Parshas Miketz/Chanukah - Elephants Can Jump!

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 12/14/17

The reading of the portion of Mikeitz always coincides with Chanukah. There are many allusions within the portion to this association. One of the first striking parallels is in the dreams of Pharaoh. He dreams of robust and beautiful cows being consumed by seven ugly gaunt ones. He has a vision of seven healthy and good ears of grain being swallowed up by seven thin and scorched ones. This imagery echoes the miracle Chanukah where G-d delivered, גבורים ביד חלשים, the strong into the hands of the weak.

When Yosef satisfactorily interprets Pharaoh’s dream, Pharaoh is duly impressed, enthusiastically exclaiming ‘there is no one so discerning and wise’ as Yosef. 

His wise men attempted to interpret his conflicting dreams in terms of conquests and defeats or blessings and losses. They were incapable of envisioning a world of destiny, merely one of fate. They offer no constructive advice or purposeful instruction simply a peek into the inevitable.

Yosef however perceives an ability to help the greater Egyptian state and wider region in providing for storage of grain for the ensuing years of famine. He instructs Pharaoh to empower the masses by appointing them as responsible overseers to safeguard their future food stock.

The Holy Alshich teaches that Yosef wasn’t merely offering sage advice but rather presenting to them a entirely different worldview. It was one of destiny, where man through his actions can gain favor from the Creator in being worthy of His benevolence in providing our needs. This he avers explains the strange request Yosef made of the Egyptians to circumcise themselves. Until now, he says, they lived under the mazal, fate, of the שר של מצרים, the spiritual Minister of Egypt. This was a world limited to its מְצָרִים, boundaries, the literal translation of the word, מִצְרַיִם, Egypt. One who was willing to undergo circumcision, an act that declares we are not limited to our natural selves, that we can ‘improve’ our state of being by reducing and controlling our passions by living lives of choice rather than one of blind fate, can rightfully expect G-d in turn to manipulate nature, or fate, in favor of our destiny and benefit. This directive, was presented to the masses after they observed their personal stockpiles had rotted. Yosef instructs that by virtue of their living with purpose will G-d intervene in assuring the crops would remain preserved, defying that which might normally be written off to nature’s affect.

This allusion to Chanukah now takes on a much more significant meaning. We don’t just celebrate G-d’s intervening on our behalf in allowing a small, insufficiently armed, band of guerrillas to claim victory. We extol their willingness to sacrifice their most precious physical possession, their lives, in order to stand up for their spiritual values in defying those who would destroy the purity of Torah and deny our privileged relationship to our Father in Heaven. As in the days of Yosef, the seemingly weak overcame the natural order of events, and defeated their naturally powerful foes.

Those who aspire to the power of the spirit can overcome all the challenges the physical world places in our path.

We have lost one of those giants of the spirit; the veritable Chofetz Chaim of our generation, HaRav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, zt”l. He was a man who lived nearly every day of his 104 year long life, with a vigor, determination and zeal of one scores younger. One limited to the confines of a natural world simply would have worn out much earlier. Only those who dedicate their lives wholly to promoting the Honor of Heaven in every action, breath and deed can ascend beyond the limitations of the material world and accomplish so much.

Years ago, while learning with a group of talmidim a perplexing question arose. The Talmud teaches that according to Rabbi Shimon all animals both small and large are acquired through the process of halachic acquisition called Hagbaha, lifting it up off the ground. The Talmud asks if that be the case how would one go about acquiring an elephant. It answers that one could accomplish this by using bundles of branches. Rashi explains this to mean that one would bring a sufficient volume of twigs; piling them on the ground and having the elephant walk up on to them thus raising itself above the ground atop the vines. Tosafos quoting Rabbeinu Meshulam suggests that it implies something very different. As these branches are commonly used as elephant feed one would simply coax the elephant by holding the vines high above the elephant and coax the elephant to jump up to grab its prize, thus accomplishing the ‘lifting’ of the elephant off the ground.(קידושין כו.)

