MIketz and Hanukkah: Defeating Darkness

An interesting connection between the Torah reading that almost always is during Hanukkah and the Festival of Lights itself.

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Daniel Pinner,

Six Day War Paratroopers at the Wall
Six Day War Paratroopers at the Wall
David Rubinger

Last week, Parashat Vayeishev finished with the 28-year-old Joseph languishing in an Egyptian prison, falsely accused of a crime he had not committed, asking the royal butler to bring his case before Pharaoh upon his imminent release. “But the butler did not remember Joseph, and he forgot him” (Genesis 40:23).

This week, Parashat Mikkeitz continues with Pharaoh’s dreams and urgent need for an interpreter. Then at last, two years later, the royal butler remembered Joseph, “the Hebrew lad” as he somewhat contemptuously described him, who could accurately interpret dreams.

And then Pharaoh, in his moment of need, summoned this erstwhile slave from prison. In a matter of hours, Joseph went from a foreign slave and prisoner to second-in-command of the mightiest country in the world.

The Talmud (Rosh Ha-Shanah 10b) and the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Va-eira 177) record that “Joseph left prison on Rosh Ha-Shanah”. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 89:2; Sh’mot Rabbah 7:1; Tanhuma, Vayeishev 9) notes that when Joseph interpreted the butler’s dream and told him he would go free in three days, he twice asked him to remember him to Pharaoh: “But please remember me with yourself when he benefits you, and do kindness for me, and remember me to Pharaoh…” (Genesis 40:14).

Because Joseph twice used the expression “remember”, placing his trust in a man and not in G-d to rescue him, he was condemned to an extra two years.

The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) cites this midrash in his commentary to Genesis 41:1, and expands on it: “Thus we learn that the beginning of this two-year period began with the butler’s dream, which was when Joseph was remembered for the good; and the reason for the extra two years was that he said both ‘remember me with yourself’ and ‘remember me to Pharaoh’. For each ‘remember’, G-d deferred his remembrance for another Rosh Ha-Shanah, which is the time of remembrance”.

The Midrash also tells us that “Joseph only deserved to be in prison for ten years, for having told slander against his ten brothers” (Sh’mot Rabbah 7:1). The implication, of course, is that had Joseph not relied on the royal butler, he would have been freed from prison that same day.

The implication of that is that three events happened on Rosh Ha-Shanah: Joseph was thrown into prison; ten years to the day later he should have been released, and would have had he not turned to the royal butler for help; and two years to day after that, he actually was released.

Three events connected to judgement, all of which happened to Joseph on Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Day of Judgement.

That Rosh Ha-Shanah in the Day of Judgement has practical halachic significance: it is the reason that even though Rosh Ha-Shanah is a festival, we do not say Hallel. “The ministering angels asked G-d: Why do the Jews not sing Hallel to You on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur? He replied to them: Is it possible that when the King sits on the Throne of Judgement, with the Books of the Living and the Books of the Dead open before Him – that then the Jews will sing Hallel?!” (Rosh Ha-Shanah 32b).

As the Rambam says, “We do not say Hallel on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur because these are days of prayer and submission to G-d, fear and awe of Him, repentance and pleading and request for forgiveness; and it is not appropriate under these circumstances to rejoice and celebrate” (Commentary to the Mishnah, Rosh Ha-Shanah 4:7; compare Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah and Chanukah 3:6; also Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, Laws of Rosh Ha-Shanah 584:1).

There is, however, a peculiarity here. Rosh Ha-Shanah is not only the beginning of the year – it is also Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, the beginning of the month of Tishrei. And on Rosh Chodesh we say half-Hallel. By omitting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, there would seem to be a missing Hallel from our annual liturgy.

And indeed there would have been, had it not been for Hanukkah. Because Rosh Chodesh Tevet falls during Hanukkah, and so on Rosh Chodesh Tevet we say not a half-Hallel (as on a typical Rosh Chodesh), but the complete Hallel (as on every day of Hanukkah).

This year, as in most years since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or Head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Mikkeitz falls during Hanukkah. The last time that Mikkeitz did not fall during theholiday was in 5761 (2000) and the next time will be in 5781 (2020).

Hence the event described at the very beginning of Parashat Mikkeitz – Joseph’s release from prison – and the time of year that Parashat Mikkeitz is read – Hanukkah – balance each other out.

Parashat Mikkeitz begins with the words, “Vayehi mikkeitz shnotayyim yamim…” (“And it happened at the end of two years to the day...”). The Midrash picks up on the word mikkeitz (“at the end”), and expounds: “‘And it happened at the end of two years to the day...’ – ‘He [G-d] has put an end (keitz) to darkness’ (Job 28:3). He allowed the world a fixed number of years of darkness. What is the meaning of ‘He [G-d] has put an end (keitz) to darkness’? – That…He decreed how many years Joseph would remain in darkness in prison. As soon as the end [keitz] of that period came, Pharaoh dreamed” (Bereishit Rabbah 89:1; compare Tanhuma, Mikkeitz 1).

Is it just coincidence that choshech (“darkness”) is the appellation that the Rabbis used over and over again to represent the Greek Empire’s subjugation of Israel?

Let us go back to when G-d was about to make His first promise to and covenant with our father Abram, in the Covenant between the Parts: “It happened as the sun was about to set, that a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold – a dread! A great darkness was falling upon him” (Genesis 15:12).

The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (Yitro, Masechet Ba-Chodesh 9) explains: “‘Fell’ – this refers to Babylon…; ‘great’ – this refers to Media [meaning Persia-Media]…; ‘darkness’ – this refers to Greece which made the eyes of Israel go dark from fasting; ‘dread’ – this is the fourth kingdom”.

Elsewhere in the Midrash, Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish) interprets the Creation narrative (Genesis 1:2-3) as a paradigm for our future exiles: “‘…The earth was without form’ – this is the Babylonian exile…; ‘and void’ – this is the Median exile…; ‘and darkness’ – this is the Greek exile, which made the eyes of Israel go dark with their evil decrees…; ‘on the face of the deep’ – this is the exile of the kingdom whose evil cannot be fathomed, just like the deep… ‘And the Spirit of G-d was hovering’ – this is the spirit of the King Mashiach” (Bereishit Rabbah 2:4)

But G-d put an end (keitz) to our national darkness, put an end to the darkness of Greek domination of our Land and our people, at the time of Hanukkah, the time when the Maccabees took up arms against the darkness of the Greeks’ harsh and evil decrees and restored light to the nation and the Land.

It is entirely appropriate, then, that the parashah which opens with G-d rescuing Joseph from darkness to great light is almost always read during the Festival which celebrates the end of the darkness of Greek domination over our Land. This is the festival whose entire theme, whose very essence, is light.