Torah with Star

This week’s Torah portion is all about celebrating our Jewish beliefs.

By Rabbi Shaya Katz

It’s that time of year. We pause our diets for oily treats; we break our bank accounts for some gifts; and we take time off to see our loved ones.

Despite never being mentioned in the Torah, the holiday of Chanukah is perhaps the most well-known holiday of the Jewish calendar. But why is that? Shouldn’t Shavuot, the day of receiving the Torah, the foundation of our religion, get more press? Why don’t we find “ugly Pentecost sweaters” in stores during the springtime? What is it about Chanukah that it penetrates secular culture and makes for such a recognizable holiday?

On the one hand, we can suggest an anthropological approach: Its theme of gift-giving fits in our highly commercialized society; it’s similar to Christmas and there is the overlap of timing. But there may be a reason that gets to the essence of this eight-day celebration, a theme that lies at the very core of what the holiday represents.

The Talmud records two seemingly disconnected statements of Rav Kahana, ultimately quoting Rav Tanchum. First, the chanukiah must be placed below 20 cubits high. Second, when Yosef was thrown in the pit and the verse says “there was no water” (Bereshit 37:24), it means to hint to us that there was no water, there were snakes and scorpions, which threatened Yosef’s life. What is the connection between these two statements?

More specifically to our portion this week, if there were deadly snakes and scorpions in the pit, why would the brothers put Yosef in it? Reuven’s plan was “to return him to his father” after the pit (37:22). But once Yosef emerged miraculously unscathed from such threatening animals, did the brothers not then realize that Yosef was to be protected?

Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, in his Torah Temimah (1902), explains that all of the above questions can be answered with the same theme: visibility. On the one hand, the pit was too deep, and Reuven never saw the snakes and scorpions. Similarly, when Yosef emerged unscathed, they didn’t realize that his health was indicative of anything extraordinary. The pit was 20 cubits deep and prevented the brothers from knowing what happened. On the other hand, the purpose of the chanukiah is to make sure other people outside of our homes can see our candles glowing. Therefore, says Rav Tanchum, it must be placed lower than 20 cubits high.

As we’ll say in the “Al HaNissim” prayer over Chanukah, “You (HaShem) made a great and holy name in Your world, and for Your nation the Jews, You brought great salvation”.

Part of Chanukah is rejoicing over our own redemption. But another part is showing our Jewish pride to the world. We unabashedly place our chanukiot by windows for the world to see; we put our Chanukah sweaters on, and we take advantage of all the holiday deals we can find because this is a holiday we celebrate publicly the pride of our traditions and our rituals.

We need to remind ourselves that we shouldn’t hide, but rather celebrate that we’re Jewish.

Shaya Katz is rabbi at Young Israel of Oak Park.