Vayeshev 5780 – Chanukah and Envy

Envy is at the heart of this week’s parsha.

We’re told, 

And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age; and he made him a fine woolen coat (aka “coat of many colors” – the Hebrew “ktonet passim” is a little obscure).

How did the brothers respond?

And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully.

Joseph has two dreams, one in which he and his brothers were sheaves in a field, and the brothers’ sheaves bowed down to his sheaf, and the other in which the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowed down to him. 

Joseph told the first dream to his brothers, and they were offended. They said, “do you mean to rule over us?” and they hated him even more.

He told the second dream to his brothers and his father; the Torah tells us,

…his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Will we come I, your mother, and your brothers to prostrate ourselves to you to the ground?”

We’re told, “So his brothers envied him, but his father kept his silence.”

We know where the envy led – the brothers sold Joseph into slavery, and the entire Passover story is set into motion, because of envy.

Chanukah starts Sunday night. Most people aren’t aware of it, but just as the Passover story has its roots in brotherly envy, the Chanukah story also has its roots in brotherly envy. The real Chanukah story is quite a bit different than the version we teach in usually teach in Hebrew school.

We usually think of Chanukah as starting with Antiochus IV’s “evil decrees.” They’re mentioned in the al hanisim prayer in the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon during Chanukah. Antiochus forbid the practice of Judaism. No sacrifices in the temple, no circumcisions, no studying Torah.

But why did Antiochus issue those decrees? 

It’s a story that starts with brotherly envy.

The story is found in Maccabees II (apocrypha, part of the Catholic bible, but not the Tanach)

At time of Hanukah story, nearly 2,200 years ago, Israel was part of the Seleucid dynasty. 

Alexander the Great conquered the area in 332 BCE. After his death, the Greek Empire split into several pieces; in the area of Israel the Ptolemies were to the south, in Egypt, and the Seleucids to the north, in Syria. Israel was fought over and went back and forth; at time of the Hanukah Israel was under the Seleucids.

The Seleucid kings allowed the Jews to continue practicing their religion; the temple functioned, sacrifices were offered. Polytheistic religions in general are more tolerant than monotheistic religions. If you believe in many gods, what’s one more? The kings weren’t completely hands off on matters of religion. The office of high priest was sold off to the Kohen who offered the most money to the king. It was a very lucrative position.

You’ll have to pay attention, as the story is a little complicated with lots of intrigue. As our story opens, Onias was the high priest.

Onias’s brother Jason envied his brother’s position – and the wealth and prestige that went with the office. 

Jason envied him so much that he usurped his brother by making the king a better offer.

So now Jason is the high priest. He sent his friend Menelaus on a mission to the king. Unknown to Jason, Menelaus envied him for high priest’s job, so while he’s there on a mission for Jason, he usurps him by making the king a still better offer. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

What happens next is a long and complicated story, but to simplify it a bit, Onias, Jason, and Menelaus continue to struggle over the office of high priest. Menelaus has Onias killed; everyone hated Menelaus, so when Jason hears a rumor (incorrect as it turns out) that Antiochus had died, he tries to take advantage of the popular unrest and raises an army to try and unseat Menelaus. Jason’s attempted overthrow failed – all he did was manage to kill a bunch of Jews.

Meanwhile, Antiochus, very much alive, hears about what’s going on and assumes it’s an insurrection against his rule, so he sends his army to quash it – and kills 80,000 Jews, plunders and defiles the Temple, and issues his “evil decrees.” 

It seems like Antiochus got fed up with all the scheming. He seems to have decided that religion was a problem, so he was going to “Hellenize” the Judeans, make them “real Greeks” by banning the practice of their “pagan” religion. This got the religious Jews, especially Judas Maccabee, incensed, and the Chanukah story we know and love was under way.

Another part of the story that we don’t usually tell is that this wasn’t only a battle against Antiochus – it was also a civil war. Many of the Jews, especially in the urban areas, were very secular, or “Hellenized.” They admired Greek culture and wanted to be more Greek. Some of them even reversed the mark of their circumcisions, which they say was a very painful process. Those Jews were opposed to the Maccabee efforts to get rid of the Seleucids.

