The Candles and the Tree

It was the December after my ninth birthday. A menorah rested on the bookshelf over the television console. Across the room, beside the fireplace, the lights of a tree twinkled red and green and blue. I was standing next to my mother as she held a candle in her hand. My father wasn’t there. He wasn’t into these things.

My mother lit the lone candle, ushering in the first night of Chanukah. She didn’t recite the blessing. She didn’t know it. I remember watching the wick catch, watching the flame grow bright, and asking myself, “Now what happens?”

“We light the candles for eight nights because the oil burned for eight days,” my mother had told me. What oil? I wondered. But something about her brief explanation convinced me not to ask. Maybe she didn’t know, either.

A year or two later, at my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained. Waiting for the morning of December 25th when all the presents could be opened at once seemed far more dramatic than diluting the experience over a week, especially when those wrapped boxes mysteriously appeared under the tree day after day over the course of almost a whole month. Chanukah just couldn’t compete.

Only two decades later did I come to appreciate how much my own experience had truly been a Chanukah story.

When I left home for college I left behind the tree with the menorah. December 25th had become as irrelevant as Santa Claus, and I preferred an envelope with a check to wrapped presents that would most likely be returned for credit. I eagerly adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers, celebrating dormitory weekends by emptying six-packs rather than observing commercialized annual holidays with empty rituals.

Sometime toward the end of my university career I found myself attracted to Zen. Not in the traditional style, with its practices of discipline and self-mastery, but the pop-spiritual variety learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar modern scriptures.

Aligning myself with the spiritual energy of the universe became my goal. I wanted to choose good over evil because ultimately that brought good karma and spiritual contentment. Surely, this was the road to Truth.

But we all know which road is paved with good intentions. As sincere as I may have been in my aspiration to travel the road to truth, I found with annoying frequency that when my desire to do good clashed with my desire to indulge evil, good threw in the towel at least two times out of three. Forced to take stock of myself, I had to concede that, for all its high-sounding ideals, a spiritual discipline that produced no moral discipline wasn’t worth its mantras.

I hadn’t developed much discipline in my academic life, either. Oh, my grades were good enough, but four years studying English literature and writing had left me with neither gainful employment nor vocational direction. It was 1983, a decade late to join the hippies or beatniks, but that didn’t stop me from swinging a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhiking across the country. If I hadn’t found Truth in the ivory tower, perhaps I might find it in the heart of America.

Sixth months crisscrossing the country brought me no closer to Truth, but it did whet my wanderlust, and I soon boarded a flight across the Atlantic to continue my journey through Europe, after which Africa, Asia, and Australia lay upon my horizon.

Half a year in Europe ended with a short hop across the Mediterranean to Israel, where I sought the classical Jewish experience of volunteering to pick oranges on a kibbutz. But it was December, with little agricultural work to be done; moreover, the dollar was strong, resulting in some 9 million American tourists in Europe, many of them draining south into Israel as winter weather set in. I found the kibbutz placement office blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for Rolling Stones tickets, oblivious to signs screaming, NO PLACEMENTS BEFORE JANUARY.

Desperate for a break from the stresses of travel on a shoestring, I cast about for some way of imposing routine upon my life before departing for Africa and, somehow, found myself invited to attend yeshiva.

Yeshiva? The word was unfamiliar, but the offer of a bed, hot meals, and a daily schedule of classes proved irresistible. It was two weeks before Chanukah, and I would finally learn about the secrets of the menorah and the miracle of the oil.

Although a period of peaceful coexistence followed Alexander the Great’s occupation of the Land of Israel, it didn’t take long after Alexander’s death before the Greeks began to feel first discomfited and later threatened by their Jewish subjects and the Judaism they practiced. Greek philosophy recognized man as the pinnacle of creation, perfect in his accomplishments, answerable to no one but himself. Greek mythology embraced a pantheon of gods characterized by caprice and selfishness, by lust and vengeance, thereby sanctioning similar behavior among men. How offended must the Greeks have been by a Jewish society devoted to self-perfection through submission to a divine code of moral conduct.

When they could no longer tolerate the Jewish threat to their ideals, the Greeks contrived to destroy Jewish ideology. Whereas their predecessors, Babylon and Persia, had employed violent oppression, the Greeks plotted with far greater subtlety: in place of physical violence or outright prohibition of Torah observance, they originally banned only three practices: Shabbos, bris milah, and Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new month.

The Sabbath testifies to the divine nature of the universe; without this weekly reminder, we easily loose touch with and ultimately forget our relationship with our Creator. Bris milah is the sign of our higher calling, reminding us that we can control our physical impulses rather than allowing them to control us, that each of us is a work-in-progress striving toward self-completion and self-perfection. Rosh Chodesh is the ceremony that fixes the calendar and imbues the Jewish holidays with an intrinsic holiness. Without Rosh Chodesh, placement of the holidays would become arbitrary, leeching all meaning from them the way American Federal holidays have lost all substance in the eyes of most Americans.

The Jews refused to submit, and in the end the Greeks resorted to more oppressive decrees and, ultimately, to violence. But their plan had been sound: had they succeeded in stopping our adherence to these three precepts, they would have succeeded also in reducing Torah observance to an empty ritual, one that might have continued on for generations, but would have quickly become bereft of all meaning and spiritual significance. For this reason, the observance of Chanukah always includes one Shabbos, always passes through Rosh Chodesh, and is eight days long as a remembrance of the bris, the covenant between the Jew and his Creator.

Chanukah celebrates victory not only over our Greek oppressors, but also over the Hellenists, those Jews who promoted a new synchronism of Judaism, wherein they hoped to intermingle Jewish practice with that which they found most attractive in Greek culture. The Maccabees recognized the total incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other. Without staunch defenders fighting for Jewish identity, the flame of Judaism would inevitably be extinguished and only the tree of foreign culture would remain.

Despite the victory of the Maccabees, the Greeks did not disappear. To this day they persist in their cultural assault against the values of Jewish tradition. The nine year old boy in America, or Britain, or even in Israel, who looks at the Chanukah candles and wonders what they mean, who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree, testifies to the victory of the Greeks.

But not every child has forgotten the lights. The rekindling of the menorah each year reminds us that the torch of Jewish tradition continues to illuminate generation after generation and dispel the darkness of apathy and assimilation. However much the ideological descendants of the Greeks strive to extinguish the lights, the eternal flame that burns within the soul of the Jewish people still shines on and on.

In my own observance of Chanukah, I rejoice that my own children are growing up not only with the lights of the menorah, but with a growing understanding of what they mean. I’m grateful that I can give them what my parents were unable to give me: self-knowledge, the greatest weapon against cultural extinction. They have always known that a tree beside the fireplace in December is not part of their world; as they grow older, they come to appreciate why it is not, and why a menorah is.

Through the generations and across the world, our people have successfully adapted to living as guests among disparate societies, but only by retaining a strong sense of our history, the values of our heritage, and a familiarity with the culture that keeps our sense of identity alive and vibrant. Compromise these, and the Jew, together with his Judaism, will surely vanish. Preserve them, and we guarantee that the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks will be renewed in every generation as a victory of the Jewish people over assimilation.

Originally Posted on Dec 23rd, 2007

A Hellenist Left Standing

It was the twenty-fifth of December,
And when she closes her eyes she remembers,
Just how it was.

A Jewish girl from Queens,
Had fulfilled her secret dreams,
Decorating that bright, forbidden tree.
A Jewish girl from Queens,
Had fulfilled her secret dreams.
She helped hang tinsel merrily.

Her boyfriend’s family,
Was friendly as could be.
They had fun watching her delight.
Her boyfriend’s family,
Was friendly as could be.
By the fireplace they sang carols that night.

Then they piled into the car.
It wasn’t very far.
Greetings called to those they’d pass.
Then they piled into the car.
It wasn’t very far.
Each year the family went to Midnight Mass.

But there in a church pew,
She didn’t know what to do,
As everyone else bent down to kneel.
But there in a church pew,
She didn’t know what to do.
In those moments was her future sealed?

Alone, trembling, she stood,
Still uncertain if she should.
What stopped her from kneeling in that place?
Alone, trembling, she stood,
Still uncertain if she should.
The word “Jew” was stamped on her face.

The twenty-fifth makes her remember,
Because it’s Kislev – not December.
She almost fell, like Hellenists of old.
The twenty-fifth makes her remember,
Because it’s Kislev – not December.
Once she, too, chose tinsel, not the gold.

So radiant – hidden away.
A golden light, still pure today.
Flashing bulbs can’t come near its glow.

So radiant – hidden away.
A golden light, still pure today.
Her Jewish home shines with treasures she didn’t know.

For now many years have passed.
Each Chanukahs spins by so fast.
And as grandchildren light, my past becomes less real.
For now many years have passed.
Each Chanukah spins by so fast.
Standing by lights, I whisper thanks I didn’t kneel.

Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See in Your Neighborhood? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.

Wisdom, Torah and Mussar

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Start preparing for Chanukah with some great Drashos

The Nefesh HaChaim (Gate IV: Chapter 1) writes that as the generations continued, the yetzer hora devised ways to fight Klal Yisrael’s study of Torah, and thus the idea formed of learning Torah for the sake of pilpul (give-and-take analysis) alone, with no involvement of yirah (fear of Hashem).

The yetzer hora fights our power of Torah study, and so did the Greek exile fight the Torah. Greek wisdom and philosophy was at war with the wisdom of the Torah.

Our Sages viewed Greek wisdom as being a wisdom that is entirely focused on the physical body and nature, with no trace of spirituality to it. There was also another way of understanding the difference between the Torah’s wisdom and Greek wisdom. Greek wisdom is entirely intellectual-based, with no mention of the “heart”. Regarding the Torah, “fear of Hashem is wisdom”, the Torah is a wisdom that requires fear of Hashem, whereas Greek wisdom is intellect alone.

When the Nefesh HaChaim says that the yetzer hora devised ways to fight against Klal Yisrael’s study of Torah, it is referring to the evil force of impurity that is “Yavan” (the Greek exile and its philosophy). When a person learns Torah, he is definitely not learning a wisdom that is focused on the physical body and nature, but it’s possible that he has Greek attitude towards the wisdom of Torah! In fact, he might have the exact thinking of Greek philosophy even as he’s learning Torah.

The yetzer hora has many different ways of how it fights Klal Yisrael. Sometimes it causes some people in Klal Yisrael to abandon Torah study by causing them to engage in the study of nature and the body. Another way it fights Klal Yisrael is through removing “yirah” (fear of Hashem) from the picture, where the fiery love for Torah is extinguished in their hearts.

The depth of this struggle throughout the generations, and in our generation especially, is that the Greek attitude has penetrated into the “tents of Shem” (the beis midrash), in the sense that a person today can be sitting and learning Torah in the beis midrash yet he has a ‘Greek perspective’ within his very learning. To an onlooker, it would seem that there is no difference between a person learning with a Greek perspective with a person who doesn’t. The difference cannot be discerned by the eye.

Those who study other wisdoms outside of the Torah, such as those who study nature and the body, are an obvious example of Greek influence. But even someone who merits to sit and learn in the beis midrash might be affected by the same problem: his Torah learning has become exiled by the evil inclination, whose purpose is to fight against the Torah.

When a person does not clarify to himself what his connection to Torah is [as we have begun to explain in the previous chapters], he might find out after 120 years when he goes up to Heaven that all of his Torah learning was with a Greek perspective.

There is a story told by Rav Shalom Shwadron of his grandfather, the Maharsham, which can make anyone shudder. The Maharsham fell ill, and he dreamt that he ascended to Heaven, where he stood in front of the Heavenly Court. They weighed out his merits and his sins. An announcement went out in praise of the Maharsham’s merits of Torah learning and how awesome it was. Then an angel came and declared that all of his Torah is not called “Torah”; it came and blew into his mouth, and all of the words of Torah were removed from him, as if the words had never been there before! It was all removed from him. In the end, the angel returned all the words of Torah to the Maharsham, for it said, “In the generation you live in, your words of Torah can be called ‘Torah’.”

Anyone familiar with the works of the Maharsham knows that his Torah is awesome. He was one of the greatest leaders of his generation and you can see his greatness in his sefarim. Yet the Maharsham testified about himself that in the Heavenly Court, they instantly removed all his Torah.

If someone searches for truth and he hears the above story, how can he not suspect that the same thing can happen to him? Of course, in the end of the story, the angel considered the Maharsham’s Torah to be Torah. But it is still shuddering to think that there was even such a possibility. How could such a thing be possible? We aren’t discussing here a great person such as the Maharsham. We are talking about someone on our own spiritual level. How is it possible that a person’s Torah is not considered to be real “Torah” in Heaven…?

If a person never clarified his connection to Torah – the external layer of the connection, and certainly the inner layer of the connection – he might think that he has love for Torah and that he learns a lot, but he might have a very mistaken attitude towards learning, for he has never clarified what connects him to Torah.

This is true even if he has learned much Torah both in quantity and quality; with understanding; with clarity; with chiddushim; with knowing the Halachic conclusions of each sugya (each on his own level); if he has not clarified the refined points of what connects him to the Torah he learns, then there is only a minimal connection to Torah he has (based on one of the qualities above), and he is missing much of what is required in a connection to Torah.

A person doesn’t know what’s missing from his learning, because he never makes this reflection. He thinks that everything’s great simply because he is sitting and learning Torah from morning to night; after all, he merits understanding in his learning, he even has chiddushim, he has clarity in what he is learning, he is becoming knowledgeable in Torah – each person can say this on his own level.

Yet the story of the Maharsham proves that one’s Torah learning is considered to be like nothing in Heaven. This is when one doesn’t clarify what is connecting him to Torah and he isn’t aware of what deeply connects him to it.

One who clarifies what connects him to his Torah learning is aware of what exactly connects him to the Torah and which parts he isn’t yet connected to. He is aware of which areas in his learning are weak, which areas need improvement, which parts he needs to decrease and which parts he needs to increase, which parts he needs more connection to. One must honestly examine himself and take apart his connection to Torah and see which parts he is connected to and which parts are missing from his connection.

When a person ascends to Heaven after 120, the first question he is asked is, “Did you set aside times for Torah study?” That will be the first part of the examination. But after this the question will go deeper: During the times he learned Torah, on what level did he learn it on? How deep was his connection to it?

We must know that we can’t run away from this examination. Either a person clarifies it as he is here on this world, or it is told to him when he gets to the World of Truth – where it will be too late to do anything.

Obviously, anyone who is sitting and learning Torah all day in the beis midrash is someone who wants to make progress in his Torah learning. But one must be aware of which parts are necessary in the connection to Torah learning. Through this, one’s connection to Torah will grow deeper and it will have more quality to it.

The evil spiritual force known as ‘kelipas Yavan’, the “Greek perspective”, is essentially the attitude that a person can learn Torah in a superficial manner, where he thinks that he is gaining wisdom and that he is understanding it, and the person thinks that everything here is fine. But with this attitude towards learning, a person will come upstairs after 120 and it will be shown to him that his entire way of life was spent incorrectly; that instead of being of those who sat in the beis midrash, he was considered to be of those who pursue other places, chas v’shalom. Although he did not actually run after frivolous things during his lifetime, he will be shown that his perspective is that not that far from those who do not consider Torah to be the main pursuit of life.

To emphasize again, each person will have to undergo this assessment of his Torah learning. The only question is if it will happen during a person’s lifetime – when he uses his free will to do so – or if it will be made in Heaven, where it will be too late. A person on this world has the free will to choose to make this examination on himself: To see how much he is exerting himself in Torah, how connected he is to Torah, how much clarity he has in his learning, etc.

If a person does not make this reflection, he will simply live a carefree life, thinking that all is well and that he just has to keep increasing his time for learning and that he should simply keep exerting himself more and more. Although this is also true, a person must not think that this is all he needs in his connection to Torah. There is much more to the connection to Torah that a person needs, and every person will have to see it at some point; whether on this world, or on the next.

If a person didn’t assess his connection to Torah on this world, he will be shown in the next world all that he was supposed to reach – which was a simple truth that he could have reached even as he lived on this world. If one realizes as he is on this world that improvement is needed in his connection to Torah learning, then he has a chance of changing, because he still has free will. But if a person waits until the next world to see the truth, there, it is too late to do anything, and there he will remain with his very minimal level of connection to Torah.

***

The Nefesh HaChaim explains that the study of mussar began because the great leaders were seeing that much was missing from their Torah learning. The Nefesh HaChaim calls them the ‘eyes of the congregation.” In other words, these great people had the ‘eyes’ to see what was missing. They had a spiritual lens that could see beyond the external layer of things.

When a person sees the world through a superficial lens, he does not see what the problems are. He walks into a beis midrash full of people learning Torah, and he might feel, “Ah, “praiseworthy are the eyes that have seen this.” But if he would have more inner vision, he would instantly see what is missing from the beis midrash. (To see and fix the problem, though, he would have to be on a very high spiritual level).

The Nefesh HaChaim says that the leaders of the generation who founded the study of mussar were the ‘eyes of the congregation.’ They had ‘eyes’ that could see things which others couldn’t see. They could see subtleties; they possessed the discerning eye of a Torah scholar, who sees beyond the superficial layer of things.

In recent generations, there has been a great increase of Torah study. But those with inner vision can see that a deep connection to Torah is missing, and they see a whole different reality than how others see it. The leaders of the generation, who are called ‘eyes of the generation’, see this painful reality. But each person on his own level can gain some inner vision and he can sense that there is much that is missing from his connection to Torah.

***

The Nefesh HaChaim continues that those who noticed what was missing from Torah study wrote sefarim that explain yirah (fear of Hashem) to redirect the hearts of the nation, so that they could rededicate themselves to the study of Torah and to serving Hashem, with pure fear of Heaven.

A superficial reading of these words of the Nefesh HaChaim seems to imply that they realized that their Torah learning was causing them to be in lacking in yirah and in avodas Hashem, thus the leaders of the past wrote sefarim that explain yirah, in order to gain back their yirah.

However, that is not what he writes. The Nefesh HaChaim is saying [in conjunction with the earlier paragraphs] that because their Torah learning was lacking in yirah, because it was lacking with a “burning love for Torah” as he puts it, they felt that their very Torah learning was lacking. [Thus they weren’t just missing yirah; they were missing Torah, because they were missing yirah in their Torah].

Thus, when they wrote sefarim about yirah, they didn’t do this just so they could gain yirah; they did it so that their Torah learning could become improved in this way. For it is written, “Fear of G-d is wisdom.”

***

They didn’t want to just improve their fear of Heaven; they wanted to gain back a fiery love for Torah which had gone missing from them.

From a superficial perspective, it appears to be that mussar sefarim are here to explain to us merely how to better our actions, how to improve our middos, how to improve ourselves, etc. This is all true, but there is a much deeper purpose of the mussar sefarim. It is because “Fear of G-d is wisdom.” When a person learns mussar in the true way, not superficially but with in-depth analysis, he reveals a deeper connection to Hashem and to Torah. He gains a clearer perspective on life, thus the way he relates to Hashem and to his Torah learning becomes totally different.

This is apparent from the words of the Nefesh HaChaim, that the reason why the leaders wrote mussar sefarim was “to straighten out… and fix the breaches” that had been made. They were trying to help us become more precise and exact in our way of living. They were trying to fix the ‘breaches’, reminiscent of the ‘13 breaches’ which the Greeks had made in the Beis HaMikdash, which symbolizes the negative Greek influences on our Torah learning. Thus the purpose of the study of mussar was essentially so that we would clarify our connection to our Torah learning and form a deep connection to Torah; to get it back to the way it used to be before all the breaches came along.

