The Potential of Tiny Things
Every time you eat a latke or a sufganiah (jelly doughnut in Israel) during Hanukkah, you are reenacting the miracle of the cruse of oil that the Maccabees found when they struggled to rededicate the Temple. There was only enough oil for one day, but it lasted for eight! A little oil goes a long way!
Yes, I know that historians have questioned the authenticity of the story of the miracle of the oil (Bavli Shabbat 21B). Many Israelis and others prefer the historical account of the Maccabees’ heroic victory as a model for Jewish needs today. Who would deny the importance of that? There are also contextual reasons given for the tradition’s preference for the legend, from today’s perspective, a religiously atavistic trifle.
But sometimes a live religious metaphor is perfect, far-reaching and true, beyond the claims of historicity. A task of religious education is to help people understand the difference between the facts and the truth. In this case we have the truth; the rabbinic legend of the cruse of oil captures it all.
Take the very story of the Maccabees. In a hopeless situation, somehow, somebody–Mattathias and his family, a small, inadequate band of Jews who believe in the power of the spirit–decide that they have had enough, that they have to do something. There is a breaking point at which people can suffer no longer and have to act, to fight (even, as it turned out, on Shabbat for Pikuah Nefesh, to protect life). They step forward and risk all. The “strong are delivered into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.” A little oil indeed!
So also in this week’s parasha. At the end of last week’s parasha, Vayeshev, Joseph remains in the prison, in the bor, the pit. He has hit bottom. His situation is hopeless. He has trusted the Sar Ha-Mashkim, the butler, to recommend him to Pharaoh, that he might be released from his oppressive and unjust imprisonment. But what happens? The word “va-yishka-hehu” (Genesis 40:23) concludes last week’s parasha: the ungrateful butler has forgotten him. For this entire week we inhabit the space between the two parashot, living in this tension: What’s going to happen now?
The whole history of the Jewish people hangs in the balance. Without Joseph as a power in Egypt, perhaps Jacob’s family will not come to Egypt where they will become a great nation. Nor would they leave in the Exodus, receive the Torah and go on to the Promised Land, and more. Perhaps I would not be writing this note, and you would not be reading it.
Then come Pharaoh’s dreams which none of his wise men can interpret. Shall the butler take the chance of reminding Pharoah of the transgressions for which he was originally sent to prison? He does come forward, saying “Et hata-i ani mazkir ha-yom,” (I make mention of my sins today) (Genesis 41:9) and goes on to tell Pharaoh about the young Hebrew that he met in the prison who knows how to interpret dreams and who may know how to interpret Pharoah’s dreams too.
As they say, the rest is history. Joseph is rushed to Pharaoh’s presence, interprets the dreams and becomes the instrument of Israel’s redemption. The five words of the butler are the “cruse of oil” that lasts for eight days, maybe the most crucial words ever spoken by anyone in all Jewish history. And he’s not even Jewish!
Five words that change history: Et hata-ai ani mazkir ha-yom. Why does the butler step forward now? He takes a great risk. Why? There is a deep mystery here. Does he really want to help Pharaoh? Does he feel guilty about forgetting Joseph? What if it doesn’t work out? Then certainly he might be in real trouble again!
We will never know the reason for his stepping forward at that time and saying those words, but one thing we know: without them we are stuck in the pit, perhaps forever. It’s not the only factor, of course. Much could have gone wrong even after the Sar ha-mashkim spoke out, just as the Maccabees could have lost their struggle. Maybe salvation could have come from elsewhere. Maybe, maybe not. But without them, in both cases, where are we? Without the Sar Ha-Mashkim, without Hanukkah, without the Maccabees, there might be no Judaism, no Jewish people. Five little words!
Again, in the story of the Maccabees, of Judah Maccabee, we have more than “history.” We have the “myth” of the hero. The change in history which heroes effect may hinge on some small act, a gamble, with no assured outcome. In this case, a revolt commences with one family, from which a leader, Judah, emerges. His father, Mattathias the priest, is the spiritual figure who lights the candle, and the light of that candle is passed from generation to generation, a flame that starts low and then goes on to light up the world.
In the legend of Hana and seven sons, (another true myth whether it happened or not!) the mother is the hero who stands firm, disregarding personal suffering. Both stories are intergenerational. Each person can be the hero who finds a way to the small cruse of oil and steps up to light the light.
Five little words in Parashat Miketz which is almost always the Parashat Ha-Shavuah of the Shabbat of Hanukkah. The butler who risks, the Maccabees who undertake the impossible, are both instances of the cruse of oil that seems at first to have no staying power but which lasts and lights a flame that grows larger and larger.