‘And the pit was empty, having no water in it:’ The Deeper Message Behind the Hasmonean Revolt
Rabbi Dr. Ari Silbermann, a former shaliach in Manchester, England, is the Director of Education and Leadership Development of the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Institutes
Ask a Brazilian whether you can be neutral about any part of the World Cup. For a football-crazy country, even a game without Brazil playing impacts the Brazilian chances and cannot be overlooked. Every kick and pass brings with it massive consequences. While I don’t quite understand that level of dedication, this idea can be particularly useful for understanding Channuka. What do I mean?
In the Talmudic discussion recounting the halachot of Channuka, we find an unconnected midrash. Rav Kahana recites a tradition in the name of Rav Natan Bar Manyumi, who tells in the name of Rav Tanhum that when Yosef was cast into the pit, the verse states that the pit was empty and then adds a seemingly superfluous, ‘and there was no water in it.’ The midrash, with its profound sensitivity to the nuances of the text, asks, ‘By inference from that which is stated: And the pit was empty, don’t I know that there was no water in it? Rather, why does the verse say: There was no water in it?’ The answer is that ‘there was no water in it, but there were snakes and scorpions in it.’
On a superficial reading, this midrash aggada is recited here because the preceding halachic discussion also had a teaching in the name of Rav Kahana, who repeated a tradition in the name of Rav Natan Bar Manyumi, who recounted it in the name of Rav Tanhum. The method of the Gemara – in a world before footnotes – is to include statements in this way, even if they are unrelated. Superficially, also, this Torah portion, tied to the story of Joseph, is usually read around the time of Channuka.
However, after a closer look, there is more to it. This midrash teaches a lesson inherent to the message of Channuka.
The cultural war between the Hellenists and the Jews was a deep ideological and theological divide. And yet the nature of Hellenism meant that for many Jews, a kind of syncretism was possible, allowing one to combine both cultures relatively easily. Especially in obvious secular contexts, one could claim that there was no need to stake a side. However, the Maccabees said no! In a cultural war, and indeed as a matter of Jewish belief, there is never a truly neutral space. Hashem and his Torah inhibit every realm. Either you are on the side of Hashem or not.
This is also the message of the midrash, and why it is found amongst the laws of Channuka. There is no such thing as an empty pit – if there is a space devoid of the light of Torah, it is necessarily filled with snakes and scorpions. The figure of Yosef himself embodies this more than anyone else. Exiled to the Egyptian court, tested with many ethical trials, he remained tied to his home and maintained the image of his father in the front of his mind at all times – and successfully maintained his identity. Like Yosef, we shouldn’t exclude ourselves from society but must ensure that every element of the world around us is filled with Jewish tradition and Torah.
Just as the chanukiah is lit towards the street at the entrance to the home, our role as shlichim is to ensure that the lives of our communities in the shul, in the home, and on the street are infused with a purified, profound, and enlightening Torah.