***

The Nefesh HaChaim writes that any sensible person understands that those who founded the study of mussar never intended for people to abandon Torah study and to learn mussar all day. Their entire intention was so that people would improve their Torah learning and learn Torah all day; to learn the Written Torah, the Oral Torah, and the many halachos of the Torah. They just wanted people to add learn it with fear of Heaven.

How indeed did people then come to make such a mistake? It was because people thought that the study of mussar\yirah was solely for the sake of knowing what yirah is and what avodas Hashem is. That is how they came to neglect Torah study and to instead involve themselves with only mussar.

The true perspective is that the mussar sefarim, which explain how to have yirah, are really coming to explain our connection to Hashem, and precisely through the study of His Torah. The study of yirah was not meant to imply that people should stop learning Torah in favor of learning about yirah; for the whole purpose of yirah was to deepen our connection to the study of Torah. “Fear of Hashem is wisdom” – the purpose of studying about yirah was to reconnect us to the subtle and refined wisdom of the Torah.

This explains the difference between those who serve Hashem superficially with those who really serve Him. Those who truly serve Hashem are people who use all of their spirituality to deepen their connection to Torah learning, more and more. By contrast, someone who improves his ‘Avodas Hashem’ without being focused on improving his Torah learning, will slowly drift off from Torah study, preferring instead to spend most of his time in the study of mussar and yirah. He erroneously thinks that only in that area can he feel a burning love for Torah.

When a person understands what Torah is all about and what mussar is about, he understands that mussar is coming to explain the subtleties of the Torah’s wisdom, and that this what ultimately connects a person to Hashem and His Torah. When this is the perspective, a person understands that the study of mussar is not meant to weaken our study of Torah; it is rather the ingredient that helps our Torah learning thrive. The study of mussar comes to analyze the subtleties of the human soul, which in turn helps our connection to Torah to be more precise and exact.

***

May Hashem give us the strength that kelipas Yavan (the Greek perspective) should be erased from the world in general, and on a specific level, from those who sit here in the beis midrash; that our Torah learning should not be a mere superficial and purely intellectual kind of study that resembles the study of Greek wisdoms. Rather, we should have a connection to our Torah learning which should stem from both the use of our mind and heart. Our minds should be heavily immersed in Torah, and our hearts need to burn with fiery love for it. Then our Torah learning can resemble the Menorah in its purity, in which the flame would rise on its own after it was lit; our souls should become enflamed with a burning love for Torah and thereby become exalted, going higher and higher.

Doing a Better Hallel On Chanukah

Chanukah is a time of L’hodos U’l’hallel, To give thanks and praise to Hashem and we fulfill that obligation with the saying of the Full Hallel on Chanukah for all eight days. Here are some notes from Maharal: Emerging Patterns by Yaakov Rosenblatt on Hallel.

Give Praise Servants of Hashem from this time forth and forever more
Despite Hashem’s loftiness, He is still intimately involved with the life of man and continually bestows goodness through kindness, judgment or mercy.
He raise the needy from the dust is through judgment because the poor should be provided for.
To seat them with the nobles, nobles of His people is through kindness because although raising the poor out of poverty is just, elevating them to sit with nobles is an act of kindness.
He transforms the barren women into a joyful mother of children is an act of mercy since this women is not capable and therefore is not in the realm of judgment, nor is it kindness since children are not above and beyond human needs, rather it is mercy because even though this woman is unable to have children naturally, Hashem still allows her to conceive and bear children.

When Yisroel Went of out of Egypt, the House of Yaakov from a people of a Strange Language
After praising Hashem for His kindness through normal realms, we now praise Hashem for the miracles that transcend nature.
The sea saw and fled, the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep – water takes the shape of its container and the Earth is shaped by man. When Hashem acts and gives form and definition to all creation it is natural that the sea fled and the mountains skipped.
Hashem turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters – when Hashem is the force, even a rock is shaped effortlessly.

Not to us Hashem, but to Your Name Give Glory
This Psalm says the reason that Hashem performs miracles for the Jews is to give recognition to His name, His love and His truth. Only Hashem deserves this recognition and not things like idols which clearly have no power and are weaker than man. Man’s powers are listed in decreasing importance: speech, sight, hearing, smell, feeling, walking, and making sounds.

Hashem will Bless our Remembrance: He will Bless the House of Yisrael
Hashem will Bless our Remembrance requests that the lasting impact we will have on others and the world will be a blessing.
The Dead cannot praise Hashem, nor can any who go down into silence shows that only when the human body and the world are functioning properly can they “sing” the praises of Hashem. King David says allow us to live, allow us to thrive, so our very existence can proclaim your glory.

I love Hashem Who Hears my Voice and my Supplications
You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. King David thanks Hashem for saving his soul which represents the spiritual, the eyes which are the connection between the spiritual and the physical because they do not actively enter the world, but monitor it for the mind/soul to process, and the feet which represent the physical. Tears represent a loss of part of the soul.

How can I repay Hashem for all His kindness to me?
I will carry the cup that You have filled with salvation, and call upon the name of Hashem – A cup that is filled represents ones meaningful accomplishments and we think Hashem for the ability to act in meaningful ways.
I will carry …in my arms to show the cup that you filled precedes me and proclaims your greatness
I will pay my vows to Hashem in the Presence of all His People to use every opportunity to proclaim the greatness of Hashem and to publicly honor Hashem’s glory

Give Thanks to Hashem for He is Good
Thanks also mean to concede, so to the extent that a person recognizes and acknowledges the Hashem has given him everything is the extent to which he will thank Him. Different groups: humanity, Jews, Kohanim and G-d fearing people, have experienced different benefits and will therefore thank Hashem differently.

Out of My Distress I called upon Hashem
There are three levels of hatred, basic dislike (all the nations) because of economic, cultural or military threats, dislike due to differences in values which only the Jews hold (they surrounded me) and deep seated hatred (they surrounded me like bees) due to the subconscious understanding that the success of the nations is dependent on the Jew’s failure. If we act according to our spiritual potential the world’s event will be centralized around us for our benefit. If we do not, we are punished and the the nations are successful.

O praise Hashem all you Nations
Hallelukah combines a word of praise with Hashem’s name and is used to praise the miraculous because the only the one who created the worlds (Heh – this world, Yud – the next) can suspend the rules to perform miracles when he sees fit.

Der Meistersingers of Athens – What’s Up with the Tune for Maoz Tzur?

Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to Xmas carols. Maybe it’s because what passes for Jewish music these days is frequently Jewish words grafted onto pop or rock instrumentals. Or maybe it’s because the perpetually waning enthusiasm I see in our young people today might be stemmed if we helped them tap into their neshomas rather than strengthening their connection with secular culture.

I suppose it’s really all three and more. But the bottom line is this: the one thing I despise about Chanukah is the pervasive, annoying, and distinctly un-Jewish niggun the whole world sings to Maoz Tzur – evoking not the heroism of the Hasmoneans but the flaky ambivalence of “Rock of Ages” and the red-suited jolliness of “Good King Wenceslas.”

It should come as no surprise that our popular Maoz Tzur sounds so goyish. It’s been traced back to an old German drinking song, and before that to the 16th Century hymns of the Benedictine Monks. I guess it fits right in with the inescapable practice of gift-giving, also borrowed from Christian society.

I know there are those who don’t object to borrowing Gentile melodies for our niggunim. But why can’t we borrow something that’s worth borrowing? Why do we have to embrace a tune that sounds like it should be accompanied by fat carolers sporting white cotton beards? And if we have to sing it, why can’t we limit it to Maoz Tzur and not repeat it endlessly in Lecha Dodi, Birkas HaChodesh, Shabbos morning kedusha, and twice in Hallel?

Above all, why doesn’t it bother us that on this of all holidays, the season when we celebrate the integrity of Jewish culture, we define our celebration by embracing the culture of Eisav, the culture that continues to dominate us in our final exile and which stands between us and the coming of Moshiach?

What’s that? You don’t know any other niggun? Call me, and I’ll hum a few for your over the phone.

Check out Rabbi Goldson’s latest articles at yonasongoldson.com.

Originally Published December 2008

Experiencing Chanukah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Chanukah

The Light of Chanukah: Spiritual Or Physical?

Let us learn here about Chanukah in a way that is not just about something that we go through, but as something that really can affect us, experientially.

All of the festivals contain ohr, spiritual light, but Chanukah in particular is the epitome of ohr. In the other festivals, the light is purely spiritual, but on Chanukah, although the light is also spiritual, it manifests also as a physical light that we empower, through the eight lights that we light on Chanukah.

The lights of Chanukah seem to be lit through a wick and oil, but the inner way to understand it is that the light revealed during Chanukah is what is lighting the wick. The wicks, the oil and the flame that we see are [merely] the physical ‘garments’ that clothe the spiritual light that is Chanukah. Of course, it looks like we are lighting it. But it is really the light [revealed during] Chanukah which is shining through the physical wick.

This is the depth behind the halachah that it is forbidden to benefit from the light of Chanukah: we may not use spirituality for This World. When we light [the menorah], a spiritual light emerges [from the hidden realm of spiritual light]. Our physical eyes just see a candle, but our soul sees spiritual light in it.

Although our soul sees spirituality in things, one needs to have a revelation of his soul in order for the soul to see spirituality. With our physical eyes, all we see are just candles burning; therefore we need to actually connect our soul to the spirituality of the hidden light that is revealed on Chanukah.

Seeing The Lights From Our Soul

The neshamah (Jewish soul) is described in the verse, “נר ה’ נשמת אדם”, “The flame of Hashem is the soul of man”. A ner (flame) is composed of a kli (vessel, or container)), oil, and the fire. Our neshamah is called “ner” (flame),and it is also called “ohr” (light), whereas the “kli” (the vessel or container) that holds the neshamah is our physical guf (the body).

The neshamah is called “ner” (flame). Our physical body is created from earth, whereas the soul in us comes from the “breath of Hashem” that was breathed into man by Hashem. Hashem is entirely ohr, so to speak. The earth which our body comes from is a dark material, thus our body is of a “dark” substance, whereas our soul is taken from “light”. Since man is a combined existence of body and soul, his existence is essentially a mixture of light and darkness.

Every person is essentially a light contained within darkness. There is a statement, “A little light can push away much darkness.”[1] We see from the physical world that a small light can light up a dark room, and so too, when our soul is concealed from our access, we will feel like we are groping in the dark. When our soul becomes revealed to us, however, there is a great light we experience, which sends away the “darkness” that is the body.

Thus, when a person hasn’t yet revealed his soul, he lives in darkness. He will experience life through a dark lens. When a person begins to merit a revelation of his soul, his soul begins to shine, and he experiences a degree of spiritual light.

These are the two kinds of lenses through which we experience life: either we see through a dark lens, or we see life through a lens of light.

In deeper terms, there is ayin ra, a “bad eye”, and ayin tov, a “good eye.” The perspective of “ayin ra” comes from the view of the body, and the perspective of “ayin tov” is the view from the soul.

They are different lenses in a person. It is not simply that there are different personalities of either “ayin ra” or “ayin tov” that some people have positive personalities and some people have negative personalities. Rather, “ayin tov” and “ayin ra” are perspectives of how we experience life – either we are viewing life from the prism of the body, or the soul. “Ayin ra” represents the body’s viewpoint, a view from “darkness”, which is a perspective that is darkened by materialism of This World. Thus it does not offer a clear view on life. In contrast, “ayin tov” is a view of “light”, which is pleasant and calming.

These are root concepts of the soul. The world we are in is a mix of light and darkness, a mix of good and evil. And it is mostly dark. What is the world looking like right now? What is it calling out? It is calling out darkness. The world is conveying to us a message of unhappiness, pain, and difficulty – a life of darkness. It is not a place that is mostly good, pure, holy and happy.

A person sees from the place in himself that he is at now. Therefore, if he has a dark lens on life, if he is living a materialistic kind of life where his body dominates and his soul is unrevealed in his life, then he will see a dark life in front of him. If you view life through dirty glasses, everything will look dirty, even if you are looking at something clean. For this reason, when a person sees others, he usually doesn’t see people as souls whom he can have a connection to. He usually just sees the thick materialism of others, he relates to their superficial shell, and as such, he relates to others as physical bodies, and he does not see them as souls in front of him.

But when a person reveals his soul, he will see others through a clear lens. Then he will see the joy, purity, and cleanliness in front of him. This does not mean that he will be naïve and that he’s not aware of reality. He is well aware of reality on this world, but he has gained a view of others that is pristine, clear, and clean.

For example, when he speaks with others, like when asking someone for directions, he will understand that he is speaking with a soul, and not with a body. When he asks questions to others, he is aware that he is asking it from his soul. And when a person speaks from his soul, the soul of the other picks up on it, because the soul is receptive to the sound of another soul. Where you speak from is what the other person will hear; if you speak from your body, the other person hears your gruff body talking, and when you speak from your soul, the other’s soul hears words coming from your soul.

The world today doesn’t have that much speech coming from the soul. When a person meets another and greets him, does he really mean it that the other should have a good day? “Good morning” has become more like a mannerism. Contrast this with what was said about the Alter of Slobodka, who would practice saying “Good Morning” to himself, because he held that it was giving a beracha (blessing) to others.

This is different view on life – totally.

Speaking and Acting From Within Yourself

When a person is talking, where is he speaking from in himself? A person can talk either from the most external part of himself, or from the most innermost part of himself that he identifies with.

Most natural speech flows from the external part of the soul. The more inner a person’s speech is, the more it reflects the statement “words from the heart enter the heart.” This should not just be limited to when a person is conveying a deep emotion such as “I love you”, or “I feel your pain”. It is referring to how a person speaks all the time. All of the time, we really need to speak from our innermost place that we currently identify with.

Most people live from their body and speak from their body, and the person hearing him hears the words from his body. But when a person speaks from his soul, it can go into another’s soul, and the other person will hear it from his soul, because his soul will pick up on it.

Chanukah is a time of “light”, but it is not just a time to light. The light of Chanukah specifically reminds us that the physical is a container for the spiritual – that our body contains a soul. The other festivals are also a spiritual light, but they don’t take on physical form. The light of Chanukah takes on a physical form, showing us that spirituality can be clothed by physicality.

These are not mere intellectual definitions, but a practical view of life to have every day of your life. We do many actions throughout the day. A person washes his hands, for example. How does he do it? We understand that this is allowed through the brain, which sends messages to the body and enables it to function. But when a person tells “Good Morning” to his children, does he do so with at least a little bit of feeling, at least a little more than when he washes his hands? Certainly, he puts some feeling into it. But how many times a day, or a week, or a month, or a year, though do we act from an inner place in ourselves? Are we speaking from a deeper place in ourselves on a more regular basis?

Most people do not access the depth that is contained in themselves. A person who is living inwardly is someone who lives with his depth, all the time, on a regular basis. He lives always with the deepest place in himself. Just like we all use the sink many times a day, a person who lives life in an inner way is using the deepest place he knows of in himself – all the time.

A person usually accesses his inner depth only when there are extreme emotions, of either intense joy or grief. A person usually cannot take that depth that he has reached and bring it more into his daily life. He may remember the pain he felt from his sadness or the joy that he felt when he rejoiced, but he will not remember the depth of the emotions that he reached.

The depth that we do recognize in ourselves, though – how much are we in touch with it on a daily basis?

Recognition of Ourselves

We must recognize who we are. Of course, the purpose of everything is to recognize Hashem. But if we do not recognize ourselves, we can’t recognize Hashem. Skipping self-recognition prevents recognition of Hashem. From recognizing ourselves, we can come to recognize Hashem[2].

Surely, the deepest thing possible is to connect to Hashem, but before we get to that stage, one has to know himself well and identify the deepest place in himself.

How can it be that a person is not in touch with the deepest part of himself? We can memorize many phone numbers. How can it be that we don’t recognize our own self?

If we really want to live a true life, we need to know what our deepest point is in ourselves, which can take a long time to know. After that, one needs to ask himself if his depth has deepened from before. The way we identify ourselves has to mature as the years go on.

We can say in general how deep the soul is, but you on your own need to uncover the depth of your own soul, and then you need to know how to live with it all the time. At least once a day, make sure that you are using it. That is what Chanukah is all about.

The Deepest Point In Yourself

I will try here to explain what the deepest point of the soul is, but it will be hard to understand it, both intellectually as well as emotionally, because each person is at a different point.

The deepest part of the soul, the deepest experience your soul can know of is to experience your very existence (havayah). (There is really a higher experience, which is to experience the reality of the Creator, which is reached through emunah and d’veykus with Hashem. That is an experience above the “I”, however. Here we are describing the experience that is within the “I”.)

One’s very existence is his deepest experience. It is not the will of a person, it is not aspiration, it is not giving, it is not enduring suffering, and it is not joy. Those are all deep experiences, but the deepest experience is to experience one’s existence.

A person needs to be able to remove all the external layers covering the soul, and then he can experience himself. It is not a place of any desires, because it is above all desires.

When a person purifies himself through doing the mitzvos, through attaining a state of purity, and through correcting his middos, then he calms the soul.[3] He can then experience the soul. When he experiences his own soul, he can feel his existence then and be able to live it on a daily basis.

All day, people are running around, and this causes people not to be in touch with the soul. This refers to internal running as well, in which people are running all the time with their desires. They are not calm inside, and they never reach their soul. Therefore, people wonder what the deepest experience is. But the deepest experience is: to experience your own self!

You can’t live from your depth if you haven’t accessed it yet. When you do access it, you need to then live with it all the time – sensibly, of course. This will reveal more and more depth to you as time goes on. In order to get to your own depth, you first need to live daily with the deepest point in yourself – you can think about it and can feel it throughout the day.

These are not ideas or opinions – it is about life. May we merit from Hashem to know our souls and to realize our depths, our existence, and from there, to reach d’veykus with Hashem.

[1] Chovos HaLevovos: Shaar Yichud HaMaaseh: 5

[2] Raavad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, 10th century scholar); based on the verse, “From my flesh, I see G-d.”

[3] See the series of Getting To Know Your Hisboddedus

The Dreidel of Life

This article is cross-posted at Oy!Chicago.

Just like the notion that there are two sides to every story, there are four sides to every dreidel. Over the years I have found myself associating the sides of that little dreidel (made out of recycled plastics) with memories of the past and the present along with thoughts about identity and perseverance

Let’s face it – playing dreidel is probably the closest thing to ancient kosher gambling. It takes skill and savvy, and that little kiss that you blow onto the dreidel cupped in your hands can make all the difference between a gimmel (getting all the pot) and a nun (getting nothing). I was enamored with the official game and would play it all the time in my Hebrew School days. My friends and I would have contests to see whose dreidel would spin the longest (I think my record was 45 seconds). Around fifth or sixth grade the game became pretty lame, but I was back to the dreidel circuit during my college years, though that’s a whole other story.

My kids (ages 14, 11, 7) are big fans of this seasonal game of chance. Although they have mastered the art of the upside-down spin, it’s the access to parent-sanctioned candy that keeps them playing the game year after year. In fact, they will keep playing it through the winter and into the spring. I’m guessing it’s the chocolate coins that keeps them playing and not the feeling of being historically connected to our ancestors who played the game when Greek soldiers would pass by.

I think the dreidel is one of the best Jewish symbols ever. Its size and function impart valuable lessons. I identify and navigate through many different social (and social media) circles during the day. A dreidel is small enough that if I were to put it in my pocket for a day, I think it would remind me that there’s another circle that I’m intrinsically part of.

No matter how many times we spin the dreidel it will always fall down on one of four sides. The outcomes are often this way in life. Sometimes we gain everything we want and sometimes we gain nothing. Sometimes we have to compromise and give up our half of what we want and sometimes we all have to pitch in a little of what we have for the greater good. Regardless of what side out dreidel lands on, we can always pick up the dreidel – and ourselves – so that we can continue trying to win the game.

Chanukah – Miracles Within

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Chanukah

Miracles – When Nature Is Overcome[1]

On Chanukah, we make a blessing of שעשה ניסים לאבותינו, expressing our thanks to Hashem for this time where He performed miracles for us. Although we also experienced miracles on Pesach, only the Rabbinical festivals of Chanukah and Purim contain a blessing where we thank Hashem for the miracles performed, which we express in the prayer of Al HaNissim in Shemoneh Esrei.

Hashem runs the world through a system of laws He created which we know as “nature” (teva), and He also built into this a system that works above the normal laws of “nature”: miracles (nisim). Hashem has allowed the laws of “nature” that He created to be the system of the normal “laws” (chukim) which He runs the world with.

When we analyze Creation deeper, there are actually different kinds of “nature” in creation. There are four classifications in Creation: the non-living objects (doimem), plants (tzomeiach), animals (chai), and people (medaber). Each of these has their own specific natures. Human beings, animals, plants, and inanimate objects each have their own specific kind of “nature”.

Each of the creations has their limitations. If Hashem enables a rock to grow and have life to it, it would be a miracle for the rock, because the nature of a rock is that it cannot grow. If Hashem were to allow a plant to move from place to place like an animal can, this would be a miracle for the plant, because a plant’s nature is that it does not grow. If an animal is allowed by Hashem to talk, such as the donkey of Bilaam who was allowed to talk, this is a miracle for the animal, because an animal’s nature is that it cannot talk.

Thus, what is the depth of a miracle (nes)? It is when a different “nature” is revealed in something. A miracle is not simply that Hashem changes the rules. Rather, as the Ramban and others explained, the definition of a “miracle” is when a lower level creation is allowed to function on a level that is normally above its natural level. When a rock can grow, when a plant can walk, when an animal can talk, these are all miracles, because they would be functioning on a higher level than they are normally on. Thus, in the days of Chanukah, we experienced “miracles” in the sense that a higher level of creation was revealed within this lower realm that we dwell on.

Becoming Uplifted To A Higher Level

When one has a difficulty (nisayon\נסיון), either his avodah is to find a way to run away from it (וינס), such as what happened with Yosef when he had to run away from the wife of Potiphar; and sometimes the avodah of going through a nisayon is to bear through it and thereby become uplifted from it (להתנוסס).

When the family of the Chashmonaim had to go to war with the Greeks, it was a nisayon for them, and they passed the test, becoming uplifted from it and rising to a higher level than before. That was the miracle. The Chashmonaim faced some difficulty in their avodah in their own individual souls, and because they passed the difficulty, they were elevated to a higher level, where miracles were performed for them.

In clearer terms, as mentioned earlier, a miracle is when a lower level creation is allowed by Hashem to function on a higher level. This can apply within human beings as well: what is considered nature for one person might be considered a miracle for another person, and vice versa. If Shimon is on a lower spiritual level than Reuven, and Shimon rises to the level of Reuven (which is a natural level for Reuven to be on), this is a miracle for Shimon.

Thus, every year when Chanukah returns, where the spiritual light of “miracles” is revealed, this does not simply mean that the miracles of Chanukah are revealed to us in the very same way it was revealed to us last year. Rather, the definition is that if we have risen to higher levels since a year ago, last year’s miracle isn’t considered a miracle anymore for us, because it has now become our natural level.

The spiritual light of the miracles are shined upon us during this time of the year, as our Sages explain, but the depth of this concept is that it depends on the level we have reached since last year. If one has passed more nisyonos (difficulties) since last year, he merits a greater level of “miracle” this year, because now that he has become more elevated since last year’s level, the miracle of last year is now his natural level, and he is now ready to receive greater miracles than the year before.

Overcoming Our Own Personal Natures

Applying this to us on a personal level, every person has his own “natures” which Hashem has implanted into his soul. There are four elements contained in our various “natures”: fire, wind, water, and earth. These are the roots of our negative middos (character traits). Fire is the root of conceit and anger, wind is the root of idle speech, water is the root of seeking hedonistic pleasure, and earth is the root of sadness and laziness, with their branching traits.[2] These are the natures of our middos. When one works to improve his middos, he is really working to uproot the various natures that Hashem has implanted in him.
Read more Chanukah – Miracles Within

Chanukah – Transcending Self-Centeredness

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

The Greeks centered their opposition to the Jews on three religious laws that one the surface of things couldn’t be less threatening to them or their way of life. Why would a Greek concern himself about someone else circumcising his son? If a neighbor likes having three rather lavish meals on Saturday after attending the synagogue why let it occupy space in your mind? The most puzzling was their antagonism towards consecrating the new moon, a religious ceremony that had no observable impact other than being the basis of the Jewish calendar. Can you imagine losing any sleep over when Ramadan comes out next year?

The underlying antagonism was caused by what these commandments represent. Circumcision is a statement. It tell you that you are not born perfect, that perfection has to be earned, and that the path towards perfection requires a certain degree of sacrifice, and a certain measure of authentic submission to a force higher than your own ego. Nothing could possibly be less Greek.

Shabbos takes us even further from the Greek vision of a human centered world. What we say by keeping Shabbos is that even our creativity and our ability to dominate nature and make it our own, is not the end of the story. The highest level from our point of view is taking all of our creative energy and saying, “let go. It’s time to step back and see what God, not I, created”. When you see things from that angle, it isn’t hard to see what was so offensive about defining time through ritual instead of through human observation.

What all of this tells you is that this is the time of year that you can decide once and for all that you can finally stop being a closet Hellenist. You body, your endeavors and your sense of reality can all go beyond the limitations of the little castle called “me” and explore a new planet, one called “transcendence”. You can be bigger than your ego and your assumptions.

Let the light of the candles that reflect eternal truth give you enough light to step into the next phase of your life, into a more holy and God aware future.

Chanukah Then and Now

By Azriela Jaffe

The Judaism of my youth was defined by what I was not able to do. Is that not what characterizes any observant Jew? I may not eat non-kosher food, as G-d commanded. I may not work on Shabbat, as G-d commanded. I may not eat on Yom Kippur – as G-d commanded. I may not eat chometz on Passover – as G-d commanded.

True, but these Jewish ideals were alien to me as a child. We didn’t know from kosher, I had no awareness of even the concept of Shabbat, and although as dutiful – and perhaps superstitious- secular Jews, we always attended synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, we ate lunch that day, too. Our Passover celebration did include a rather abbreviated seder, but I had no understanding of chometz, or the avoidance of it – we bought a singular box of matzohs for the seder table, and enjoyed our bagels the next morning, (with no guilt, mind-you, as my uneducated family had no idea that this was a problem).

So what then, do I mean by this notion that my Jewish identity formed around what I could not do – when in fact, our family was so assimilated, it would have been difficult to differentiate us in any way from our goyish neighbors, and there were seemingly no restrictions on our life?

You knew our Judaism in December. Although my parents worked extremely hard to assimilate our family in every way imaginable – and they succeeded – there was only one time a year when they took a firm stand, and we children knew that we were Jewish, and different from non-Jews. Our family did not have Xmas trees and wreaths of holly on the door. Our family did not go to church on X-mas day, we went to the local Chinese restaurant and to the movies afterwards, where the parking lot was littered with hundreds of other Jewish-owned vehicles. We were Jewish, and therefore, we didn’t celebrate X-mas.

As a child, I saw this as a problem. The rest of the world got to have fun, and we were deprived. When we lit the menorah and eagerly awaited our presents, the complete absence of spirituality around the holiday made it only a competition we were sure to lose – which kids got the most presents – the Jews, or the non-Jews? We would comfort ourselves with the thought: Our holiday lasts 8 days, and the Christians only get one day, so we’re actually luckier. But I distinctly remember as a child that lucky is not how I felt. I was a Jew and therefore, I was not allowed to do the holiday that the rest of the world celebrated. We were different, and deprived.

With the perspective of adulthood, I now see my Chanukah “celebrations” with gratitude. It was my parents’ last hold-out, and through it, they formed my identity, albeit uneducated, as a Jew, different from my Christian neighbors. They had given up all other semblance of separation between us and the non-Jewish world, yet somehow, they hung on to this one. Thankfully, as an Orthodox Jew of many years now, I do not have memories as a child of singing Xmas carols, even if M ’aoz Tzur was not in our family’s vocabulary.

The Judaism of my children’s youth is also defined in part by what they cannot do, according to Jewish law, but now, their heads, hearts, and souls are filled with so much they can, and do, look forward to about Chanukah, there isn’t a glimmer of deprivation. The excitement of Chanukah starts early in school with Chanukah chagigas, lessons from their Morahs and Rebbeim about the true spiritual meaning behind Chanukah, and the exciting story of the Macabees, and of course – what would Chanukah be without homemade menorahs brought out of their storage bags year after year? The house smells of latkes, Tatty comes home early from work so he can light the menorah with us, and as we sing M ’aoz Tzur by the window, we thank G-d not only for the miracles that the Macabbees experienced so long ago, but also, the miracle that we are frum, and despite our secular lineage, we have returned.

The Macabees waged a war against assimilation, and with Hashem’s help, they won. We waged our own fight, and also, with plenty of help from Hashem, we’ve won, too. Thank you, G-d.

Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort. Visit her web site here.

First published Dec 22, 2008

Chanukah – G-d Fights Our Wars

By Rabbi B. Shafier

Gemara Shabbos 21b: The miracle of the oil

Why do we celebrate Chanukah?
The Gemara tells us the reason that we celebrate Chanukah is that when the Yivanim entered the Bais HaMikdash, they defiled all the oil set aside for lighting the Menorah. When the Chashmonoim were victorious, they searched and were able to find only one small jug of oil with the Cohain Gadol’s seal intact. It had sufficient oil to last only one day, but miraculously it lasted eight days. In honor of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, Chazal inaugurated these days for Hallel and thanksgiving.

Al Ha’Nisim: the miracle of the battle

The Maharal states that this Gemarah seems to contradict what we say in Al Ha’Nisim, a Tefilah written by Taanim hundreds of years before. In the Al Ha’Nisim, we proclaim thanks to HASHEM for the miracle of the war. We thank HASHEM for delivering the Yivanim armies into our hands: “You fought their battles, judged their judgments, took their revenge. You put the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” According to the Al Ha’Nisim, the miracle of Chanukah was that HASHEM delivered us from the armies of the Yivanim. Yet the Gemara in Shabbos says that we celebrate Chanukah because of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. The Maharal asks, “Which one is correct?”

The miracle of the oil revealed the miracle of the war.

The Maharal answers that both are true, and both are consistent. The actual event for which we give thanksgiving and sing Hallel is the salvation of the Jewish people. We won a war against all odds. However, it wasn’t clear that the victory was a miracle. To people living in those times, military success seemed to be natural. It was attributed to Jewish resilience and bravery. It didn’t appear that HASHEM had delivered us from the hands of the Yivanim; rather, it appeared as “their might, and the strength of their arms.” It was only through the miracle of the oil that they came to understand the miracle of the battle. Once people saw the oil last eight days – an overt miracle from HASHEM — they then came to see that their success on the battlefield was from HASHEM as well. The miracle of the oil revealed to them the miracle of the war.

Israel didn’t have a standing army

This Maharal becomes difficult to understand when we take into account a basic historical overview.

The events of Chanukah take place around the middle of the era of the Second Bais Hamikdash. From the time that Bavel destroyed the first Bais Hamikdash until that point; the Jewish People lived under the reign of gentile monarchies. Our right to exist and our form of government was decided by the ruling parties. We were a vassal state under foreign rule, and when the Yivanim entered Yerushalayim, the Jewish people did not even have a standing army.

This wasn’t a war of a stronger army against a weaker opponent. It was a war in which the most powerful empire in the world was pitted against a band of unorganized, unarmed, private citizens.

While the war itself lasted 3 years, during the entire first year of fighting, there were no formal battles. Two armies were not squaring off against each other; there was no Jewish army. The fighting consisted of guerrilla skirmishes. Some Jews would sneak up on a lone detail of Yivamim soldiers, kill them and take their arms. Bit by bit, more Jews would join Yehudah Ha’Macabi, but at every point during the wars, the Jews were far outnumbered, outgunned and preposterously less battle-ready than their enemies.

The leaders of the rebellion were Kohanim

Even more startling is that almost all of the original fighters had no battle experience. The leaders of the rebellion were Kohanim. A Kohain is a Torah teacher, one who serves in the Bais Hamikdash, one who guides the Klal Yisroel in Ruchnius. He isn’t a soldier. So this was a war led and fought not by soldiers, but by Roshei Yeshiva. It was akin to Reb Shmuel Kaminetsky leading the Lakewood Yeshiva in battle against the US Marine Corps.

How could anyone not see the miracle of the war?

No intelligent assessment of the situation would have predicted a Jewish victory. How then is it possible that the Jews at the time saw these events as anything other than the miracles that they clearly were?

This seems to be natural to the human

The answer to this question seems to be that when one is many years away and far removed, he gains a historical vantage point. He is able to see an event in context and can easily recognize it as a miracle. But to those living in the day-to-day heat of the battle, it is much more difficult to see the event from that perspective.

To those involved, it seemed to be a natural course of events. Granted the odds were slim, but the Jews won. Skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle, the Macabis came out victorious. There is no question that they did well, which is why it seemed that it was their skill, their cunning, our wisdom in battle that won those wars. And as such, to people living in those times, the miracle was hidden. And then a single event focused their sight.

When the Kohanim returned to the Bais Ha’Mikdash and took out that little bit of oil that couldn’t possibly last for eight days, and saw it remain aglow night after night, everyone knew this was miraculous. When they experienced the miracle of the oil, it reshaped the previous three years in their minds, and they then saw the battles themselves as the miracles that they were.

We see the same phenomena in our times

In our own times we witness an eerie parallel to these events and to the same mistaken interpretation.

For almost 2,000 years we have existed as a lone sheep amongst 70 wolves. Universally hated and oppressed, the Jewish People have survived. And now, after almost 1900 years of wandering, we find ourselves back in our own land.

Since 1948, the Jewish Nation has witnessed profound miracles in the repopulation and development of the land of Israel. But it is the survival of our people that is the greatest miracle.

In 1948, the population in the Middle East numbered roughly 650,000 Jews, surrounded by some 50 million Arabs. On May 15th, 1948, one day after the State of Israel was declared, five nations attacked, each with well-trained armies and air forces, each alone capable of annihilating the small band of Holocaust survivors. At the time there was no Jewish Army, Navy or Air force. Yet, against all odds, we won that war, and against all odds we continued to win war after war – until now, ironically, the Jews are considered the super power in the region.

To most people, Jew and Gentile alike, it seems that this is just the way of the world. To the average witness to these events, it isn’t a demonstration of the hand of HASHEM — It is just the ebb and flow of history.

The lesson of Chanukah is to see behind the veil of nature – to tune our sight into the true cause of events, and to see that it is HASHEM who runs the world, and HASHEM Who fights our wars– then as now.

For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #15 – G-d Fights Our Wars
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The Ninth Night

One of the most persistent themes on Beyond BT is about retaining the enthusiasm and excitement of the initial stages of reconnecting with one’s heritage and spiritual source when real life kicks in… and kicks, and kicks! Another one is squeezing metaphors out of the Chanuka menorah. Here’s another one.

It’s for the ninth night, when the menorah is stored away and there are no more lamps to ignite. Wise Hillel! Shammai, for his own reasons and based on his own tradition, had us start out with eight lamps and reduce the number over each succeeding evening. Hillel, however, taught that over the course of each succeeding night of Chanuka we add another bit of brightness.

This works well for us.

Now, we know this is the darkest time of year. We do not, of course, accept the cynical view of historians, always ready to discredit religious tradition, who view the Festival of Lights as a mere adaptation of that logical reaction to the dark which is to strike to a light. But there is certainly something to be said for the idea that if a little bit of light raises our spirits when it is dark, a little more, as the dark remains, or even, perhaps, increases — along with the cold and, in the regions of the Holy Land, the wretched wet — perhaps a bit more light will help even a bit more, and so on.

And so on, and so on. Until eight. And we have many traditions about eight, the number at which we break past the natural, i.e., the days of creation. Once we are at eight, we have done all we can. There are no nine days of Chanuka; by the ninth day, the regular process of preparing oil had completed, and no miracle was needed. And so on the ninth night we do not light the Chanuka menorah in our homes.

That was well and good in the Bais HaMikdash, but what about for us, now, bereft of its light — and now, on the ninth night, lacking the light of the menorahs in our windows or on our doorsteps or tables as well? What do we do when the crystalline sparkle we thought would always warm us is now gone, and it is still dark, and, it seems, will be for some time — and it is only getting colder?

Well, we know, again, that it would not have done any good to just keep lighting and lighting. Some cultures try to blot out the dark, so to speak, by a riot of tinsel, light and color. Eight days of Chanuka? We’ll sing about twelve days! Ornaments of red, green, gold; color, lights, trinkets, trees, balls — color, light, light, light, light, light, strung up high on trees, projected from the highest buildings!

Does this make the dark go away? Or are we merely jaded by the artificial stimulation, the garish, madding photons vomiting up a “light” that is useless as true illumination — that is, to see where one is going; to avoid obstacles; to gain perspective?

It hurts when the eight days are over and it is still dark and, perhaps, we are not as inspired by the Maoz Tzur and the spinning of the dreydel as we had hoped to be. We miss the warm glow of the olive oil, almost as comforting as a human embrace on a chill night. Real life’s harshness intrudes. But as we hunker down for what is, in fact, the winter ahead, what do we see in the fading echo of the light?

Were we inspired, did we grow, during that period of special illumination? Did we inspire someone else, even a little, in some positive way? Did we do nothing more than spin the dreydel? Did we encourage the dreydel to spin a little less? Or are we spinning when we try to convince ourselves one way or the other?

Each night’s added candle matters until it doesn’t, just as each step a child’s parent takes matters as he runs alongside a wobbling bicycle until, finally, letting go. Once the child rides by himself, whether or not it works out the first time, he never needs the parent running alongside again. Those steps will never be forgotten, though.

What if the child, sadly, forgets them? The parent will not. There is absolute value in this world. We give because giving is good. Giving inspires.

So too the light given off by flame inspires long after the light is gone, even if all we can see now is cruel, thankless dark.

The only darkness that matters is the one inside ourselves, and each other, not the one outside the windowpane. The season is irrelevant; Daylight Savings Time does not have to rule our moods.

We do not need tinsel, or even menorahs, or physical light at all, to illuminate that void if we can, with God’s help, just recall something of what we saw by the light we lit, or that someone we care about lit for us, in the world of the spirit, until the florid blaze of spring.

Our Divinely Approved Chanukah Service

In response to the question “Why Chanukah”, the Talmud relates the story of one jug of oil miraculously lasting for eight nights. In our extra prayers on Chanukah, we mention the underdog military victory of the Greeks. A military victory would probably not be enough of a reason to institute a holiday for all generations. But, neither would a miracle, as the 24 books of the Bible and the Talmud are replete with miracles for which on holiday was instituted. So perhaps there’s another approach to the question “Why Chanukah?”.

There are two major spiritual periods in history. In the first period, God’s presence was palpable and the Talmud relates that there were over one million Jewish prophets. In addition, the Written Torah (the 24 books of the bible) were received via prophecy during that period. The presence and belief in a God was strong, and living with an awareness of God was normative.

However, man was created with a strong ego and drive for self-sufficiency, and many people rebelled against serving God. This rebellion took the form of idol worship–the serving of other gods. The first spiritual period ended with the destruction of the First Temple (587 BCE). The rebellion against God had reached such a high level that He withdrew His presence from the world to a great degree. This withdrawal resulted in the gradual loss of prophecy, and since God’s presence was no longer palpable, the desire for idol worship also diminished.

When the Temple was rebuilt, there were no prophets, no open miracles and the service was at a much lower level. It was during this time that Greek philosophy and scientific exploration flourished. Increased intellectualism led to a heightened focus on the physical world and a lessened focus on the spiritual world and service to God. The Greeks sought to eliminate spiritual practice altogether and, eventually, the sacrificial service in the Second Temple was discontinued.

The Maccabees, who were Kohanim, were willing to give up their lives to restore spiritual service to the world. Since connecting to God through spiritual service is our purpose, they surmised that a life without service is not a life worth living. After many years, they eventually defeated the much larger and better equipped Greek army. The first spiritual act they performed was the lighting of the Menorah. The Menorah is a symbol of using our intellect to access the light of God, and the Maccabees desired to perform this inaugural service in the best way possible.

The Hebrew word for miracle is Nes which means “a sign”. A miracle is a clear sign that there is a force beyond nature, namely Hashem. Hashem wanted to give a clear sign that He fully approved of the Maccabees efforts and desire to serve Hashem in the absence of the Temple. The Nes of the oil was the sign of approval and Chazal instituted the Chanukah Service of lighting the menorah, accompanied by song and praise to Hashem, should take place on a yearly basis.

When we light the Menorah on Chanukah, it is the service of the Kohanim in the Temple that should come to mind. We are showing our dedication to serve God and fulfill our purpose in this world. Hashem has given His divine stamp of approval of this service. After Chanukah, we can keep in mind that the morning davening is also a replacement for the Divine Service in the Temple. Even after the destruction of the Temple, we still have powerful ways to serve Hashem. We should use these opportunities to improve our Divine Service with the desire that Hashem should restore the ultimate services of the Beis HaMikdash soon in our days.

Of Wisdom… Secular and Sacred

Chanukah celebrates more than a miraculous victory; it celebrates the triumph of the miraculous over the natural, and the sacred over the mundane and desecrated. We identify this triumph of the miraculous with establishing the preeminence of Torah vis a vis generic wisdom. (Mosarta…zaidim b’yad oskei torahsecha =[and] you delivered… the malicious into the hands of those who busy themselves wit the study of your Torah).

Since at least the pre-Chanukah period of Hellenization of large swaths of the Jewish population, Jews have grappled with the confluence, congruence and conflict of Torah and generic Chochma. In contemporary Judaism this tension is most evident in various debates over the relative quality, quantity and goals of Torah and secular education, in particular higher education. Ba’alei T’shuva, whose own educations typically inverted both the sequence and initial primacy of these two competing/contradictory/complementary branches of learning are generally more conflicted and bring unique questions and perspectives to bear on these nettlesome issues.

Apropos to the Chanukah spirit I’ve translated a brief but profound insight on the topic from one of the seminal Torah thinkers of the previous generation. Due to my great respect for the author O.B.M. and my fear over distorting his message I have refrained from adapting the piece and have attempted what I hope is a faithful, hence quite literal, translation. In so doing the lyricism and beautiful poetic meter of the original has been done great injury and some meaning may have been lost or distorted as well. If it has I hope to clarify the meaning to the best of my understanding and ability in the comment thread.

HaShem’s will is expressed in two units. One unit was expressed by the works of creation in a cosmos that was created through ten ma’amoros* and another unit was expressed at the foot of Mt. Sinai through Torah that was given through ten dibros*. Both are revelations of His will. Yet there is an underlying difference in the way that the Divine will revealed in each of these units is actualized. The way that the Divine will expressed through the works of creation is actualized is coercive. Whereas the way that the Divine will expressed through the Torah is actualized is through the exercise of human free-will. “Let there be light” is a ma’amar that is realized by way of an imperative, compelling law of nature. “Though shalt not prostrate thyself” is a dibra that is realized by way of the free-will of choice.

The wisdom of nature/the natural sciences is indeed the wisdom (of analyzing) the laws of G-ds will that were revealed to us through the ten ma’amoros. But since this wisdom is merely the wisdom of the will of G-d that was revealed to us by a “coercive” presentation it is, as a unit of wisdom, external and peripheral to Torah Wisdom that is the wisdom of the will of G-d that was revealed to us by a “non-compulsory” presentation. This distinction lends us insight into the idiom of the sages who referred to all disciplines other than Torah as “outer” wisdom. This is because the 10 dibros comprise the inner content of the 10 ma’amoros. “If not for my covenant day and night (the Torah) I would never have established the laws of heaven and earth (nature)”. That is to say, G-d never revealed Himself in the “coercive” presentation except to create a setting upon which he could reveal Himself in the “non-compulsory” presentation.

* Ma’amar and dibra/dibur in the singular. Both words mean “saying” or verbal expression. The nuanced difference of meaning in terms of the quality of the communication being expressed by either ma’amoros or dibros is the main topic of this passage.

This paragraph appears in Pachad Yitzchok –Chanukah M’a’amar 4. Anyone capable of studying it auto-didactically or with a mentor in the original is strongly urged to do so as it is best understood in the context of the entire essay and because (not that it needs my approbation) it is a philosophical masterpiece.

Originally Published Dec 21, 2006

Why We Needed an Open Miracle on Chanukah

Chanukah Brings Forth the Light of Man’s Connection to G-d through Torah

In Derech Hashem, the Ramchal states:

“The significance of Chanukah and Purim is to bring forth the particular light that shone at the time of their original miracles as a result of the rectification they accomplished.

On Chanukah, the Kohanim prevailed over the wicked Hellenists, who wanted to disuade Israel from serving G-d. These Kohanim overcame them, and thus brought all Israel back to devotion to G-d. This especially involved the concept of the Menorah, since the Accusers were against what it stood for. The Kohanim, however, were able to restore everything to its rightful state.”

The Greeks Wanted to Eliminate the Spiritual Realm

Man relates in four ascending realms, the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. The Greeks advanced the intellectual realm but they did not recognize a spiritual realm beyond that. They tried to eliminate all spiritual practices involving G-d, because they contradicted their man-centered orientation. The Greeks sought natural explanations for everything in an attempt to explain away G-d. Although the Greeks recognized the Torah as a great work of wisdom, and even had it translated into Greek, they wanted to sever the Torah from its source, G-d.

The Macabees Restored Our Connection to Torah to Its Full Light

The Macabees clearly understood that the Jewish people (and the world) could not exist without man connecting to G-d through the Torah. The Macabbes defeated the great Greek army even though they were greatly outnumbered. They subsequently rededicated the temple and lit the Menorah which symbolizes man’s connection to G-d through Torah. The miracle of the oil burning for eight days occurred in the course of this rededication.

The War Was Also a Miracle

The Maharal of Prague teaches: “The main reason that the days of Chanukah were instituted was to celebrate the victory over the Greeks. However, so that it would not seem that the victory was due only to might and heroism, rather than to Divine Providence, the miracle was denoted by the lighting of the Menorah, to show that it was all by a miracle, the war as well …”

Nature, Hidden Miracles and Revealed Miracles

According to the Ramban and others, the essential difference between nature and miracle is that natural events occur frequently while miracles are unexpected. Miracles can be divided into two categories: those where Divine control is openly revealed; and those where Divine control is hidden and the miracle is made to appear as a natural occurrence. But, clearly, Hashem is behind nature, hidden miracles and open miracles.

If we know that everything emanates from G-d, what is the significance of the Maharal’s explanation of the re-categorizing the Macabee victory as a hidden miracle as opposed to a natural event?

The Need for Intellectual and Emotional Integration

Although we know that everything is from G-d, if that knowledge remains solely in the intellectual realm, it doesn’t transform who we are. The regularity of nature can obscure the fact that G-d’s hand is behind everything. To affect who we are, intellectual knowledge has to been transformed into emotional intelligence, because the heart/emotion controls our actions and the actions of man are integral to defining him. The integrated person uses his intellect to focus his emotions to perform appropriate actions.

Necessity of the Miracle

Seeing G-d’s hand in the open miracle of the oil and the hidden miracle of the military victory enables us to effect the spiritual changes necessary to reconnect to G-d through the Torah. This clear spiritual signal enables us to transform our intellectual knowledge of G-d to the emotional and, subsequently, to action in the service of G-d. After the Greeks had tried to disconnect the intellectual from the spiritual, G-d’s spiritual signal enabled us to re-integrate all four realms of man.

Miracles Lead to Praise and Thanks

In the normal Modim prayer of Shomoneh Esrai, we thank G-d every day for the miracles in nature that He performs as He sustains us each day. When G-d performs a greater miracle, a hidden miracle, greater praise and thanks is required. When we reclassify the miracle of the victory as a hidden miracle, we are obligated to praise and thank Hashem in a more recognizable fashion and thus we have the Al HaNissim addition to Modim on Chanukah as well as the recital of Hallel. This praise and thanks should be on a higher emotional level than normal and should prompt us to focus our actions more acutely on Torah and mitzvos.

In Summary

– Man has four ascending realms: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual
– The Greeks wanted to eliminate the spiritual realm and it’s accessibility through Torah
– The Macabees realized the impossibility of a world with Torah
– They won the war and G-d performed an open miracle of the oil burning
– The open miracle clarified that the military victory was a hidden miracle and not a natural act
– Although we know nature is also G-d directed, its regularity can obscure G-d’s presence
– Intellectual knowledge must affect the heart so that it can direct the actions of man
– The open miracle revealed the hidden miracle enabling us to reconnect the spiritual leading to action
– Miracles require higher levels of thanks and praises which is why we have the extra Tefillos of Hallel and Hodaah on Chanukah

Originally Posted 12/18/2009

The Eight Sheets of Chanukah

By Ruby

With 5 weeks left to my son’s Bar Mitzvah, invitations were sitting at home waiting to be addressed and mailed. All my wife had to do was create the spreadsheet with all the addresses, set up the mail merge, and feed the envelopes through the printer. I had the really tough job – to buy stamps – and I was determined to do it right. I estimated 150 stamps would do. But which theme stamp would be most appropriate for a Bar Mitzvah? I went looking at the USPS website. Flags? Too standard. “Happy Birthday”? Too juvenile. “I Love You”? Too mushy. Flowers? Too feminine. Fighter planes? Maybe… But not very mitzvah-ish. Then I saw them. Chanukah stamps with a dreidle. Perfect! We’ll be mailing them on Chanukah. And they come in sheets of 20, so I needed 8 sheets of Chanukah. What could be better?