One of the students wondered whether elephants actually can jump. We inquired by scholars and experts and lo and behold discovered that no known specie of Asian or African elephant can jump! Is Tosafos wrong?

I shortly thereafter travelled to Israel with my wife and son to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah there. I had been fortunate to have been able through good friends to schedule a visit with the three venerated Gedolim at that time, HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, ylc’t, Harav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, and Harav Aharon Leib Shteinman, in order to receive blessings for my son at this auspicious time. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and present this dilemma to these great sages.

I presented to Reb Chaim the scientific evidence and asked him how to reconcile it with the claim of Tosafos. He looked me straight in the eye and emphatically declared, “zei zenen nish gerecht!”, the scientists are absolutely wrong! Remembering the legendary tale of the famed Chogov, kosher specie of grasshopper that suddenly alighted upon Reb Chaim’s windowsill amidst a heated debate regarding its exact characteristics, proving Reb Chaim correct, I waited for a jumping elephant to make an appearance and rise up to the window at that very moment! It wasn’t to be.

We then travelled the short distance to home of the beloved and engaging Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Michel Yehuda and once again presented our query. In his inimitable warm manner he attempted to reconcile the conflict by suggesting that when the Talmud posed the question regarding taking possession of a large animal and utilizing the example of an elephant it was merely using the imagery of the elephant as a large animal but was referring to all large animals, whom generally are capable of jumping despite their enormity.

Our final destination was the revered Gadol HaDor whose dedication to every member of Klal Yisroel was evident in his attentiveness and obvious concern for anyone who entered his four cubits. Once again after my son received his very sincere blessing, I presented our quandary. He was very intrigued and requested a Gemara so that we would together learn the Tosafos inside.

He pondered for a moment and with his sweet smile and unique twinkle in his eye gave an answer that I believe radiated his quintessential being. He said that the zoologists probably never starved an elephant to the point that in its desperate hunger would indeed actually jump! 

In the world of Rav Shteinman there were no boundaries. The will to convey the will of G-d was so powerful that it could defy the normal limitations of man and natural law. His legacy clearly defied the odds.

A wealthy philanthropist visited Rav Shteiman this past summer. He exclaimed his joy in seeing the Rosh Yeshiva and offered to make the Rosh Yeshiva happy. He suggested perhaps some home improvements or maybe to pay for some medical assistance. Rav Shteinman then remarked “What can I tell you, to learn an hour a day? That would make G-d very happy and myself a little bit. Do you have money?” The gvir responded that he has a lot of money and is thankful to G-d for that. Rav Shteinman then told him that there is a Rosh Kolel he knows who has hundreds of yungerleit whose families are ‘hungry for bread’, whose wives cry they have no food. The man immediately said he wants to give the Rav money on the spot to distribute to these families. The Rosh Yeshiva asked the gvir exactly how many families was he willing to support, and quickly retorted, one hundred. Rav Shteinman quipped that it was not enough to make him happy. The Rosh Yeshiva turned quietly to one of his aides and asked how much this gvir is really capable of and was told ‘a sach’, a lot. The Rosh Yeshiva turned to the wealthy man and pointedly asked him, “Can you undertake three hundred yungerleit?” The man answered that it would be very difficult, to which Rav Shteinman in his characteristic sharp-wittedness responded, “Okay then you’ll do three hundred and fifty!”

The gvir agreed in exchange for a plethora of blessings with Rav Shteinman assuring him that in proportion to the difficulty in providing these vital funds will his load be lightened in the pressing matters of his life. The Rosh Yeshiva concluded the meeting by assuring the gvir that he had indeed brought him much joy.

Chanukah reminds us that as in the days of Mattisyahu and his children, if one truly pines for a relationship with G-d there are no barriers to those who are truly hungry.

We feel at times so burdened by the weight of our problems and challenges that we are incapable of jumping out of them. Rav Shteinman left a legacy that in the realm of those who aspire to earnestly achieve closeness to G-d, even elephants can jump!


א פרייליכען און ליכטיגען חנוכה,

וחודש טוב,

צבי טייכמאן