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Torah Attitude: Parashas Miketz-Hanukkah: Helper, Saviour or Shield?


Jewish state is as alienated as the Jew has been all throughout our long exile. Hanukkah commemorates the brave revolt of the few Chashmonaim against the huge army of the Greek/Syrian Empire. Why should Joseph be punished for making an effort to get himself out of prison? The Torah in general encourages a person to make an effort to take care of his needs. There are individuals who have elevated themselves to a high level of trust in G'd. In the conclusion of the first blessing of Shemona Esrei we say "King, Helper, Saviour and Shield, blessed are You, Shield of Abraham." Angels were part of Abraham's household. Jacob put in a minimum of personal effort and then put his trust in G'd knowing that G'd was the One Who really protected him against any danger. Although Jacob on his own may have been on the highest level of trust, where no natural effort was necessary, this is never the preferred way for anyone. Jacob educated his children to the highest level of trust in G'd. Joseph's effort was not considered a serious attempt to free himself, but rather an act of desperation. The name "Maccabees" is an acronym that translates to "who is like You among the strong ones, G'd?" The struggle between the Hellenists and the Chashmonaim continues to this very day.

Alienated Israel

After the atrocities of the Holocaust, most Jews were exalted in 1948 at the establishment of a Jewish state. Now many people find themselves severely disillusioned and fearful for the future. The political analysts speak about the "post-Zionist era". Those who believed that the Jewish nation would be accepted by the nations of the world, if we just had a state like everyone else, must admit that the Jewish state is as alienated and pointed at as the Jew has been all throughout our long exile.

New low dividing Jerusalem

The religious Zionists perceived the new state as the first step towards the final redemption so long waited. The expulsion from Gush Katif almost ten years ago was a huge blow that separated many of them from the secular establishment. They realized that they had very little in common and became extremely frustrated with this new development. Something has gone terribly wrong and as always we must turn to the Torah and the words of our sages to analyze our situation and seek advice how to deal with it.


This week we celebrate Hanukkah. This celebration commemorates the brave revolt of the few Chashmonaim against the huge army of the Greek/Syrian Empire. They were not regular freedom fighters, but a family of Kohanim headed by Matisyahu, the Kohein Gadol (High Priest). They had dedicated their lives to Torah study and the holy service in the Temple. It is mind boggling to think how they even considered fighting against such military superiority, especially as they had no proper training in warfare.

Joseph punished

In order to understand the attitude and conduct of the Chashmonaim we must go back to the origins of the Jewish people. This week's parasha starts with the words (Bereishis 41:1) "And it happened at the end of two years, and Pharaoh had a dream." Our sages point to the anomaly in this verse. What period of two years is the Torah referring to? The Midrash Rabbah (89:1) explains that these were two additional years that Joseph had to remain in prison. It was a Divine punishment because he had put his trust in Pharaoh's wine steward and asked him to approach Pharaoh on his behalf. This seems very strange. Why should Joseph be punished for making an effort to get himself out of prison? Especially as he was imprisoned on the false charges of Potiphar's wife? How else could he get out? Does the Talmud (Pesachim 64b) not teach that one should not rely on miracles?

Not rely on miracles

The Beis Halevi explains that it is correct that the Torah in general encourages a person to make an effort to take care of his needs. As we say every day in the second paragraph of the Shema (Devarim 11:14) "And you shall gather your grain, your wine and your oil " Based on this passage, the Talmud (Berachot 35b) teaches that one should conduct oneself in a normal natural way to make a livelihood, and the same applies to any other aspect of one's life.

Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai

The Talmud points out that this is the right conduct for the multitude. However, says the Talmud, there are individuals who have elevated themselves to a high level of trust in G'd. These people are able to live a life without any personal effort. This was the level of trust exhibited by Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai, the author of the Zohar, when he hid in a cave for twelve years with his son Eliezer (see Talmud, Shabbos 33b). They were provided for miraculously by a carob tree that grew at the entrance of the cave and a well of water that sprang forth next to it.

