The Rule of Threes

It seems to me that the preponderance of threes in the Joseph story begs interpretation in connection with Chanukah.

Contact Editor
Dr. Aryeh Hirsch,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
The mitzvah of Chanukah is to light one candle every night, per household. And those who beautify their performance of the mitzvot [mehadrin] light one candle for every night for each member of the household. Regarding those who 'go to the maximum' in their beautification of the mitzvot [mehadrin min hamehadrin], there is a dispute. The Shammai school says that on the first night one lights eight candles, and from then on he decreases by one candle each night. And the Hillel school says that on the first night a person lights one candle, and from then on he adds one more candle each night. (Shabbat 21b).
It strikes me that we have three levels of doing this mitzvah: standard, mehadrin, and mehadrin min hamehadrin. Although I cannot say for sure what motivated the rabbis to decree this triple level of performance, it seems to me that the preponderance of threes in the Joseph story begs interpretation in connection with this aspect of Chanukah.

"And as the wife of Potiphar spoke to Yosef day after day, he did not listen to her, to lie or be with her." (Genesis 39:10) The Talmud relates: "Every day she tried to persuade him with tough words: 'Lie with me, or I will put you in jail.' He answered: 'The Lord frees the imprisoned [words from the morning prayers].' She threatened: 'I will shorten your height.' Yoseif replied: 'God raises those bent over, to stand erect [again from the morning prayers].' A third threat: 'I will blind your eye.' He said: 'The Lord gives sight to the blind [also from the morning prayers].' She gave him a thousand talents of silver to obey her, and he did not want to listen." (Yoma 35b)

The first threat, jail, in Hebrew is beit ha'asurim; literally, the house of the prisoners. The wife of Potiphar was making a decree against the house of Yoseif . Years later, in the time of the Chanukah story, the Syrian-Greeks make a decree against the Jewish "house": against the Sabbath, which is the institution par excellence for the Jewish household and family . And when the Hashmonaim won, the Temple cleansed and the rabbis instituted the holiday of Chanukah, chazal decreed, measure for measure, that just as the Greeks had legislated against the Jewish house, so in victory, the Jews will kindle a light as a celebration of the renewed Jewish house - a candle for each house.

Potiphera's second threat was to "bend his stature". This requires explanation. When Avraham Avinu was approached by the Almighty with the command to do circumcision, "Abram fell on his face." (Breishit 17:3) Rashi says that until he was circumcised, thereby reaching the level where he could " stand upright and be complete," (17:2 ) Avraham did not have the inner strength to stand up when confronted by the Shechina, the Presence of God. So, on a certain level, one could say that Potiphera was threatening Yoseif's brit milah (which she certainly was, as milah also symbolizes sexual purity).

And milah is one mitzvah that is stamped on each and every Jew (including women: chazal explain that the mother of the baby circumcised also has a portion in the mitzvah; also, in Vayikra 12:2, the section commanding milah on the eighth day, begins, "When a woman conceives" and deals mainly with woman's issues). Similarly, the Greeks prohibited the Jews of the Second Temple era to do brit milah. And when the Maccabees won, the rabbis instituted that we kindle a light for our rededication to brit milah, a personal "candle for each and every one."

Thirdly, the wife of Potiphar threatened to blind Yoseif's eye, to literally put out his light. Potiphera was threatening a very specific Yoseif-ish, and Jewish, eye and light. Besides the issue of Yoseif being "above the eye" (ibid., 49:2; Rashi: Yoseif's chein is impressed on the eye that sees him), the very name of Yoseif means "increase", alluding to sustaining, life-bearing and multiplying. Certainly, Yoseif sustained Egypt and, Kabbalistically, Yoseif is yesod, which connotes life-bearing power and increase. Jewish light characteristically increases, like that of the moon.

Of all the decrees the Greeks made, the one against Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the first day of the lunar Jewish month, seems a bit out of place. I could understand evil decrees against kashrut, Sabbath and festivals, and brit milah - those are all distinguishing pillars of Jewish life and religion. But Rosh Chodesh doesn't seem to belong in the same league.

There is a very basic argument here between us and the Greeks. Anyone reading Greek philosophy knows that what made Greek tragedies so tragic was that once the hero fell, there was no return. The Jewish idea of renewal "like the new moon" (from the Kiddush Hachodesh prayer) stood in stark contrast to the Greek conception of being bound iron-clad to the consequences of your past, with no second chances. In the Sophocles plays, mighty King Agamemnon is blinded and is finished a lowly, tragic figure. Zapped by Zeus, a Hellenist angered the gods and was finished. The idea of kapparat pesha (Rosh Chodesh Mussaf prayer), of short-circuiting the laws of cause-and-effect (sin and punishment) by a return (teshuva) to one's previous state was unheard of in Greek thinking. In the first place, it provided a great excuse for never bettering oneself. In fact, that's another argument that Potiphera used against Yoseif.

