Thursday, December 15, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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On May 13, 1940, Sir Winston Churchill delivered his first speech as Prime Minister to the British Cabinet. During that speech he stated the now famous words, “We have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

At that perilous juncture in World history, Mr. Churchill’s assessment was very accurate. At the time, the Axis powers were enjoying uninhibited military success and the situation was very ominous.

Churchill continued, “You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war by sea, land, and air, with all our might and all our strength that G-d can give us….What is our aim? It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

His words have gained fame because his unyielding persistence paid off. The blood, toil, tears, and sweat of the British forces did indeed lead to victory and ultimately, they successfully halted the Nazi War Machine and destroyed it. But had history been different, we can speculate whether his remarks would have gained such notoriety? Would those words have been immortalized in the same manner, had Britain, Heaven forbid, not withstood the onslaught of the German blitzkrieg? In a world where success and accomplishment is all that is valued, does toil and effort that does not breed success count for anything?

The spiritual world however, has a different set of priorities and values. In fact, Churchill’s words could not have been said more eloquently in regard to man’s quest for spirituality. “We have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Not only is that all we have to offer, but that is all that is demanded of us. “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but nor are you free to withdraw from it.” One is only expected to exert himself as much as he is able.

When Basya, the daughter of Pharoah, descended to the Nile to bathe, she noticed the floating crib of a Jewish baby caught in the reeds. Rashi notes that the little crib was well beyond her grasp but, when she stretched out her hand, it miraculously extended until she was able to reach it.

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz zt’l explains that G-d performed the miracle for Basya because she did all that she was physically able to do to save the baby. Had she not stretched out her hand to reach it, the miracle would never have occurred. Rabbi Shmulevitz explains that in our lives we often aspire for spiritual growth and greatness that is beyond our reach. The lesson of Basya is that as long as we are doing our part, G-d will help us. However, if one resigns himself to the fact that it’s out of his reach his words will tragically develop into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

With this idea in mind, we can understand why the Gemarah1 juxtaposes two statements that, at first glance, seem to be completely unrelated. “Rav Kahana said: Rav Nassan bar Manyumai expounded in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: A Chanukah light that one placed above twenty Amos is invalid, like a sukkah and a mavoi2. And Rav Kahana said: Rav Nassan bar Manyumai expounded in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: What is the meaning of the verse, “And the pit was empty; no water was in it3”. From the plain meaning of what it stated “And the pit was empty” do I not know that there was no water in it? Rather, what teaching does the Torah wish to convey when it states redundantly, “No water was in it”? Water was not in the pit, but snakes and scorpions were in it.”

What is the connection between the pit of Yosef and the maximum height for lighting the Menorah?

The Kesav Sofer4 explains that the prohibition to light the Chanukah candles too high, symbolizes that one should not rely on miracles that are beyond the realm of nature. Rather, one should prepare himself by doing whatever possible to accomplish his goals, even if he knows for certain that he can only be successful with Divine Intervention. From where do we learn this lesson? Reuven knew that he could not deter his brothers completely from meting out some level of retribution against Yosef. Still, he was able to mitigate the need for Divine Intervention by convincing them to cast him in a pit. Once he did all he could, he was able to confidently leave the rest to G-d.

The holiday of Chanukah is the result of the efforts of those who dedicated themselves to their cause with utmost selflessness. When the Maccabees waged war against the Syrian-Greeks they were hopelessly and pathetically outnumbered. In essence, they were fighting a suicide mission and they knew it. But G-d intervened and they achieved unimaginable miraculous victories.

Spiritually, they were faced with the same challenge when they reentered the Bais Hamikdash. When they found that single jug of oil they realized that again they had no chance of carrying out their goals. Nevertheless, they sought to accomplish as much as they were able to, and then G-d again intervened.

This is another reason why Chanukah is celebrated for eight days despite the fact that it seems that the miracle only occurred for seven days, since they had sufficient oil to light the Menorah for one day5. Indeed there may have been no miracle that occurred on that first day whatsoever. But on that first day we celebrate and commemorate the zeal and passion of the Chashmonaim. Were it not for their uncontainable devotion to light the Menorah as soon as possible, the miracle could never have occurred. The first day of the holiday of Chanukah celebrates our nation’s commitment to serving G-d with every fiber of its being. Whenever a Jew serves G-d with unmitigated passion and devotion, it is cause for celebration. This is especially true on Chanukah because the miracle could never have occurred were it not for that passion.

