Let Them Eat Latkes…Mikeitz Chanukah 5778
Recently, we had a Chanukah party at my house. I was busy preparing for an important lecture, so I was hoping to stay out of the kitchen entirely. (I’m really good at scheduling lectures whenever I know there will be out of work in the home…) But just when I thought I was free and clear, I got stuck with frying the latkes. How did I get stuck with that job you wonder? (For all of you who are thinking, “Well actually, I don’t wonder, I couldn’t care less,” please skip to the last paragraph!)
Walking through the kitchen, I found my wife’s first cousin dutifully tending the frying pans. Not wanting to be a total ingrate, I figured I would talk to him for a few minutes before slinking away. While we were schmoozing, we could hear all the kids playing in the basement with their new Chanukah presents, or at least that is what they told me they were doing because to me it sounded like piranhas in a feeding frenzy.
About ten minutes into our heart to heart, my cousin mumbled something about seeing what his kids were up to and disappeared downstairs. Personally, I think he wanted to join the feeding frenzy, but I will leave that up to your imagination. Either way, I found myself alone in the kitchen with two frying pans, a slightly burnt smell, and a bowl of latke batter that looked like it was made for Paul Bunyan. As a matter of fact, that was how I found myself for the next three hours!
You may not know this, but slugs run marathons faster than latkes fry. But due to a scientific principle called Murphy’s Law, if you leave the stove for ten seconds or less they are all bound to burn, so you are forced to stand in front of the oven and let burning oil splatter all over you for the duration of the cooking time. As I sat there with the burns welting up on my hands, I got into this zen-like zone where I no longer felt the heat, I no longer heard the kids fighting over their new toys in the basement, and I was no longer irritated over the fact that every time I finished making a latka someone came and took it off the plate, never allowing me the satisfaction of seeing a rapidly growing pile of steaming latkes. I was at one with my latke production.
I focused on the amount of oil disappearing into the pan. Was it evaporating, or was the oil transforming into latka? If I eat latkes which are a traditional Chanukah food, will G-d protect me and not allow my cholesterol to spike to 385? Will I get heartburn tonight, or can I save myself by balancing out each latke with a tall glass of milk of magnesia? If Jews started frying latkes without oil, would the U.S.A. become energy self-sufficient? If we have leftover latkes can I just put them in my gas tank? These were the deep concerns that raced around my head for hours as I sat with my skin melting off, in front of two frying pans and Paul Bunyan’s latke batter bowl!
Then I started to ask myself, why didn’t I just buy those ready-made latkes you can get in any local grocery store’s freezer section? The kind that come in five pound bags of inch-thick reconstituted potato triangles? The kind that is probably healthier, cheaper, quicker to make, and guaranteed not to singe off all my forearm hair?
And the answer is that there is simply no substitute for good ole’ hard work. Sure, we can go to the local deli and buy a Shabbos special that includes everything you need for 3 Shabbos meals for 8 people, and it will only cost $29.95. But does that mean that we should stop making our own homemade chicken soup? That we should give up the centuries old family recipe for potato kugel? No, because the effort we put in to making Shabbos ourselves makes us appreciate Shabbos that much more.
The simple analogy for this is an anniversary dinner. Sure you can take your wife out to the finest restaurant, and eat a feast, and then tell your wife you love her as you swipe your credit card on that $180 dinner. But how much more would you show her you love her if you come home early and spend three hours preparing her a gourmet meal to surprise her with when she comes home from work!? Not only would you show her you love her, but your love for her would actually grow through the hard work you put in on her behalf.
Sure, you can pay $12 an hour for a babysitter to take your children to the zoo, to take them apple picking in the fall, swimming in the summer, and sledding in the winter. But how much more of a relationship can you build with them if you spend the time with them yourself! All the indicators show that nothing beats rolling up your sleeves and getting into the thick of the fray!
As a matter of fact, the entire miracle of Chanukah was based on a group of people who didn’t want to settle for store-bought-latkes quality. When the Maccabees came into the Temple, they found that all the pure oil flasks had been defiled. The Torah law is that when there is no pure oil you can use regular oil. They could’ve gone to the local Trader Joe’s, bought a gallon of 100% pure olive oil, lit their menorah and called it a day. But no, the Maccabees wouldn’t settle for anything but the best. They spend hours scouring the temple to try to find one pure flask, so that they could do the mitzvah in the proper way. Despite their weariness from years of battle, they didn’t look for the easy way out, they rolled up their sleeves and worked on creating the best mitzvah they could.
G-d saw the great love they had for Him, He saw that they worked so hard to make only the best mitzvah for His honor, and He responded by lighting up their world with His love. He made the Chanukah miracle, so that for the next eight days it was clear that He appreciated their hard work, to bring Him the best there was to bring.
Every Chanukah, Jews around the world light menorahs in their windows, proclaiming to the world that when it comes to our values, we are a people who settle for nothing but the best for ourselves and our families. It may take more work, and it may be a challenge in today’s fast paced and ever changing society, but like the Maccabee warriors, we know that we have G-d on our side, and our efforts will be met with shovelfuls of help from above.
Store bought latkas are good, but they definitely are not the best there is to offer. So this Saturday night, when we have another family Chanukah party, I may just volunteer for stove duty, because Chanukah is the holiday that teach us that settling for mediocrity is not an option.
Chanukah Dvar Torah
One of the primary functions of lighting the menora is pirsumei nissa, publicizing the great miracle that G-d performed on our behalf. This is why we only light the menora in a place that is highly visible such as a window open to a public thoroughfare. This idea also dictates the ideal time for lighting the menora. We should try to light it as it as it starts to get dark outside and people are heading home. During this time, our menoras can get the maximum exposure. If we can not light it then, we can light it later but preferably while there is still some traffic outside.
Based on the desire to publicize the miracle, the ideal place for a menorah would be right next to the door. Indeed in Israel, most people light their menorahs in that spot. The Sages teach us that a person should place the menorah on the left side of the door. Since the mezuzah is on the right, he will be surrounded by mitzvos when entering his home. Obviously, whatever is on the right when you walk in the door will be on the left when you walk out. So the menora which is on the left of the door when you walk in, would be on the right when you walk out. Is there any significance to which mitzvos are on what side when one walks in or out of his home?
The truth is that the mezuzah and the menorah represent two opposing ideas. The mezuzah is representative of compromise. There is an argument between two early commentators in the Talmud (Tractate Menachos folio 33A), Rashi and Rabeinu Tam, on how to properly place a mezuzah. Rashi says we should place it vertically, and Rabeinu Tam says we should place it horizontally. In practice, we place it diagonally in a compromise between the two opinions. This is the only time in all of Jewish Law where we have an argument in Halacha and rule in manner which strikes a compromise between the two views.
The Menorah represents being steadfast, unwavering, and obdurate. It commemorates a miracle that occurred to a small group of people that refused to be washed over in the tide of assimilation. A group of people who tenaciously hung on to their practices and beliefs even at a time when most of the world mocked them as old-fashioned, unrealistic, uncooperative, and foolishly superstitious. This group merited seeing the last open miracle that the Jewish people witnessed. They also merited having us commemorate that resolve every year, in an attempt to instill the lesson into our souls.
Let’s get back to the placement of these objects in our doorway. As we walk into our homes, the Mezuzah is on our right sight, the dominant side, reminding us that when a Jew comes into his home he must be prepared to make compromises in order to uphold the Shalom Bayis, the peace of the home. He cannot be rigid and unflinching, as that will cause his home to be rife with tension, arguing, and dispute.
However, as one walks out of his house, the menorah is on the dominant right side to signify to us that we cannot compromise our Jewish values even one iota when we are out in the big world. We cannot allow ourselves to do things that we normally wouldn’t do at home just to help the deal go through smoothly. We cannot allow our morals to become a bit more relaxed around the office, nor can we go hang out with friends in a setting that contrasts to the sanctity of our Jewish home. We need to take every aspect of the moral fiber of the Jewish home and bring it with us into the world outside, without a smidgen of adjustment or modification. This is the message of the placement of the Menorah and the Mezuzah, those two opposing symbols surrounding the Jewish home’s door. Together they make it into a Portal of Perfection!
This Parsha begins with Pharaoh having two very strange, yet similar, dreams. In the first one, he sees seven fat cows grazing in the marshes. Suddenly, seven thin, sickly cows consume the seven fat cows, but they don’t gain any weight. In the second dream, the same episode occurs with fat and thin stalks of grain. Pharaoh brings in all the wise people to help him interpret the dream but no one can do so.
Suddenly, the king’s butler remembers that there had been a Jewish boy in prison with him who properly interpreted his dream. He tells Pharaoh about Yosef, and Yosef is taken out of prison, bathed, barbered, and brought before the king (how did you like that alliteration?).
Yosef tells the king that with the help of G-d he will interpret the dreams. He explains that the dreams portend of seven years whence the land will experience great abundance (the 7 fat cows/ stalks), which will be succeeded by seven years of such hunger (the 7 thin cows/ stalks) that no one will be able to tell that there had once been an abundance (the thin cows/ grains not gaining weight). The fact that there were two dreams indicates that what they reveal will begin immediately.
Yosef then continues to advise Pharaoh to store up all the extra grain during the seven years of abundance so that there would be enough food to keep everyone alive during the famine. Pharaoh likes the idea and gives Yosef the job. He grants Yosef the title vice-king (Viceroy = Vice Roi, roi meaning king in French), and declares that Yosef shall run the entire Egypt, and that the only person with more power than Yosef will be Pharaoh himself.
Sure enough, things go as foretold. There are 7 years of plenty, Yosef gathers massive stores of food essentials, and then the famine begins. Oh, I forgot, in the middle Yosef gets married and had two children, Ephraim and Menasheh.
Soon, the famine reaches Israel and Yaakov sends 10 of his children down to Egypt to procure provisions for his progeny. He keeps Binyamin with him as he can’t bear to lose both of Rachel’s children, and he already lost Yosef (or so he thought). Now, it is important to remember that the string of events which follow were all devised by Yosef to help his siblings see the mistake they made in selling him, so that they could properly repent.
When the brothers come into Egypt they are rounded up and brought before Yosef who begins to interrogate them. They explain that they are from a family of 11 brothers and that they had another brother who is no longer with them. Yosef accuses them of being liars and spies and tells them that the only way they can prove that they are saying the truth is by bring down their remaining brother so that Yosef can see him.
Yosef instructs his servants to load up their donkeys and send them back home. However, he keeps one brother (Shimon) as a hostage and tells them that they cannot get any more food unless they bring Binyamin down with them. He then instructs his son Menashe to put each brother’s moneybag back into their sacks. When the brothers find their money, they become even more nervous, as now it looks like they stole!
The brothers go back to their father, Yaakov, and relate to him the events that transpired. He refuses to allow Binyamin to go down. Finally, the food runs out again, and Yehuda, the brother with inherent leadership capabilities, tells his father that he will take personal responsibility for bringing Binyamin back, to the point that he is willing to use his share in the World to Come as security. Yaakov relents and the brothers go back to Egypt with Binyamin.
The brothers bring money to the head of Yosef’s home and explain that they found it in their bags, but they are told to keep it. Yosef arranges for them to have a special meal with him. Yosef enters and inquires about his father, then turns to Binyamin and blesses him. Overcome with emotion, Yosef rushes out to weep and then comes back after regaining his composure. He then seats the brothers in order of age, telling them that his magic goblet told him their ages. He gives Binyamin a special portion 5 times larger than the brothers’ portions.
The next morning, when the brothers set out, he again instructs Menashe to put their money back in the bag, but he also tells him to hide his goblet in Binyamin’s sack. Soon after they set out, Menashe chases them down with a small army and asks them why they returned Yosef’s kindness with thievery, stealing the goblet they know is especially dear to Yosef. Yehuda speaks up for them and denies any liability, going as far as to say that if the goblet is found with any of the brothers, they can kill that brother and the rest of the brothers will be slaves.
Of course, they find the goblet with Binyamin, and Menashe tells the brothers that he won’t kill Binyamin, he will just take him as a slave, and the rest are free to go. They all go back to the palace, where Yehuda pleads before Yosef and tells him that all the brothers wish to remain together and that they will all become slaves. However, Yosef refuses, saying that he is not corrupt and he won’t take the others because they did no crime, but that Binyamin has to stay. In that tension-filled palace room, the Parsha ends, and I know you will be back next week to see what goes down!!
Quote of the Week: Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is? ~ Frank Skully
Random Fact of the Week: After a three week vacation, your IQ can drop by as much as 20%!
Funny Line of the Week: A closed mouth gathers no foot.
Have a Glowing Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham