Friday, November 26, 2010


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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Yosef Begun, the noted Russian refusenik, wrote of his experiences:

“It was in the grim Russian winter of 1971 that I celebrated my first real Hanukkah, in prison.

“I was confined in the notorious Moscow prison, Matroska Tichina, in the company of a rather large number of fellow Jews. Needless to say, a Moscow prison is not the most auspicious place to celebrate a Jewish holiday…

“Hanukkah was approaching. Getting into the spirit, we enthusiastically discussed battles and the ultimate triumph of the Maccabees. One of our more Judaically advanced cellmates gave us insightful lessons about the laws and customs of the Festival of Lights. It goes without saying that we had no prayer books or other items with which to celebrate a Jewish holiday. Hanukkah is supposed to be a holiday of gift-giving, family gatherings, dreidels and songs. We had no practical means of celebration, and that saddened us deeply.

“Fortunately, we had among us a man who was a wizard at handicraft. Valery Krijzak - now an engineer living in Jerusalem - had truly golden hands….

“For Hanukkah, Krijzak made a wonderful dreidel out of bread, engraving the four Hebrew initials for ness gadol haya sham ("a great miracle happened there"). But it was the day before Hanukkah and we still didn't have any candles with which to fulfill the mitzvah of the Festival of Lights to commemorate the Jewish victory of over two thousand years ago. And without those lights, Hanukkah is not Hanukkah.

“But then the miracle of Hanukkah took place in our days in our cell.

“Without saying a word to us, Krijzak began to bang on the cell door, calling for the guard. When the small aperture was opened, he began to wail, "Call the doctor. I'm in terrible pain." Within ten minutes, the prison medic arrived. Krijzak moaned, "Doctor, I am having a terrible hemorrhoid attack. Please give me some suppositories."

“Fifteen minutes later, Krijzak received several suppositories. Now we had the material from which to make candles. The rest was purely technical. We pulled out threads from our prison garb and rolled them together to make wicks. Then we placed the wax-based suppositories on our aluminum spoons and lit them with matches (prisoners were permitted to have cigarettes and matches) and melted them down. We placed the makeshift wicks into the wax, which we then shaped into candles. We stuck the candles on a plate, which we then placed on the table.

“Filled with pride, we sat around our glowing table and sang Maoz Tzur. We sang more Hanukkah songs, talked about the Maccabees' revolt and spun the dreidel. We all had an immense feeling of closeness to each other and a strong sense of unity with our fellow Jews.

“We may have been cut off from the rest of the world, enclosed behind thick steel doors, but we were still with our people.”

The story of Yosef and the brothers is from the most captivating accounts in the entire Torah. The dispute between these most righteous of men is almost incomprehensible. The explanations of the great commentaries not withstanding, we still are left with a vague understanding of what transpired.

It is not only the Torah’s narrative of the story of Yosef which is difficult to understand, but also the story of Yehuda. The Torah interrupts its detailed account of the story of Yosef to relate what occurred with Yehuda.

The brothers were aware that the future monarchy was destined to emerge from Yehuda and they granted him a certain level of leadership. It was Yehuda’s suggestion that they sell Yosef to passing merchants. When the brothers saw Yaakov’s unmitigated grief and refusal to be consoled they challenged Yehuda’s leadership; “Had you told us to bring Yosef home we would have listened to you.” As a result of their disenchantment with Yehuda he departed from the brothers and settled in Abdulam.

In Adulam Yehuda married and had three sons. His oldest son Er married a woman named Tamar and died. Then his second son Onan married Tamar and he died as well. Yehuda feared for his third son Shaylah’s life and sent Tamar back to her father’s home.

Tamar was a righteous woman and knew, through Divine Prophecy, that the Davidic monarchy was destined to descend from her. She understood that Satan was doing his utmost to prevent that union from occurring. She decided that she had to utilize unconventional means to lure Yehuda into being with her. She posed as a woman of ill repute and sat at the fork of the road as Yehuda approached.

The Medrash1 relates that under normal circumstances Yehuda would never have succumbed to desire. “Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Yehuda sought to pass by Tamar. The Holy One, blessed is He, dispatched the angel of desire to entrap him. The angel said to Yehuda, ‘Where are you going? From where will kings arise? From where will great men arise?’ Yehuda then detoured to her by the road. He was coerced, against his good sense.”

After their encounter Yehuda could not locate the woman. “He inquired of the people of her place, ‘איה הקדשה - Where is the kedasha, the one at the crossroads by the road’? And they said, ‘לא היתה בזה קדשה - there was no kedasha here’.2

It is intriguing that the Torah uses the word ‘kedasha’3 to refer to ‘the woman of ill-repute’, as the word is strikingly similar to the word ‘kedusha – holiness’4. How can the same word refer to the epitome of sanctity and to the crassest of iniquity? What is the essence of the concept of kedusha?

Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld zt’l5 noted that, in his opinion, the greatest challenge our generation faces is ‘desacrilization’. In his words, ’desacrilization is the violation and disintegration of the boundaries of sanctity’.

The Hebrew word for sacred is ‘kodesh’. The opposite of kodesh is chol, which means ordinary, mundane, and commonplace. Shabbos is a day of kedusha, while the rest of the week or days of chol. To understand the depth of that distinction we must understand the etymology of the words.

The word Chol also means sand6. What is the connection between weekdays and sand? The most prominent feature of sand is its particularity. Sand is composed of innumerable miniscule particles, each being its own separate entity. If a person takes a handful of sand and allows it to run between his fingertips, there is nothing to hinder the flow of the sand as it drains from inside his hand. Each grain is on its own.

The word kodesh symbolizes the opposite. The concept of kedusha is to connect and unite disparate elements. Although the word kodesh is most notably used to refer to holiness and sanctity, it has other meanings as well. When the Torah states the prohibition of planting kilayim – mixtures of different seeds that take root together it uses the word tikdash. “You shall not sow your vineyard with a mixture, פן תקדש - lest it become forbidden - the growth of the seed that you plant and the produce of your vineyard7.” The verb tikdash connotes gathering two diverse things together, albeit in a forbidden fashion.

Planting two seeds in the ground and merging them is an abused form of kedusha. On the other hand, the commandment that we sanctify ourselves also utilizes the word kidshu, because in doing so we are connecting ourselves with G-d, the source of all sanctity.

That is why the days of the week are called chol while Shabbos is kodesh. During the first six days of creation, every element of creation was disparate. There was no harmony or synergy between them. The world was in a state of chaotic agitated turmoil, like free-flowing sand. But with the arrival of Shabbos G-d ‘rested’, i.e. He infused into the world the energy and ability to revitalize and regenerate itself.

Suddenly the world had meaning and purpose. The entire cosmos was transformed from various energies and powers into an entity that was suited to be a catalyst for the sanctification of G-d’s Name. That is the meaning of kedusha; cohesion and perfect integration8.

A woman of ill repute connects herself with another person in a malevolent and detrimental manner. Through her luring she fosters an egregious misuse of kedusha, but it is kedusha nonetheless.

The moments when we light the Chanukah candles are nostalgically special. After lovingly kindling the hallowed lights we recite the ancient declaration ‘Haneiros hallalu’. In that paragraph we declare, “הנרות הללו קודש הם - These candles are kodesh – holy, and we have no permission to use them; only to see them alone, so that we will thank, and praise, Your great Name, for Your miracles, for Your wonders, and for Your salvations.”

The Chanukah candles are not lit merely to commemorate an ancient event. In a deeper sense those miniscule lights are great unifiers, creating an invisible bond between every Jew in all four corners of the globe. When we hold our candle to the wick atop our menorah, wherever we may be, we are binding ourselves to our brethren, as well as our ancestors throughout the millennia of exile, dating back to the Hasmonean Maccabees themselves.

Every Jew who lights the Chanukah candles merges his light with the lights of the Menorah of the High Priest, of Hillel and Shami, Abaye and Rava, Rashi, Rambam, Maharal, Ba’al Shem Tov, Vilna Gaon, Chofetz Chaim, and all of our ancestors – from Babylonia to Crusade-ridden Europe, from Spain to Poland, from Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz to the gulag in Siberia, to the Israeli soldiers who light the candles at their army post far from home.

The Chanukah candles are kodesh, for they connect us to an internal spark within each of us. Other religions may also have great displays of light for their holidays, and those displays may be more impressive than our candles. But their lights are chol; they are disparate and unrelated. The Chanukah candles reflect a resplendent internal flame that is luminescent within the heart of every Jew. It is the spark that our foes could not extinguish and continues to glow in all of its radiance.

“Cut off from the rest of the world, but still with our people”

“These candles are kodesh

1 Bereishis Rabbah 85:8
2 38:21-22
3 As opposed to the more common word ‘zonah’, as used in verse 15
4 Rashi explains that, as opposed to a holy person who designates themselves to spiritual matters, such a woman is ‘mikudeshes – designated’ and prepared for licentiousness.
5 Rabbi Freifeld Speaks, p. 140
6 See Bereishis 32:13
7 Devorim 22:9
8 See the remainder of Rabbi Freifeld’s essay entitled “A Higher Kind of Fear” (Rabbi Freifeld Speaks, p. 140) where he eloquently and magnificently explains how our world has lost its sense of synchronism and cohesion, which has caused rampant ‘desacrilization’.


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