That is, in fact, one of the ironies of the Chanukah story: Chanukah is the the last holiday that many secular Jews cling to. Jews who might not ever go to synagogue, not even on the high holidays, will still light Chanukah candles. Yet in a way the holiday of Chanukah represents the victory of religious Jews over Jews like them.

But the main point to all this is that just as the Passover story owes its beginnings to the story of envy we read today, the Chanukah story also starts with envy – envy between brothers and friends that brings about personal and national disaster.

The Torah cautions against envy. Extreme envy, coveting, is forbidden by the ten commandments.

Proverbs 14:30 warns against the effects of envy: 

A sound heart is the life of the flesh; but envy is the rottenness of the bones.

Rabbi David Altschuler, the 18th century Galician exegete (Metzudat David) explains this verse by telling us that someone who has a sound heart will be protected against envy, and this will be the life of his flesh because he’s not going to be worried and consumed with how to get revenge on others; but someone who has a hard heart, and hangs on to envy, will bring rottenness to himself from the continual stress and worry.

Ibn Ezra tells us that envy will lead you to do bad things—which is the rottenness of the bones, it will lead you to become a “rotten person.”

Most of us are not so driven by envy that it leads us to murder… BUT envy still can lead to great discontent, to immoral actions, to a “rottenness of the bones,” in anyone.

What is envy? It’s a state of discontent. Sandra Kurtzig, an entrepreneur who founded ASK software, one of the early programs used to run factories, said “someone who has say $10 million is not necessarily happier than someone who has $9 million.” Those of us who are a long way from $9 million laugh at that, but sadly, for people with $9 million it can be a very real problem. Just like you might envy your neighbor’s ski vacation in Europe when you can only afford Whistler, a person with an 80-foot yacht could feel content until he gets on his friend’s 100-foot yacht and suddenly his feels cramped and he envies his friend’s. There is no amount of wealth that is enough to protect you from feeling envy.

Our tradition tells us the way out of this quandary. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, it is taught: Mishehu ashir? “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said, “When you eat of the labor of your hands, you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you. You shall be happy – in this world, and it shall be well with you – in the world to come.”

Great advice, but how do we do that, how do we develop that feeling of contentment with our lot?

The answer is in the siddur, in our prayerbook.

Cultivate an “attitude of gratitude.”

One of my favorite prayers is one I say every day while I’m still in bed:

Modeh ani lifanecha melech chai v’kayam sh’chezarta nishmati b’chemla, raba emunotecha

I am grateful before you living and enduring king who has graciously restored my soul to me, great is your faithfulness.

An amazing thing: we wake up, the first thing we do is to be grateful for waking up!

I often use it as a moment to take inventory of other things I’m grateful for., although as Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man said, sometimes as you get older it can be harder to find the gratitude. There’s a French saying, “if you’re over 50 and you wake up and nothing hurts or aches, it means you’re dead.”

But instead of focusing on the aches and pains, focus on the good, whatever it is. Being alive. Friends, family. A roof over your head, food on your table.

There are many examples in our prayers where we find prayers of gratitude. Here are a few:

  • The birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, is all about being grateful for the food we have eaten.
  • In the Amidah, central prayer of Judaism, there are three blessings of giving thanks at the end, including an expression of gratitude for the miracles that are with us daily. 
  • One of my favorites is the blessing after using the bathroom. I do say this one all the time. Anyone who’s ever had an issue with their plumbing at one time or another – and that would be pretty much everyone – should be able to appreciate that it really is a miracle and blessing that our plumbing normally works as well as it does.

In my family we have a custom that every Friday night when we sit down to dinner, after we’ve blessed the children, over the meal, we ask everyone at the table to share a blessing from the past week, something they are grateful for. When we have guests, that custom leads to discussions that often take the entire meal. It’s a beautiful way to help cultivate that attitude of gratitude, which is especially appropriate for Shabbat, the time when we do our best to create a little corner of peace and perfection, for 25 hours anyway. 

This week’s Torah portion and the Chanukah story both caution us against envy. The Torah also provides the cure: remember to be grateful for what you have, not obsessed with what you don’t have.

May God open our hearts to see the bounty around us, so that we’ll always feel rich regardless of how much stuff we have,


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *