Thursday, December 18, 2014


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – ASHAR
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor


A group of Chassidim once approached the legendary Rebbe, Rabbi Levy Yitzchok of Barditchev, and expressed their amazement and admiration for the incredible wealth and profligacy of a certain Russian prince who was known to bathe in a tub full of champagne every night, simply because he could afford it.
One day, in the middle of the summer, the prince decided that he wanted to go skiing. Being that he had no interest in traveling to the slopes, he decided that the slopes should come to him. So he imported thousands and thousands of truckloads of sugar until a steep mountain had been formed. Then the prince geared up with his skis, climbed to the top, and went skiing in the middle of the summer. The Chassidim admiringly commented that the prince really knew how to ‘live it up’. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok responded with incredulous annoyance, “Does he really know how to live it up? Did he ever feel the inner enjoyment of lighting Chanukah candles? Has he ever performed a mitzvah with zeal and passion? How can you say he knows how to live it up if he never experienced the feeling of doing any mitzvah?”
Rabbi Feuer noted that, when he wanted to demonstrate the incomparable bliss of performing a mitzvah, Rabbi Levy Yitzchok particularly mentioned the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles[1]. Rabbi Levy Yitzchok’s words were reminiscent of the introductory words of the Rambam to his account of the Laws of Chanukah: “מצות נר חנוכה מצוה חביבה היא עד מאד The mitzvah of the candles of Chanukah is exceedingly beloved.” Rabbi Feuer also mentioned that Rabbi Levy Yitzchok did not speak with poetic hyperbole. He truly could not fathom how the Chassidim could be impressed by the prince who never felt the euphoria of serving G-d.

The holiday of Chanukah is unusual in the sense that it does not have a tractate of its own. The laws and discussions regarding Chanukah are incorporated into the Gemara’s discussion about what kinds of oils and wicks are valid for use for lighting the Shabbos candles.
There the Gemara (Shabbos 21a) explains the holiday of Chanukah: “What is Chanukah? For the Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev are the eight days when we do not say eulogies. For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they rendered all the oil in the Temple ritually impure. When the Kingdom of the House of the Chasmonaim overpowered them and were victorious, they searched, but they found nothing other than one jar of oil that was laying with the seal of the High Priest. The jug only contained enough oil to burn for one day. A miracle occurred and they lit from it for eight days. The next year, they enacted and made them holidays of thanksgiving and gratitude.”[2]
The commentators are troubled by the Gemara’s account of the story, which glaringly omits all of the incredible miracles that transpired during the wars. It is even more enigmatic that the Al Hanisim prayer recited on Chanukah is almost completely devoted to recounting those miraculous victories, with a mere mention of the miracle of the candles. Why does the Gemara neglect to mention an integral component of the formation of the holiday?
The Chida[3] writes, that he saw in a sefer, ‘Gaon Tzvi’, that the author wrote that heaven revealed to him in a dream that he should pay heed to the vernacular of the Gemara which asked, “What is Chanukah?”, as opposed to, “For what reason do we celebrate Chanukah?” Thus, we see that the question is about the title, “Chanukah”?”
[In other words, the Chida is explaining that when the Gemara asked, ‘What is Chanukah?’ it never intended to define the essence of the holiday. Rather, the Gemara was seeking to explain the name of the holiday. “What is Chanukah?”, i.e. why do we call the holiday Chanukah?]
It is well-known that the Ran[4] explains the word Chanukah as a merging of the words, “Chanu – chof hay- They rested on the twenty-fifth”, a reference to the fact that the Chashmonaim were victorious and ‘rested’ from battle on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev.
We must understand why the holiday was named after their resting from battle and not after the actual victories. Why don’t we call the holiday, “Nitzchuchad- they were victorious on the twenty-fourth?”
The Meshech Chochma[5] explains a very fundamental concept regarding all Jewish holidays. Normally a nation/country will enact an annual holiday to celebrate a noteworthy victory over their enemies. The victory symbolizes the tenacity and resilience of its people and infuses them with feelings of nationality and patriotism. Jewish holidays however, do not celebrate victories and conquests. Rather, we celebrate our newfound ability to serve G-d and perform His Mitzvos on a higher level, and in a more grandiose manner than we were able until now. The war is viewed as a mere means to achieve greater spiritual heights. But in and of itself, military victories are no cause for celebration.
The Meshech Chochma continues that when the Sages wanted to enact the celebration of the holiday of Chanukah for posterity they were concerned that it would indeed devolve into a festival commemorating their miraculous military victories. It was for this reason that the central mitzvah of the holiday involves lighting the menorah which commemorates the unnatural miracle that occurred when the contents of one jug of oil continued burning for eight days. About that miracle, there was no denying that it was supernatural and metaphysical.
The celebration of the war is inextricably bound to the miracle of the Menorah to ensure that we do not make the fatal error of forgetting that the Maccabeean victories were completely miraculous. Were it not for the miracle of the Menorah, as time passed, inevitably there would arise groups of people who would praise the superior military acumen of the Maccabeean warriors. They would laud their brilliant and cunning usage of guerilla warfare to defeat a far larger army, ignoring the fact that their victories were naturally unfeasible.[6]
History has demonstrated that smaller, less equipped armies led by brilliant military strategists, can indeed defeat superior armies. The fact that the Maccabees were Talmudic scholars with absolutely no military background, and were composed of an army of military ignoramuses, would do little to persuade skeptics of the overwhelming Divine Hand involved in their victories.[7]
It was for this reason that the Sages titled the holiday “Chanukah”, invoking the idea that the holiday begins on the day when they rested from battle. The conclusion of the battle has little bearing on us today, some twenty-four hundred years later. What does continue to impact us is the resurgence of Torah life and observance of mitzvos which they were able to commence. That resurgence began on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, when they reentered the Bais Hamikdash and began to rededicate it. 

The truth is that the Sages worst fears were tragically realized. The overwhelming majority of the Jewish world misunderstands the holiday of Chanukah. They have unwittingly misconstrued its meaning, by failing to realize its significance, and how it contributes to our sense of identity.
In his book, Days of Deliverance, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l, bemoans the rampant misunderstanding of Chanukah: “Chanukah… everyone is glad to associate themselves with the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans – be they half-Jews, whole Jews, assimilated Jews, atheists, agnostics, and even those who are Jew haters, all are spiritually enriched by the holiday.
“I remember that in the late 1920s I happened to pass the Sunday Temple on Johannes Street in Berlin to which the assimilated Jews of Germany belonged, Jews who genuinely despised the Jewish people. (many of them were members of the League of National German Jews [Verband nationaldesutscher Juden], the so called Naumann group, an organization dedicated to German patriotism and Jewish assimilation.) I noticed that the temple was richly illuminated and decorated for a holiday. I was curious, so I went into the temple, where I found them having a Chnukah celebration. The rabbi lit the menorah, all eight candles – as I remember, it was the third night of Chanukah – and then gave a clever speech. The highpoint of the sermon was that the true heirs of the Hasmoneans, of Matisyahu and his sons, were actually the National German Jews, who were at that time conducting a campaign to expel from Germany the Ost-Juden – the Jews from the East, generally Poland.
“That same Chanukah, I happened upon another curiosity. In the Jewish community library on Oranieburger Street, I chanced upon a copy of the Moscow Newspaper Der Emes (truth), the newspaper of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish department of the notorious Soviet NKVD. This newspaper also had an article on Chanukah and the Hasmoneans. With every means at its disposal, the article argued that Chanukah was actually a communist holiday, and the Jewish bourgeoisie and clerical world had no right to celebrate Chanukah. Judah the Maccabee was the first Yevsektsiya member.
“Actually, I need not go deeply into my memories to find such paradoxes and absurdities; American Jewry is full of them. How many Chanukah candles will be lit in temples on the Shabbos of Chanukah, after the reciting of Kiddush, with people singing Maoz T’zur to the sounds of the organ – singing songs of gratitude to the Hasmoneans, who fought for Shabbos observance, the celebration of Rosh Chodesh, and circumcision? How many enthusiastic sermons about the Maccabees and “freedom of religion” will be given at non-Kosher banquet?” 

Chanukah is the celebration of our ability to be a spiritual and holy people in an impure world that stands in stark opposition to our morals and values. The holiday of Chanukah symbolizes our unyielding faith and our steadfastness to our mission with iron resolve.
There was perhaps no one who personified the ‘perseverance of Chanukah’ more than Yosef Hatzaddik. Abandoned by his family, he arrived in Egypt as a slave, a teenager in a foreign lonely land. Yet, throughout his difficult sojourns and arduous journey, he never forfeited his image as a G-dly person. Yosef was an island of sanctity in an ocean of impurity. Eventually Yosef became the viceroy of Egypt. The mightiest empire in its time was completely at his mercy.
Yosef’s dominion over Egypt embodied the fulfillment of the words we recite in our Chanukah prayers, “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of your Torah.”
It is therefore no coincidence that Chanukah coincides with the reading of the Torah’s account of the saga of Yosef. Yosef, who was undaunted by all of the external forces which engulfed him, was an inspiration to the Maccabees who battled a culture which was completely antithetical to the pristine purity of Torah.

The Chanukah candles represent this battle. The pasuk[8] states, ”נר ה' נשמת אדםThe soul of man is the flame of G-d.” The Ba’al HaTanya explained that the pasuk compares the soul of man to a flame because fire is the only element that seems to defy gravity. The flame on top of a candle seems to dance, seemingly trying to jump off the wick and spring upwards, despite the fact that doing so would instantly cause it to become extinguished. In a similar vein, our soul pines to return to its celestial source. It yearns to break free from the shackles of its material body which binds it to this world.
The dancing flame symbolizes our dancing souls and our soul’s longing to “go home”. Our goal in this world is to enable our souls to feel at home while we are in this world. This can only be accomplished by seeking to ward off the invasive forces of impurity that ravage us constantly. 

A number of summers ago when I was in camp, I had the privilege of meeting a wonderful young man named Lavi Greenspan. Lavi davens with incredible passion and seems to exude friendliness and warmth to everyone around him. What is most unique about Lavi is that, at the age of 26, he lost his eyesight and is now completely blind.[9] Lavi spoke to the campers about his challenges and the difficulties he encounters because of his blindness. But there was one comment that really struck a chord within me. Although it was during the summer, I have thought of his comment every year on Chanukah. He related that his blindness really hit home on Chanukah when he could no longer see the lustrous glow of the candles.  “What I wouldn’t give to be able to see those candles just once more!”
In a sense, his words represent the tragedy of how Chanukah has been misunderstood by so many Jews. Although most Jews are thankfully able to see the Chanukah candles that they light, they are deaf and cannot hear the message of the candles. They fail to comprehend the poignant message that the candles cry out as they dance above the wick.  

“Chanu – chof hay - They rested on the twenty-fifth”
“The mitzvah of (lighting) the candles of Chanukah is exceedingly beloved.”

[1] The story took place during the summer so the holiday of Chanukah was not particularly on his mind.
[2] "מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכ"ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון. שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל, וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום, בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פח אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותנו של כהן גדול, ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד, נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים, לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה".
[3] Harav Chaim Yosef Dovid Azulai zt’l (1724-1807)
[4] The Ran is one of the early authorities, 1308-1376
[5] Parshas Bo (12:16)
[6] The Maharl (Ner Mitzvah) similarly explains that the main miracle that we commemorate on Chanukah is the miraculous victories that the Maccabees had in battle. That miracle continues to effect us even in our time, for had they lost, Torah would have been forgotten and the greatness of the Jewish people would have been lost. However, it is the miracle of the Menorah which ensures that we never forget the Divine Hand that they experienced and felt during that time. Without the miracle of the Menorah the holiday would have lost its meaning, becoming ‘just another military celebration’, no different than many other secular holidays. Such celebrations are a far cry from the depth, beauty, and eternal significance of each of our holidays.  
[7] My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein shlita, notes that this tragedy has surfaced in our time. After the Israeli War of Independence and after the Six-Day War, the world admitted that we had been privy to numerous miracles as well as a miraculous victory. But, as is wont to happen, in our time those sentiments have been all but lost. People talk about the brilliant maneuvers and adroitness of the Israeli forces, forgetting that those victories were humanly impossible. That is what happens when a miraculous victory is not followed by the overt miracle of the Menorah.
[8] Mishley (20:27)
[9] There is a great article worth reading on about Lavi entitled, “Blindness and Light”, authored by Gavriel Horan.  


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