This week as we celebrate Chanukah, a post-Torah holiday, we also study Parashat Miketz. Of course, we remember the story from the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), “…when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient [fuel] for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days.” The fear was that the oil would only sustain the flame for one day; miraculously, it burned for eight. This miracle was not of any person’s making. There was neither a special plea to God nor a chemical enhancement of the oil. The miracle is the expectation of scarcity was proven wrong. There was enough oil to last until more could be secured. How delightful to have been proven wrong!
There is also a tale of scarcity and abundance in Miketz. Joseph, now Pharaoh’s dream interpreter, forecasts seven years of feast and seven years of famine. In this tale, Joseph interprets two sets of Pharaoh’s dreams. In Genesis 41:17-20, Pharaoh relates, “In my dream I stood on the bank of the Nile, and lo — seven cows went up out of the river; fat and handsome, they grazed among the reeds. And lo — seven other cows — poor, truly repulsive, emaciated and repulsive cows then ate up the first cows, the fat ones.” He shares a similar dream about ears of grain, first full and good, then dried and scorched. Joseph explains that God is revealing to Pharaoh a prediction of seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. In this case, the miracle is that the plan is revealed. Armed with dream-interpretations, Joseph can formulate a plan saving the Egyptians from starvation, providing greater wealth and power for Pharaoh, and setting himself and his family up for success.
In the case of Chanukah, it is a spiritual necessity that leads to the miracle. No one will starve physically without the oil. It represents the thirst for the presence of God, and the miraculous abundance — the sustained light lasting long beyond expectation — that reminds us that Chanukah is indeed a religious holiday. It focuses on the presence of God and all that God can provide. The miracle of Miketz is Joseph’s ability to use what will become scarce to the benefit of Pharaoh and, thereby, himself and his family. Without Joseph’s divinely-given insight, people would have starved. Instead, providentially, they made use of the years of plenty. There clearly is also a political gain to be had based on the need by virtue of the exchange of the people’s land for the Pharaoh’s stored food, fabulously enriching Pharaoh. The far-sighted planning of Joseph asks us as Jews to be prescient as well regarding our relationship with God.
Scarcity and abundance impact the way we live our lives. The fear that we will run out may lead us to be mindful of waste and consumption or it may prompt us to become stingy and hoarding. Abundance can lead us to share and provide for others or it can motivate to self-aggrandizement, thinking that we alone deserve all we have. Neither of our examples demonstrates classic “glass half-full” or “glass half-empty” situations because we cannot look at our glasses and know that God will provide more water or the insight to determine the true state of the water. Instead, the miracles from our texts push us to consider our very vision. Can we trust our understanding of a cruse of oil? Can we believe our perception of reality? Can we truly identify our place in history?
A miracle of Chanukah is the upending of what we consider possible. In a week of the convergence of miracles in both Torah and Talmud, perhaps we are being compelled to overcome the impossible, to be the miracle. If we understand the world to be one of scarcity, we learn that abundance is possible. If we see the abundance in our own lives, we can be the magnanimous hand of God in the lives of those who cannot conceive of such bounty. Whether our need is physical or spiritual, we can prove “Nes gadol hayah sham,” a great miracle happened there.