Chazal say (Sotah 36b) that Yoseif "came home to do his business" (Breishit 39:11), meaning that he was up to monkey-business, intending to sin with Potiphera, who "grabbed him by begadav" by his clothes. But chazal say she "grabbed him b'bogdav," by his treacherous ones. This could allude either to "his future sinning offspring" (which she and Yoseif would beget), or to "his treacheries," his treacherous action of returning to the house. Thus Potiphera was arguing like the Greeks: 'You, Yoseif, are caught in the web of sin, there is no turning back now.'

Chazal describe the tremendous inner battle that Yoseif fought to get out of the clutches of Potiphera and her argument. Yoseif renewed himself. Similarly, when chazal saw our victory over the Greeks, they had us light a candle to commemorate our particular Jewish light of continual increase, by lighting one more candle every night.

That finishes the three threats in Yoma. But Potiphera did one more thing: she offered money. This, too, is connected to the Chanukah story, for it corresponds to Chanukah gelt, the money and gifts we give. And the connection of money to the Chanukah and Yoseif stories runs deep. I recommend reading Rabbi Matis Weinberg's Frameworks, of which the following is a mere outline:

Money represents potential. You can use money to buy anything - toys, cars , businesses, even politicians. Similarly, Yoseif had chein, and found chein in the eyes of Potiphar and all of Egypt, because "v'hu na'ar" (Genesis 37:2), he was a youth. Kids are loveable and they are "potential". Like money, they think they can be and do anything ("When I grow up, I'll be a fireman, and a policeman, and a..."). This is what Yoseif gave to Egypt: potential, vision and confidence. And this is what the brothers hated him for. They represented "mah betza" (Genesis 37:26); as in, "Tachlis, man," the bottom line. To them, visions of Yisrael, each man under his vine, were for the far future; forget God's history plan of 400 years of exile and then the Promised Land, we got a sheep business to run here. They saw no way that a Kennedy-like figure, straight out of Camelot, was going to, with vision, charisma and character, run a nation, and emerge victorious over businessmen, oil companies, armies and world powers.

But God thought otherwise: 'Throw the man of dreams into the pit, time after time, and I will raise him to the heights of the world's mightiest empire, whose welfare will depend on him alone, not on you.'

That is the Maccabean spirit of never giving up. The Hashmonaim knew that victory was assured, no matter what the numbers. 5,000 Jewish soldiers could face ten times as many Greeks, it made no difference: "It is easy for the many to be handed over to the few, for there is no difference in God's eyes between saving through a large force or through a tiny one." (Yehuda Maccabee; so much for demography, that panic-spreading agent of modern ma betza-ists.) This Chashmonai spirit stems from Yoseif's victory, that of the man of chein (as in Chanukah), of potential, over the mah betza types.

In fact, Rabbi Shlomo Zevin (Hamoadim BaHalachah, ArtScroll English volume II, p.57) says that the foregoing underlies the dispute of the schools of Shammai and Hillel in Shabbat 21b regarding the particular Jewish light. Shammai generally stresses the heavenly ideal, and here, he follows the potential of the miracle: on day one, the Kohen Gadol's oil had the potential to burn for eight days; on day two, the oil had the potential of burning only seven more days. But Hillel stress the actual: on day one, Hillel lit one light, for the miracle was visible for this one night; on day two, the oil had now burned a second night, etc. As usual, the Halacha is according to the school of Hillel, but Shammai's opinion is also "the word of the living God," and generally represents a higher level of holiness that the rabbis did not demand of the whole nation.

It is this argument about potential and chein that we commemorate with Chanuka gelt (money ) and gifts. And, of course, the very word chein, which is repeated so often by the Torah about Yoseif, is at the root of the word Chanukah.

There are other threes in this week's parsha. I leave it to the reader to find: Rashi on 37:2, on Yoseif's libel of his brothers; the Kli Yakar on the same issue and on the three aspects of the brothers' hate (37:8); and Yehuda's guarantee to Tamar (38:18). See how all are connected to house, individual stature and a particular Jewish trait that increases or blossoms. And then there is the opening of the Haftorah, from Amos....