By Rabbi Nisan Andrews
(Calgary) – There is a comment I recently saw from the Midrash (Books of Jewish Legends) that is as much confusing as it is enthralling. It elucidates a verse from Shir Ha’Shirim (Song of Songs): “The mandrakes yield their fragrance, At our doors are all choice fruits (7:14).”
“The mandrakes yield their fragrance,” the Midrash explains, are the flowers Reuven picked for his mother, Leah, which she then traded with Rachel in exchange for an extra opportunity to spend time with Yaakov (Jacob).
“At our doors are all choice fruits,” continues the Midrash, refers to the Hanukkah candles that are kindled by the entrances of Jewish dwellings.
The question is obvious, in what way do Reuven’s mandrakes connect to the miracle of Hanukkah? Besides the hundreds of years of separation, these two historical events seem entirely unrelated. What would the correlation between the flowers of a child given to a mother and squabbles between sisters be with the rituals of a holiday celebrating Jewish freedom from tyrannical external rule?
I recently shared from the pulpit an idea I found from Rabbi Lord Johnathan Sacks zt”l.
“After Sarah’s death, Abraham possesses not a single inch of the land and has only one child who will continue the covenant currently unmarried. Neither promise of ownership of the land nor countless descendants have been fulfilled.
“What follows in the Torah is a flurry of activity, the purchase of land and the finding of a wife for Isaac. The moral lesson is clear, G-d promises, but we have to act. Abraham had to buy the first field and ensure that his son was married to a woman who would share the life of the covenant.
“Despite all the promises, G-d does not and will not do it alone. By the very act of self-limitation (tzimtzum) through which He creates the space for human freedom, He gives us responsibility, and only by exercising it do we reach our full stature as human beings. G-d saved Noah from the flood, but Noah had to make the ark. He gave the land of Israel to the people of Israel, but they had to fight the battles. G-d gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed. What changes the world, what fulfils our destiny, is not what G-d does for us but what we do for G-d.”
A result of this exchange of the mandrakes was the birth of the two additional tribes of Yisachar and Zevulun. The Rabbis often use these two tribes as the paradigm of ultimate partnership, whereby Yisachar takes a portion of Zevulun’s income and Zevulun shares in the reward of Yisachar’s Torah study. This arrangement is necessary because, while Hashem can support the Torah scholar through supernatural means, G-d desires that we act here in the physical world to allow His divine providence to sustain us without resorting to paranormal phenomena. We create a platform for Hashem to achieve His plan.
Thus, Reuven’s mandrakes parallels the story of Hanukkah. On this holiday, we celebrate the overthrow of the superpower of their day by a small and poorly trained yet, fervent Jewish guerilla force. Their victory was indeed a miracle, but not of the otherworldly variety, manifesting due to their activities. The Maccabees did not wait for a heavenly hand to swoop down to defeat their enemies for them. Similarly, Hashem provided Zevulun with the necessary prosperity to afford enough sustenance allowing Yisachar to continue his study of Torah. A non-miraculous miracle, requiring human involvement as a catalyst.
Hanukkah is a festival that celebrates the creation of conditions via our agency through which G-d’s purpose can be fulfilled. Hanukkah teaches us that we must be the catalyst for growth and change in our lives. The absence of this crucial ingredient will ensure that even Hashem’s miracles will not manifest. If there is a problem or need in your life, family, or community, be the one to act. Don’t wait for G-d to fix it for you; it is He who is waiting for you. Miracles can happen, but only if you enable them.
Rabbi Nisan Andrews is spiritual leader at Congregation House of Jacob Mikveh Israel.