Three levels of trust

These two ways of conduct are not a matter of black or white. In the conclusion of the first blessing of Shemona Esrei we say "King, Helper, Saviour and Shield, blessed are You, Shield of Abraham." An obvious question arises as these adjectives are not synonymous. Is G'd our King just our Helper, or is He our Saviour Who saves us in our time of need? Or is He actually our Shield that fully protects us? Says Rabbi Avraham, the son of the Vilna Gaon, G'd can be any of the above. It all depends on our attitude and our level of trust. If we feel that we have to make an effort ourselves but need G'd's help to succeed, then we may succeed with G'd's help. On the other hand, if our trust in G'd is on the level that our personal effort is not all that important, as we feel that we cannot accomplish anything without G'd's intervention, then G'd, so to speak, will get more involved and act as our saviour. A person with this attitude is not yet on the level that he may rely on miracles. He has to perform some kind of effort, but he knows that his success is not necessarily dependent on his performance. It is not uncommon that people invest time, money and effort in a business deal and nothing comes of it. And a little while later, a similar deal comes their way and they see that success came about without any effort on their part. In this way, G'd shows that there is no direct connection between a person's effort and his success. But the truth is that they are related. Only the rare individual, who reaches the third and highest level of trust, may rely totally on G'd without making any effort himself.

Highest level

Our Patriarchs lived a life on the highest spiritual level. Although Abraham lived a natural life as a regular human being, it is apparent that angels were part of his household. For when Hagar was approached by angels after she ran away from Sarah she said (Bereishis 16:14) "Did I also see here after I have seen." Rashi explains that she was surprised that she merited seeing angels even outside the household of Abraham.

Jacob no natural effort necessary

Similarly, when Jacob had to send messengers to his brother Eisav (Bereishis 32:4) he sent angels. Prior to that, while he was in the house of Lavan, he also had his encounters with angels. The Torah relates how Jacob made an effort not to let himself be outsmarted by his shrewd father-in-law. Lavan constantly changed their arrangement which animals would be Jacob's payment for his dedicated services. So Jacob took some rods of different trees and prepared them in a way that would affect the animal's offspring (see Bereishis 30:37-39). However, later when Jacob told his wives how he had amassed such large flocks, he told them of a dream where angels appeared to him and took care of providing him with the animals of the right colour and speckles (see Bereishis 31:10-12). So what was really going on? Were these animals produced by Jacob's effort or by Divine intervention? It seems that Jacob did not want to rely on miracles, he therefore made an effort of his own. But that did not in any way contradict the fact that he had seen in his dreams how the angels really were the ones who provided him with his needs.

Minimal personal effort

Already at the time of his journey when he fled Eisav to the House of Lavan, Jacob showed his high level of trust in G'd. When he lay down to sleep for the night, he took twelve stones and placed them around his head as a protection from the wild animals roaming around (see Rashi, Bereishis 28:11). One can imagine how well these stones could have protected him from wild predators. But this is how Jacob conducted himself. He put in a minimum of personal effort, and then put his trust in G'd, knowing that He is the One Who really protected him against any danger.

Never the preferred way

This is the way of conduct even for someone on the highest level of trust in G'd. Although this person's trust is so strong, that he feels that he does not need to make a natural effort, this is never the preferred way to live. Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai went into hiding for twelve years from the Romans until he was notified that the danger was over. He did not ignore the danger but put his full trust in G'd that He would sustain him till he could leave the cave. For the rest of his life, he no doubt also did some minimal effort to cover up the Divine assistance he received.

Preparations for future generations

However, when Jacob returned to the land of Israel he prepared well for his encounter with Eisav. These preparations seem to be quite elaborate compared to the other efforts he made in life. The Ramban explains that Jacob was aware that he was not just dealing with Eisav on a personal level. He knew that he was paving the way for his offspring for all future generations for their encounters with the descendants of Eisav. His preparations therefore had to be made according to the level of all future generations, and not just to suit his personal level of trust.