There is a dispute recorded in the Gemarah6 if one’s Chanukah candles were extinguished within the first half hour after they were lit, if one is obligated to relight them7. The Gemarah rules that the law is that one is not obligated to relight them. The B’nai Yissoscher comments that there is an important philosophical message contained in this ruling. The Gemarah is teaching us that if one did all he could to ensure that the candles would burn for the allotted time, i.e. his wicks and oil were of top quality, and then it went out, he should not feel discouraged. What happened later was beyond his control; he had done all that he could and therefore, he has fulfilled his obligation in the best manner possible. So too, when our Yetezr Hara seeks to discourage us with his arguments that we are going to forget our learning or that our enthusiasm will soon wane so why bother, the response is “Kavsah ayn zakuk lah- If it becomes extinguished we are not bound to it.” If we have fulfilled our obligation then we should not allow ourselves to be discouraged by the wily tactics of our Yetzer Hara.

When he records the laws of Chanukah, the Rambam writes an unusual - almost emotional - declaration. “The commandment regarding kindling the lights of Chanukah is extremely beloved.” Part of the idea that the Rambam wished to convey is that the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles has a special place in the hearts of its people in exile. The message of Chanukah and the Menorah is that, despite the fact that we are so far from our once glory and prestige, and despite the fact that we lack the leadership we once had, and despite the fact that there is no Kohain Gadol or Bais Hamikdash, still-in-all, we have remained the great nation of Klal Yisroel. The reason is that our obligation is to accomplish whatever we can and to serve G-d in the best way we know how; beyond that, is G-d‘s domain.

After the horrific attacks of September 11th, 2001, there was a bumper sticker that summarized it best: “All gave some but some gave all!”

“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work.”

“We have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”

1 Shabbos 22a
2 An alleyway, a term used in the discussion of the laws of Eiruv
3 Bereishis 37:24
4 Oh’c 136
5 This is known as ‘the famous question of the Bais Yosef’
6 Shabbos 21a
7 kavsah zakuk lah oh ayn zakuk lah


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Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Vayeshev

20 Kislev 5772/December 16, 2011

Here it is Americans; the present you’ve all been looking for: “The Hanukkah Tree Topper! Celebrate the warmth and wonder of both Hanukah and X-mas. A must have for interfaith families. Available in silver metallic coated, textured plastic, with a steel coil for easy sturdy mounting.”

A Jewish woman once told me that she and her Catholic husband work very hard during the holiday season so that their children feel privileged that they can celebrate both Hanukkah and X-mas.

The notion of trying to blend two mutually exclusive faiths is itself a tragedy. The very concept of the ‘Holiday Season’, as if insinuating that there is any remote connection between the two holidays, other than the fact that they sometimes overlap, is a sad misunderstanding.

But the fact that this befuddlement of ideals and values occurs with the holiday of Chanukah is a complete distortion of what the holiday is about.

Rambam writes, “The Chanukah candles are exceedingly beloved.” It is an unusual emotional declaration to be found in a treatise dedicated to the bottom line of the law. In fact the Rambam does not express such a strong sentiment in regards to any other seasonal mitzvah.

Chanukah is the result of the efforts of our ancestors who would not compromise on their ideals and fought to keep the Torah in its pristine purity. This was symbolized by their obdurate refusal to use any of the oil that had been (purposely) contaminated by the Syrian-Greeks.

Thus, Chanukah is a victory and holiday of separation. It was a time when our forefather pledged ‘their lives and their sacred honor’ for the right to be different, and not allow calls for equality to contaminate their existence.

Erecting a Hanukkah Bush or placing a Jewish symbol of a tree is analogous to celebrating American Independence Day by hoisting the British Flag above the White House with a little picture of George Washington on top. The whole point of the American Revolution was to sever the ties between the colonists and the English Monarchy.

Trying to merge two disparate entities is not a promotion of peace but a destruction of both entities.

Still we must not become too discouraged with how the holiday is celebrated outside the Torah-observant world. Chanukah is the holiday of light – and that includes the inner light of our souls. Somehow the Chanukah lights beckons even to the most distant Jews and tugs at their heartstrings. They may not even realize it, but somehow those little candles sear through the vapid falsities they have been taught, to keeps a spark of truth glowing within.

“These candles are holy… to praise and express gratitude to Your Great Name.”

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos

A happy and lichtig Chanukah,

R’ Dani and Chani Staum


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