I, like many of us, have been trying to digest the historic times we are going through, and find a way to lift my head above grief and confusion. I want to try to convey a message of hope for these dark times: one of faith in a positive future emerging after all this destruction is over.
Let me begin with an odd question. If I asked you, what animal is connected to Hannukah, what would you answer?
May I suggest the phoenix? You will already guess the obvious connection: the flames that burn this mythical creature up, upon which it regenerates and rises from the ashes. But there is more to explore here.
The Hebrew word for phoenix is ‘of ha-hol’, meaning “the sand bird”. Those who wonder about the reason behind this quirky name can find an answer in our sources – and you may well be surprised by the fact that the phoenix appears in Jewish tradition, as was I.
Firstly, the phoenix is said to have been at the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3:6, when the woman eats from the forbidden fruit, the verse tells us:
She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.
The midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (19:5) explains:
“Also” is an inclusive term. She also gave the fruit to the animals, the beasts, and the birds. All heeded her [and ate of the fruit] except for one bird that is called ḥol. As it is written: “I would live many days, like the ḥol” (Job 29:18). The school of Rabbi Yanai says: It lives a thousand years, and at the end of a thousand years, fire emerges from its nest and burns it. An egg-size remains of it and it then grows limbs, and lives again.
Thus, this eternal life, involving a cycle of being burnt up and regenerating, was its reward for refraining from the fruit.
It is also said to have been in Noah’s ark. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) describes a bibliodramatic conversation between Shem, son of Noah, and Eliezer the servant of Avraham, as to what life was like in the ark. Shem tells Eliezer:
With regard to the phoenix [avarshina], my father found it lying in its compartment on the side of the ark. He said to the bird: Do you not want food? The bird said to him: I saw that you were busy, and I said I would not trouble you by requesting food. Noah said to the bird: May it be God’s will that you shall not die, and through that bird the verse was fulfilled, as it is stated: “And I said, I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days ka-ḥol – as the phoenix” (Job 29:18).
Here, in an alternative explanation for its longevity, Noah blessed it with eternal life after it politely did not want to trouble him to feed it (this is why it’s good to be polite!).
Now here’s the question: In both these cases, why do you think the bird wasn’t simply granted immortal life? Why couldn’t it just live forever, instead of having to go to the trouble (and traumatic experience) of burning up every thousand years? In fact, in the Bereshit case it seems even more problematic, as there was no death before the sin and all creatures were immortal anyway – so why not just leave the bird as it is?
A second question: why is the verse from Job referenced in both sources, as if it is a biblical mention of the phoenix? Let’s examine the verse (Job 29:18).
I thought I would end my days with my family,
and my days shall be numbered like the sand / and I shall be as long lived as the phoenix
Rashi explains on the word sand: “This is referring to a bird known as hol, and the punishment of death was not laid upon it, for it did not taste from the Tree of Knowledge. After a thousand years, it renews itself and returns to its youth.”
We would have thought that the plain meaning would be that Job expected his days to be numbered like the sand. He had fully expected to live a long life and die surrounded by family. Yet the midrashim and Rashi prefer to read it as “to number my days long, like the sand bird”, namely the phoenix. Why do they feel the need to bring the bird in?
As we have noted, the phoenix is not simply immortal – living forever without death. Rather, the intriguing and unique aspect here is that it dies and is reborn. Its old self dies in flames and its new self is reborn and revitalised. It is a different process from getting older and older without end. This is the key to the answers to our two questions.
Job is lamenting for what is lost. That same chapter (29) begins with the bereft and broken Job crying out:
O that I were as in months gone by,
In the days when God watched over me
He had been a faithful servant of God, and had expected to die peacefully at home of old age. And yet that was not to be. And perhaps that was for the good, somehow. The midrashic insistence in inserting the phoenix into verse 18 of that chapter brings me to the following insight:
Job is the phoenix. His old life went up in flames – he lost his children, his possessions, his health, everything. And yet, after going through an excruciating process of pain and questioning, Job is finally given a mysterious divine revelation and then rests his quest, accepting that the divine plan cannot be known, it shall always remain beyond human grasp.
At that point, in the final verses of the book (40:12) we are told:
So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning; for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand female asses. 13. He also had seven sons and three daughters.… 16. And after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his grandsons, four generations. 17. And Job died, old and full of days.
Phoenix-like, Job is reborn and has, if anything, even more vigor and vitality than before, like a young bird emerging from those ashes. I never liked the ending of Job as it seems too easy, too facile, too plastic… would he really forget all about his tragic losses simply because he now has new children?
But if it carries this message, then I find it more palatable. The message is carried through the word hol and the connection made by midrash and Rashi to this sand bird, this phoenix, teaches us this vital lesson: that after destruction, rebirth can ensue.
After the collapse of his entire life, his life going up in flames and reduced to ashes, Job rises again to a new and renewed life. I do not think he forgot. I do not think he was the same person. But I believe he was able to go on to new and greater things.
– – –
In parshat Toldot a few weeks ago, we read of the wells that Abraham had dug. The Philistines had stopped them up for no apparent reason, and then Isaac came and redug them. The entire story seems rather strange and random, but the Hasidic masters find deep meaning in these wells. We see that the first two wells are called negative names, Esek and Sitna; these are the ones the shepherds fight over. But the final one is called Rehovot and there is no fighting: it is a well of expansiveness.
Suddenly, there is a great flourishing in Isaac’s life. It is at that point that God appears to him with the longest, and really only, speech He ever gives him, telling him not to fear for he will be blessed and multiplied. Abimelech and Phichol arrive showing great friendship and recognizing that God is with Isaac. Then Isaac is told water has been found in the well.
All of this abundance takes place after redigging the wells needlessly destroyed by the Philistines. And perhaps it can only take place after such destruction. After devastation, renewal can come. After a forest is burned, the vegetation regenerates and sprouts even better than before.
We still mourn the destruction of both Temples, all these centuries later. Yet the end of the second Temple brought us to “Yavne and its sages”, the extensive enterprise of the Oral Law’s development. And through the ashes of the Holocaust we came to the State of Israel.
I am not underestimating how difficult destruction is, I am simply noticing that sometimes, the new and good emerges from the flames.
Can’t we have something new without the destruction? Theoretically this is surely so. Yet often it is not the case. That is the mystery of this world. No pain no gain, as they say. From the darkness comes the light.
Turning now to Hanukkah – the joke goes that our Jewish festivals in a nutshell are: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Without “they tried to kill us”, there is no “let’s eat”. So when we see the witness the current dark and frightening challenges facing Israel and world Jewry, we can but hope and trust, based on our history, that there will also be a joyful new something afterwards, just as the Greek oppression of our religion gave us a most wonderful winter festival every year.
Every night when we light the Hannukah candles, they burn down to a stub, they give a last gasp of flame and are extinguished. It is quite sad to see them vanish after lighting our homes so cheerily. Yet they make a grand return every night, even stronger, for we light yet another candle every night.
The flickering flames, as we sit and watch them, can remind us of the soul. The word neshama (soul) is the same letters as hashemen (the oil). The Hannukah flames/souls, like the phoenix, like Job, are annihilated each night, going cold and dark – and yet return faithfully on the morrow, joined by yet more flames, stronger than ever.
And so too we, the Jewish people, shall, God willing, arise from the ash and burn bright and renewed, in ways we cannot even predict at present.