Jacob's children

Obviously, Jacob educated his own children to the highest level of trust in G'd. This is evident from the way Joseph conducted himself in Egypt, and how the brothers reacted when they came there to buy food. In last week's parasha it says (Bereishis 39:2-3) "And G'd was with Joseph And his master saw that G'd was with him, and whatever he did, G'd made successful in his hands." The Midrash Tanchuma (8) asks how could his master see that it was G'd Who made him succeed? The Midrash answers that he knew it from the way Joseph spoke. Whenever he succeeded he attributed it to G'd. Joseph perceived that it was not he who succeeded with G'd's help, rather G'd made him successful. We find a similar situation in the beginning of this week's parasha when Joseph finally stood in front of Pharaoh. This was his chance to show his abilities as an interpreter of dreams and hopefully get out of prison. However, Joseph said to Pharaoh (Bereishis 41:16) "It is beyond me. G'd will answer and put Pharaoh at peace." This was a daring statement to say to someone who was an idol worshipper. But Joseph knew the truth. He therefore could not and would not respond in any different way.

Other brothers' attitude

This did not pertain to Joseph alone. We find the same attitude by the other brothers later in this week's parasha. When the brothers were returning from their trip to buy food in Egypt, one of them found his money returned to him in his sack. The Torah describes how they reacted as it says (Bereishis 42:28): "And they trembled and turned one to another and said, 'What is this that G'd has done to us?'" Later, at the end of this week's parasha Judah said to Joseph (Bereishis 44:16) "How can we justify ourselves? G'd has found the sin of your servants." He was speaking to Joseph but he was dealing with G'd.

An act of desperation

With this insight we can return and answer our question. The Beis Halevi explains that since Joseph had been brought up and lived on such a high level of trust, it was incorrect for him to turn to the wine steward. The Chazon Ish adds that Joseph knew that he could really not rely on the steward. The steward was an arrogant person that could not be trusted to remember a fellow prisoner still in jail (see Midrash Rabbah 89:3). Joseph's effort was therefore not considered a serious attempt to free himself, but rather an act of desperation. That is why Joseph was punished. He should have realized that to turn to such a person was below his high level of trust in G'd.


Now we can also better understand how the Chashmonaim conducted themselves the way they did. Matisyahu the High Priest and his children were well aware that they had no chance to defeat the mighty Greek/Syrian army. But they knew that they must do whatever they can. Just like Jacob, they felt they had to make an effort to the best of their ability and then put their trust in G'd. They did not for one instant think that it was their military expertise that would decide the outcome of the battle. This is evident from the name that they called themselves, the "Maccabees." This is an acronym for "Mi chamocha baeilim HASHEM" that the Jewish people sang in G'd's praise after crossing the Red Sea (Shemos 15:11). It translates to "who is like You among the strong ones, G'd?" They put their full trust in the strength of G'd, well aware that no army could match His sovereign power and ability. And G'd's response corresponded to their high level of trust. As we say in the special prayer of thanks on Hanukkah: "And You [G'd] stood by them You fought their fight You avenged You delivered." We do not talk about that G'd helped the Chashmonaim. G'd did it all Himself.

This was the real fight between the Hellenists and the Chashmonaim. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b) teaches that the Hellenists made a decree and prohibited the mention of G'd's name at any occasion. But when the Chashmonaim over-powered them, says the Talmud, they instituted that G'd's name should be written even in legal documents. In this way they sent a very strong message to the Jewish people: We totally disagree with the beliefs and ideals of the Hellenists who idolize the strength of human power. No human being has any power of his own. Only G'd has real power.

Only rely on G'd

This struggle between the Hellenists and the Chashmonaim continues to this very day. And the Jewish people must realize that our only chance for victory over our enemies is if we follow in the footsteps of the Chashmonaim. Our claim to the land of Israel is only because it was given to us by G'd, and we will only be able to live there in peace if G'd Himself intervenes. We are far from the high levels of trust in G'd exhibited by our Patriarchs. We do not even get close to the Chashmonaim's level of trust. But even on our low level, we can still accomplish and merit Divine assistance and help. G'd is ready to be at the side of anyone who realizes and accepts that he is helpless without Divine assistance. This is the challenge we face today. When the Jewish government of the Jewish State comes to the realization that there is no way we can win over our enemies and live with them in peace without the assistance and help from HASHEM our G'd. Then, and only then, we will succeed. As the Talmud (Sotah 49b) says: "And who can we rely on? No one but our Father in Heaven."

These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel