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The Few, the Strong (Mikeitz/Chanukah)

Pharoah, the king of Egypt, has a dream. Seven healthy, large cows stand grazing in a meadow, only to soon be joined by seven unhealthy and skinny cows. These gauntly cows proceed to eat the healthy cows, and Pharoah wakes up in distress.

Pharoah then falls back asleep, and has a second, similar dream. Seven healthy ears of grain appear, followed by seven thin and burnt ears of grain. The scrawny ears of grain swallow the healthy ears of grain, and Pharoah arises in the morning in a state of panic. He calls together his advisors, hoping to gain an understanding of the dreams. Unable to provide a meaningful interpretation, Pharoah soon sends for Yoseph (Joseph) from prison, in a desperate attempt to make sense of the troubling dreams. This sets in motion a chain of events that will culminate in Yoseph’s ascent to power in Egypt.

Rav Shimon Schwab (the late Rav and communal leader of Washington Heights) asks a fundamental question on this narrative: Why was Pharoah in such a state of distress? Yes, these dreams were strange, but they seemingly had no basis in reality. Yet Pharoah is so perturbed by these dreams that has all his advisors gather to help him understand their meaning. When they fail, he goes to the extreme of freeing a Hebrew slave named Yoseph who he has heard can interpret dreams well. Why didn’t Pharoah just assume that these dreams were nothing but a vision of foolishness, and could be easily ignored?

Typically, the many will overpower the few. In war, numbers are generally seen as an advantage. While not an assurance of victory, overpowering force will often dictate the results of a given battle. Explains Rav Schwab, Pharoah had lived with this assumption for his entire political life. As he lounged on his throne, Pharoah was content with the knowledge that he controlled a massive army that could easily quell any rebellion or uprising that may occur.

These dreams, however, presented a different scenario to Pharoah. Strong, healthy cows, and strong, healthy ears of grain, were overpowered by a far smaller, weaker foe. It was this very message that alarmed Pharoah. True, he could not have yet known how prophetic these dreams would turn out to be, but the very idea of the weak overpowering the strong deeply distressed him. Perhaps, he wondered to himself, could the same thing happen in my kingdom? Could I too succumb to the machinations of the few, the weak?

This idea can help explain why we read Parshas Mikeitz on Chanukah. The Chashmonaim (Hasmoneans) were greatly outmatched, both in strength and in numbers. As we recount in the “Al Hanissim” prayer that is said on the days of Chanukah, “You (G-d) gave over the strong (the Greeks) to the hands of the weak, the many to the hands of the few.”

The Greeks, much like Pharoah, could not have foreseen a reality wherein the few or the weak could overpower the mighty. Yet, in the ancient Greek empire, that is exactly what happened. While numbers and military might seem to be an insurmountable advantage when confronting a small band of rebels, ancient Greece failed to consider that G-d Himself would ensure that the Jewish people emerged victorious.

The commentators (see Maharal, Sifsei Chaim, etc.) debate the main miracle of the Chanukah story is – is it the oil lasting for eight nights or the military success of the Chashmonaim? The general consensus is that the military victory was the greater miracle of the two and deserves to be celebrated accordingly. If so, why do we focus on lighting the Menorah, which is a symbol commemorating the miracle of the lasting oil? The commentators go on to explain that to the untrained eye, a military miracle can be chalked up to excellent military planning or simply luck. The miracle of the oil, however, cannot be explained away in natural terms. We thus celebrate the miracle of oil to show how G-d provided miracles for our forefathers as they fought under Greek oppression. Once we have established that this event was a miracle beyond any natural explanation, we can then appreciate that the war too, while seemingly more naturally explainable, was in truth a miracle as well.

While we may not often see unconcealed miracles, we can learn to appreciate the hidden, more “natural” seeming miracles by studying what has occurred to our people. Using the Chanukah story as a model, we can begin to appreciate how G-d always interacts with us, even when events are often hidden in natural explanations.

About the Author
Ari Walfish was born and raised in Toronto. After graduating high school, Ari spent several years learning in Yeshivos in both Israel and America. Ari earned an MBA from Emporia State University and is currently learning in a Kollel in Yerushalayim.
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