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The Shelah (1560-1630) writes that every special date on the Jewish calendar is related to the parashiyos read in close proximity to it. What, then, is the connection between Vayeishev and Chanukah? The following is one answer:

When Yosef went to check on his brothers at the bequest of his father, he met a man – identified by our Sages as the angel Gavriel – who told him that his brothers “traveled from here” to a place called Doson. Rashi explains that these words really mean, “They have removed themselves from brotherhood…to seek legal means to put you to death.”

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The Ramban maintains that Gavriel did not actually say these words; in fact, he spoke ambiguously so that Yosef wouldn’t understand the underlying message. For had Yosef understood, he would not have endangered himself by traveling to Doson. However, Rashi (in his commentary on the parashah and in his commentary to Sotah 13b), implies that Gavriel actually said these words to Yosef, and Yosef proceeded to Doson nevertheless.

Evidently, Rashi and Ramban disagree concerning a major halachic point. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a) tells us that a Jew, if threatened with death, should give up his life unless the sin he is asked to transgress is idolatry, sexual immorality, or murder (and as long as the threat is not made before 10 or more Jews). What if a Jew wishes to be machmir, though? Can he give up his life rather than commit a lesser sin?

The Rambam writes, “Anyone concerning whom it is stated, ‘He should transgress and not let himself be killed’ – if he lets himself be killed and does not transgress, he is guilty of a mortal sin” (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:4). Tosafos and other authorities, however, maintain that the Talmud merely means that a person may transgress any mitzvah except for three if his life is in danger, not that he must. Indeed, the Kesef Mishneh writes that it is “meritorious” to give up one’s life even to avoid committing a lesser sin.

The Ramban seems to agree with the Rambam; that’s why he argues that Gavriel’s words were ambiguous. Had they been clear, Yosef would not have proceeded to Doson, in the Ramban’s opinion. Rashi, on the other hand, evidently maintains that giving up one’s life rather than commit a lesser sin is meritorious, which is why he can maintain that Gavriel’s meaning was clear.

Interestingly, even according to the Rambam, if an exceptionally pious and G-d-fearing man sees that his generation is degenerate in a certain matter, he may sanctify G-d’s name and sacrifice himself even to avoid a minor mitzvah so that people learn from his example.

Accordingly, it’s possible that Yosef felt his brothers lacked respect for their father (witness their hatred due to their father’s favoritism towards him, Shimon and Levi’s deed years before in Shechem, etc.) and therefore felt obligated to put himself in danger to show them how important respecting one’s parent is.

The Maccabees showed similar valor. Although defying the Greeks was mandatory (due to the Greek war against Judaism), taking up arms against them was halachically questionable considering how poor their chances were as the “few against the many and the weak against the strong.” Why, then, did they endanger themselves? Because they were sons of kohanim gedolim” (Rambam) – respected spiritual personalities – and, like Yosef HaTzaddik, they felt obligated to set an example for other Jews.

Hashem of course rewarded their extreme self-sacrifice by granting them victory in the war and miraculously making a jug of oil after their victory last eight days.

Happy Chanukah to everyone!

(Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings)

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Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman is director of the central Lubavitch Youth Organization and a weekly columnist for The Jewish Press.