Right in Front of Your Nose

A Chanukah light that one placed above 20 amot (cubits) from the ground is invalid (Shabbat 22a)

Then they took him, and cast him into the pit; the pit was empty, no water was in it (Beresheet 37:24)

The Talmud often jumps from one seemingly totally unrelated subject to another. Our Sages, however, explain that the order of the teachings of the Gemara is a lesson unto itself.

Unlike Purim, Chanukah does not have a tractate of its own, encompassing all laws and historical and allegorical events pertaining to this Rabbinically ordained holy day period. Instead, the laws of Chanukah are embedded in the tractate dealing with the Shabbat lights — Bameh Madlikin. On page 22a, the Talmud teaches that the Chanukah lights should be placed below 20 cubits (approx. 18–24 inches each cubit) from the ground. because above 20 cubits the eye does not notice it. Then, the Talmud interjects the story of Yosef and his brothers. The brothers threw Yosef into a seemingly empty pit. The pit did not contain water; however, poisonous snakes and scorpions occupied it. What could possibly be the connection between these seemingly unrelated teachings?

Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, explains the connection. The 20-cubit-high Chanukah lights are invalid because the eye does not notice anything that high; it’s out of one’s range of vision. The second teaching about Yosef and his brothers is an extension of the first. Just as one does not notice something that is out of one’s physical range of sight, so too one does not pay attention to something that is beyond one’s emotional range.

The brothers were enraged at Yosef. They felt that his reports to their father, Yaakov Avinu, were unjustified and that his dreams of sovereignty were signs of conceit. They wanted to get rid of him. But Reuven intervened, saying, “Do not commit murder; throw him into this pit” (Beresheet 37:21). So as not to kill him directly, the brothers accepted his suggestion.

We must take note of the fact that the brothers were experienced desert shepherds who would never enter a pit without checking for scorpions or other dangerous denizens of the desert. In this case, however, their emotional state prevented them from expanding their scope beyond what was immediately before their eyes — an empty pit!

Most of us will never approach the situation our holy ancestors faced, but in a totally different way, we too often overlook another’s feelings because we are in a frame of mind that limits our peripheral vision. We only see what we want to see. Another’s hurt, another’s embarrassment, can be overlooked because of emotional nearsightedness.

Like placing our Chanukah lights in a place that fulfills the requirements of “being noticed,” we should expand our field of vision in regard to others’ emotional reactions to our words and deeds. To truly live as a Jew, one must view one’s fellow man with a wide-angle lens. Doing so will save others a lot of grief.

The basis set as the permitted height of Chanukah lights is the normal range within which a passerby will notice them. The juxtaposition of this Talmudic passage to the tale of Yosef being thrown into a pit that had no water but did contain snakes and scorpions was used by our Sages to highlight our need to develop sensitivity for those around us. In this age of screens and earphones, it is an all-important lesson. Look up and notice the plight of others and listen to their cries as well.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah same’ach!