my blood,” David cries in this psalm—just as Yehudah had once challenged his brothers “מה בצע כי נהרג את אחינו, וכיסינו את דמו,” “what profit is there if we kill our brother, and cover up his blood?” “חייתני מיורדי בור,” “You have revived me from descent into the pit,” David exclaims—recalling the “בור,” “pit,” into which Yosef had once been cast. “שמע ה’ וחנני,” “Heed me, Hashem, and show me grace,” David prays—hoping for a better fate than Yosef, whose brothers later confessed contritely, “לא שמענו בהתחננו אלינו,” “We did not heed him when he begged for our grace.” “הסתרת פניך, הייתי נבהל,” “You concealed your face, and I was bewildered,” David reflects—evoking the reaction of Yosef’s brothers after Yosef revealed his identity and announced that he had survived their scheme against him: “נבהלו מפניו,” “they were bewildered in his presence/by his face.”  “העלית מן שאול נפשי,” “You have raised my soul from the underworld [Sheol],” David rejoices—much as Yosef’s father was spared from “descending in mourning to Sheol,” “שאלה” over the loss of his son. “פתחת שקי,” David proclaims, “You have loosened my sackcloth”—just as Yosef’s father could ultimately release the “sackcloth upon his loins,” “שק במתניו,” upon learning that his sons had reunited with Yosef.

These connections continue, and their meaning is most significant for us. For here stands David HaMelech, from the house of Yehudah, having just made peace with Shaul’s supporters (=the house of Yosef) after so many years of civil war between them. He now looks ahead towards the erection of Israel’s (first) Temple—Israel’s first attempt at building a permanent “dwelling” for Hashem. But David understands how fraught such a project is; he understands that Hashem dwells among His children only when they are unified. Should brotherly hatred ever resurface within Israel, it will inevitably drive Hashem from His Temple. It will lead, once again, to “הסתרת פניך”— the “concealment of Hashem’s presence,” over which David anguished in his own lifetime, and which his ancestors had experienced, generations earlier, during the duration of Yosef’s absence.[2]

If instead David’s descendants are to achieve his dream of “וחנני”—of earning Hashem’s “grace”—they will first need to treat one another with the “grace” and the “graciousness” which, in hindsight, Yosef’s brothers wished they had extended him, “בהתחננו אלינו.” Perhaps it was this aspiration which Yosef expressed in the blessing he bestowed upon his brother Binyamin, at the climax of his ordeal: “אלקים יחנך בני” – “May Hashem bestow you with grace, my child.”[3] Perhaps it is this aspiration, too, which was expressed each day during the priestly blessing offered in the Beit HaMikdash: “יאר ה’ פניו אליך ויחנך… וישם לך שלום” – “May Hashem shine the light of His face for you, and give you grace… and grant you peace.” And perhaps it was this aspiration, as well, which led Zechariah HaNavi to conclude the prophecy we read on the Shabbat of Channukah with a vision of the Beit HaMikdash being rebuilt through “תשאות חן חן לה”—“shouts of grace, grace, unto it.”

יה”ר שיבנה במהרה בימינו…

Channukah sameach!

[1] The notable exception is R. David Fohrman, who noticed parallels between psalm 30 and Yosef’s story many years ago. R. Fohrman does not link these parallels to the meaning of Channukah, but instead uses them to develop a fascinating set of connections between the life of David HaMelech and the conflict between Yosef and his brothers. For more, see the Aleph Beta Academy’s video series “What Does the Book of Psalms Have to Do with the Joseph Story?”

[2] Hashem never communicates to Yosef or to any of his brothers within the text of the Torah. He also cuts off all contact with Yaakov from the time of Yosef’s sale to the time the brothers reunite with Yosef (a silence which one celebrated midrash links explicitly to the sale of Yosef).

[3] Two midrashim bear note in this regard: one midrash which claims that when Yosef and Binyamin weep together shortly after this episode, it is over the eventual destruction of the Temple which they are weeping; and a second midrash which claims that the reason Yosef blessed Binyamin with “חן” was because Binyamin had missed out on the blessing of “חן” issued by Yaakov to the rest of his sons during the earlier confrontation with Esav. This latter suggestion may be interesting to think about given that rabbinic literature identifies Esav as the progenitor of those who would go on to destroy the Second Beit HaMikdash.


  1. rschwarzyuedu says:

    Very erudite. I enjoyed reading this and the connection to the Yosef story. RLS

    ________________________________ Rabbi Ronald L. Schwarzberg, CPT Director – The Morris and Gertrude Bienenfeld Dept. of Jewish Career Development and Placement Center for the Jewish Future – RIETS Yeshiva University 500 West 185th Street, FH 419 New York, NY 10033 212.960.5212 rschwarz@yu.edu http://www.yu.edu/cjf ________________________________

  2. Ephrayim Naiman says:

    Nice to have an extra dimension to appreciate when reciting “Mizmor Shir Channukat Ha-Bayit L’David”.

  3. Very nice article! I wonder why, in footnote 3, you use the verb “claims” twice with regard to midrashim. The term usually indicates skepticism.

    (The Reuters handbook reads: “Use of this word suggests the writer does not believe the statement in question.”)

    Was that your intention?

    • Alex says:

      Nope, didn’t mean it that way. I used the term in the same sense as we might say “Rava claims we should read the passuk this way, but Abayei claims it should be read this way” — i.e. “what follows is an interpretation of one of our primary texts, and it is an interpretation which carries canonical status for us, but it is not the only authoritative interpretation — rather, it is the interpretation (or “claim”) found in one particular source, and there may be found in other midrashim/mefarshim alternative interpretations which complement or perhaps even contradict it.” Put more simply: the term “claim” is meant merely to signify that the interpretation which follows is not necessarily the only one found in Jewish tradition.

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