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  • Yaakob Bitton

Hanukka: Pits, Water and Leadership

“Ma-ee Hanukka?” (= what is Hanukka?) A Talmudic passage in Masekhet Shabbat (21b-22a) begins with this question. After presenting the famous story of the one container of pure oil that lasted miraculously for eight days, the passage then discusses Hanukka laws, almost exclusively, with one notable exception. This commentary regarding Yosef being thrown to a pit by his own brothers, seems to interrupt the Hanukka theme:

ואמר רב כהנא: דרש רב נתן בר מניומי משמיה דרב תנחום: "מאי דכתיב (בראשית לז) והבור רק אין בו מים, ממשמע שנא' והבור רק, איני יודע שאין בו מים? אלא, מה ת"ל "אין בו מים"? מים – אין בו. אבל נחשים ועקרבים – יש בו!"

And Rav Kahana also said the following: during his public sermon, Rav Natan the son of Minyome said this in the name of Rav Tanhum: “What does it mean ‘…and the pit was empty; it had no water’? From being told that the pit was empty, do I not know that it had no water? Rather, what can you infer from ‘it had no water’? That ‘water’—the pit did not contain; but scorpions and snakes—those the pit did contain.”

Rav Tanhum’s reading is very clever. Yosef’s brothers failed to realize the consequences of a dry pit. Snakes and scorpions can comfortably make a water-less surface their home! Ironically, in trying to save Yosef from the danger of water, his brothers inadvertently exposed him to a greater danger: that of very poisonous creatures in the gorgeous landscape of today’s Shomron.

The message is clear. Vacuum has no place in this world.

As individuals, this is a good advice with numerous everyday applications for our practical life. Also for our intellectual life, we should realize that a mind that is empty from wisdom is easily manipulated, and presents a fertile ground for silliness and bad ideas.

At the political dimension, too, Rav Tanhum’s warning has demonstrable ramifications in geopolitical affairs. Vacuums should never be strategic goals in and of themselves, even if well-intended. For instance, only recently did the United States begin to understand that political vacuums beget snakes and scorpions. Depose the Iranian Shah—get the Ayatollahs. Expel the Soviets from Afghanistan—get the Taliban. Overthrow Mubarak in Egypt—get the Muslim Brotherhood. Remove Gaddafi in Libya—get Al Qaida. Retreat the U.S. Armed Forces from Iraq—get ISIS.

Most importantly, however, Rav Tanhum’s lesson is about leadership. Yosef’s brothers, so intent in removing the one person who could have been the best qualified leader for the lot (Yosef), did not realize that lack of a good leader means scorpions and snakes will take his place. Removing Yosef (signified by the water) enabled those among his brothers who came up with the grand idea of killing him (those brothers may be signified by scorpions and snakes).

And this is the connection between Yosef’s water-less pit and Hanukka. The crisis leading to Hanukka started with absence of leadership. During that time, as two Kohanim were fighting to see who would be the Kohen Gadol, a third Kohen, Jason, took advantage of the situation. He bribed the Greek king Antiokhus Epiphanes and was appointed as Kohen Gadol himself. Seeing how this tactic worked for Jason, a fourth person (who was not even a Kohen!), Menelaus, outbid Jason in his bribes to Antiokhus and was then appointed Kohen Gadol in his stead.

These leaders were interested in self-aggrandizement, rather than caring about the law they were supposed to represent (the Tora) or the people they were supposed to lead (Israel). This was the lack of water in the well of Israel. As a result, it became very easy for scorpions and snakes, the actual Greeks led by Antiokhus, to fill that vacuum, with disastrous consequences for our ancestors.

Like He saved Yosef, in the end God also saved the Jewish People from the snake-filled pit that was Antiokhus’ reign of terror in Judea, and in a few days we will be happily celebrating this in Hanukka. Nevertheless, Rav Tanhum’s warning stands: absence of water also means presence of snakes and scorpions.

There is an urgent crisis of leadership in the Jewish People. Particularly in Eretz Israel. Unlike Jason and Menelaus, nobody will be accused of offering pigs in the Holy Temple. But like Jason and Menelaus, today’s political leaders in Israel are much more interested in self-preservation and in saying what is convenient and popular, than in standing with principle or leading the people. It is most tragic, because Rav Tanhum was right. The less our leaders lead, the more all kinds of bad actors feel empowered. Our leaders stayed idle while Iran was racing to acquire means to implement a final solution to the Jewish problem, and lack of Israeli leadership meant that the only ones invited to the negotiations table were the agents of the Ayatollahs, not Israel. That none of our leaders had the courage to do something as sensible as placing metal detectors at the entrances to an area into which terrorists had brought weapons several times, was tantamount to extending a formal invitation to all kinds of snakes and scorpions. (I want to end on an optimistic note, so I will not bring any more examples.)

Thanks to God, there are wonderful leaders in Israel, like Moshe Feiglin. Zehut represents a party (probably the only political party today) interested in leading. In standing with principle, even when inconvenient. In sacrificing self-promotion for a chance to lead.

True, there are a great many snakes and scorpions out there, and most of us are understandably anxious. But in addition to a warning, we could also see Rav Tanhum’s message as a formula: don’t worry about the scorpions and snakes, worry about the water. A well filled with water will never have scorpions or snakes. With the help of God, Zehut will soon be given a chance to lead, and Israel will be a well overflowing with water. The snakes and scorpions will take care of themselves.

Hag Urim Sameach!

Yaakob Bitton

[Yaakob Bitton is a member of Zehut International. For now, until he moves to Israel, he lives with his wife and three children in Great Neck, NY.]

Photo by Oren Rozen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

#Chanukah #Joseph

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