Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was studying this week’s Torah portion, and was bothered by a question. The Torah says, when relating the story of Joseph and his brothers, that they threw him into a pit; “…the pit was empty, no water was in it” (Genesis 37:24).
I have always been taught that the Torah doesn’t use extra words; if the pit was empty, obviously there was no water in it. Isn’t this statement redundant?
Congratulations! You have asked the precise question raised by the sages of the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 22a). The Talmud reconciles this redundancy — the Torah is hinting that water was not in it, but snakes and scorpions were in it!
This elusive comment of the Talmud begs explanation. There’s a further question: This comment of the sages falls in the midst of the laws of kindling the Hanukkah lights. The rabbis of the Talmud digress from their Hanukkah discussion for a moment, explain this verse, then resume their discussion of Hanukkah. Very strange!
Furthermore, this verse appears in that Torah portion which is always read the Shabbat preceding Hanukkah. What is this hidden link to Hanukkah?
I believe that the explanation goes to the very core of the Hanukkah holiday. Many years ago, in my youth, I heard the following explanation of the above verse from my late mentor, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik ob’m. There’s a law in physics which states “nature abhors a vacuum.” No space in the physical universe truly remains empty. This concept holds true in the spiritual realm as well. One cannot be bereft of spirituality and remain wholesome. If one does not fill him- or herself with positive spiritual energy, the vacuum will be filled with negative energy. There’s no middle ground.
This is the meaning of the cryptic statement of the rabbis: “Water was not there, but snakes and scorpions were there.” “Water” refers to the study of Torah, which is the water we drink, quenching our thirst and slaking our tired souls. If we do not fill “the pit,” our empty selves, with the “water,” then other, negative influences will creep in, the “snakes and scorpions” of foreign cultures.
The battle fought by the Maccabees was principally a spiritual one, a battle over the mind, soul and heart of the Jewish people. The Greeks were attempting, quite successfully, to inculcate Greek culture, values and ideology into the Jewish minds. One of their most vehemently enforced decrees was the complete cessation of Torah study. They realized that as long as the Jews were filled with the wellsprings of Torah, there was no room to force in their “snakes and scorpions.” The Maccabees fought valiantly to preserve the holiness of the Torah and the Jewish heart, mind and soul.
The Maccabees were rewarded by finding one remaining flask of pure oil amongst the many flasks contaminated by the Greeks. That pure oil lit the Menorah, the light of which signifies the light of the Torah — which illuminates the Jewish people. That was the greatest miracle of all — despite the decrees of the world’s mightiest power the Jews were able to preserve the holiness of the Torah, its teachings, its messages intact.
This is the deeper message in the verse you mentioned. This lesson was taught in the Talmud in the midst of the laws of Hanukkah to impart the core message of those laws. It is the portion read immediately before Hanukkah to prepare the Jewish people for what Hanukkah represents throughout the generations: the preservation of the teachings of Torah in the face of foreign, often hostile, cultures.
This is the underlying message of our mission at DATA, as we proudly celebrate this week our silver anniversary, a quarter-century of exposing Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations to the beauty, depth and joy of the timeless messages of Torah and its wisdom.
Best wishes to you and all the readers for a joyous, meaningful Hanukkah!
Dear Rabbi Fried,