Off to the post office on Pine St. I went, and when my turn came I happily requested “8 sheets of Hanukah, please”.

The clerk frowned and said “Hanukah? We’re out of Hanukah”.

“No! it can’t be!” I exclaimed. “You must have Hanukah stamps”.

So she looked and looked through all her drawers and all her folders. In the end, all she could find was one single sheet of Hanukah stamps.

“But that won’t do”, I said. “One sheet won’t last. I need eight sheets of Hanukah.”

She called over to the next clerk who looked through his folders. He came up with another two. “Three, that’s all we have”, she said.

Suddenly emboldened, I said “Please check in the back. I know you will find 8”.

Her eyebrows raised at my attitude, she headed towards the back. As she passed each other clerk I saw her say something to them, and each time the clerk shook his head. After checking with the last clerk, she looked across the room at me and shrugged. I gave her a nod of encouragement and she disappeared into the back. (If I were one of the people standing behind me in line I would have killed me…) Several minutes later she emerged with a triumphant look on her face.

“8 sheets of Hanukah!” she proclaimed.

“Thank you so much for your perseverance”, I said. “I knew you would find 8”.

“How could you be so sure?” she asked.

“Why, it’s the miracle of Chanukah”, I said.

A Freilichen Chanukah to All.

Originally Published December 22, 2006.

Continuing to Access the Power of Chanukah

We pasken like Beis Hillel and we increase the candles as Chanukah progresses indicating an increase in accessing the power of the holiday.

R’ Yaakov Astor discusses this in Reality and Potential


Most people can experience the initial joy that comes along with lighting the menorah. By the second day, for many of us, the flush of the experience is not as intense. By the third day, it is even less so, and keeps on diminishing with each ensuing day.

But for others whose spiritual sensitivity is deep and internal, they experience the joy of the festival in an ever increasing fashion, with the last day being the climax.

Beit Shammai say we structure the law according to the average Jew who uses only his nefesh. Therefore, it is logical to start off with eight candles the first day when the novelty of the mitzvah and the flash of inspiration elevate the act for even the average Jew. Since each ensuing day becomes less intense and more routine, we naturally decrease as we go.

Beit Hillel may in fact agree that the majority of Jews experience Chanukah on a lower, nefesh level. However, they say that the law in this case must be groomed according to the minority of individuals who strive for the deepest experience and the greatest spiritual heights. Accordingly, we start off with one candle on the first day and increase each ensuing day. The law reflects the experience of the elevated Jew, whose experience increases with intensity as Chanukah wears on.

From another perspective, Beit Hillel are saying that the law must accommodate human potential — what a person can ideally become, while Beit Shammai reason that law must accommodate reality — the present level on which we actually find ourselves.

Read the whole article here.

Rabbi Noson Weisz explains the spiritual battle mankind faces and our role in it in Chanukah and The Importance of Being Jewish :


The current spiritual era of human history can be characterized as one of knowledge/belief. One can no longer detect God’s Presence in the world through the use of his ordinary senses, as God no longer makes Himself so available. It is no longer possible to reach God through the channel of direct communication. Human dealings with God must be based on the more subtle basis of deductive knowledge or belief. This spiritual era began with the construction of the Second Temple by the Members of the Great Assembly. Its two seminal markers were the development of the Oral law and the Mishna on the one hand, and the rise and spread of Greek philosophy and science on the other.

It isn’t by coincidence that the Miracle of the Lights associated with the Menorah is the symbol of the Jewish victory over the Syrian Greeks. The Menorah symbolizes knowledge. In spiritual terms, light and oil symbolize the ability of Divine Wisdom [the light] to be expressed in terms of human knowledge [the oil]. The word for oil in Hebrew is shemen, which is a compression of the word shemona, the number eight, symbolizing the heavenly Sphere of Bina, or understanding. All human knowledge is an expression of the spark of Divine knowledge contained within it.

To understand the spiritual essence of the world, we must realize that knowledge can cast darkness as well as light. Before the advent of Greek science and culture, it was impossible to look at the world and not see God. Nothing about the world could be explained other than in divine terms. Before the world could pass into a spiritual historic era where God was not universally manifest, man had to develop a system of knowledge that could explain the major phenomena of existence without the need of constantly referring to God [or gods].

We have hit upon the problem of Jewish ‘mityavnim.’ Being Jewish is important only because of the special knowledge that we Jews have to offer the world. Inasmuch as our spiritual era concerns the struggle between the two systems of knowledge, the system represented by the Oral law, versus the system represented by Greek culture, and whereas we Jews are the sole repositories of the system of knowledge represented by the Oral law, we are very important indeed. The track that leads back to Sinai can only be followed through the Torah. But Jews who embrace the other knowledge are as necessary to the world as the Italians in our example. They merely add color.

And that precisely is the tragedy of the Jewish ‘mityavnim.’ The nations never accept the Jewish abandonment of Judaism. Whether Jews prefer the foreign culture to their own or not, in the eyes of the world they remain members of the Jewish people who are truly unique in terms of embodying the very system of knowledge to which the ‘mityavnim’ no longer subscribe.

Read the whole article here.

Our Chanukah Opportunity

Chanukah is about light, specifically the light that brings awareness, connection and closeness to Hashem. On the first day of creation, that light burned bright, but it was diminished when the first man, Adam, introduced more physicality into human consciousness with his transgression.

The light was diminished further after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash when direct communication from Hashem through prophecy ended. Concurrent with the loss of prophecy, the Greeks shifted mankind’s focus away from Hashem and the spirtual, towards the understanding of nature and the physical. This caused further diminishment of Hashem’s light. A counterbalance to this concealment was the blossoming of the Oral Torah and the introduction of Brachos.

Our opportunity is for each of us to utilize the power of learning Torah, performing mitzvos, and davening and saying Brachos to increase the awareness of Hashem in the world. In our rushed day to day life, we often lose sight of the fact that every spiritual act we perform brings Hashem’s light into the world. The more we focus on that fact, the more light we begin.

So when we light the candles we should recognized that we are addressing Hashem, the source of all blessing who always was, is and will be. He created and is the ultimate authority of the spiritual and physical worlds. The physical world conceals Hashem, but he has set aside the Jewish people to sanctify the world through the performance of the mitzvos, and specifically during the next 8 nights through the lighting of the Menorah and the recognition that Hashem is the force behind everything that occurs in this world.

Make every candle count. A Freilichen Chanukah!

Here are some shiurim to help you fuel your flames.

Rabbi Welcher on Miracles of Chanukah

Rabbi Welcher on the Hashkafa of Chanukah

R’ Moshe Schwerd – Chanukah: Bringing The Light To The World And To Yourself

R’ Moshe Schwerd on Chanukah’s Message of Inspiration

Rabbi Tatz – Many Shiurim on Chanukah

Aish – Many Shiurim on Chanukah

Looking for Our Brothers

A few years back I found out something about myself that surprised and amazed me. It was Erev Yom Kippur and a colleague of mine, we’ll call him Zalman, and I were on our way to Williams College (a small liberal arts school in western Massachusetts). We were going to meet with some college students to talk about Yom Kippur and present an opportunity for some to come to Jerusalem for a winter session. We drove up the New York State Thruway before turning into the back woods of western Mass. It was hours before we found our destination and a warm delegation of thirsty souls. After our presentation and discussions had run their course it was time to make the long trek home. It had certainly been worth our while. A number of students had shown interest in coming with us to Israel and as it turned out a few from that night made it “all the way to the Wall!”

On the way home Zalman and I had tossed our hats and jackets into the back seat of his station wagon and we had ceased to talk about work and began to talk “in pajamas” as the phrase goes. I asked Zalman how he had gotten involved in Yiddishkeit and what had spurred him on. He began to tell me how he had a brother that went to camp one summer and drowned. My heart fell into my stomach. He explained how he started to wonder, “What’s it all about?” and “Where do we come from and go to?”

When he finished, I asked him if he had heard about my story. He acknowledged that he had not. I told him that I had a little brother that went to the dentist to get a load of teeth fixed and they gave him gas and he never woke up. I explained with vivid recollections all the haunting philosophical questions that have followed me since. Here we were two grown men with families at home barreling down the New York State Thruway and we were both crying about matters that happened more than three decades earlier.

Then a verse from this week’s Torah Portion came to me. Yosef confronts a man who is really the angel Gabriel while he blunders on his way and the angel asks him, “What are you looking for?” Yosef answers, “I am looking for my brothers!” (Breishis 37:15) I told Zalman, “Look at us two crazy guys! Here we are grown up guys with families and it’s Erev Yom Kippur! Under normal circumstances we should have been in bed along time ago but here it is already Two O’clock in the morning and we are hustling down the thruway to get home. If the angel Gabriel would turn on his police lights and pull us over and, instead of giving us a ticket, he would peek into the car and ask us, “What are you guys doing out here at this crazy hour so far from home? What are you looking for?” If he would ask us the same question he asked Yosef, I think we could give him the very same answer with the fullest of hearts, “We are looking for our brothers!”

I never understood this aspect of my own life until that drive. Sometimes HASHEM puts a hole in our hearts, we get such a deep hurt that we spend the rest of our lives filling the gap and it may form the basis for our main accomplishments in life.

Each year on Chanukah, at some point shortly after candle lighting, I pile the kids into the car with a handful of candies of course and we take a ride all over our town and even to some uncharted areas. We drive through some of the wealthier and some of the more modest sections of town but our goal is not to scout out real estate at all. Rather what we are looking for in the heart of the night, in the windows of Jewish homes, are flickering Chanukah flames, keeping in mind the words of the wisest of men, Solomon “The candle of G-d is the soul of man.” (Mishle’) It’s always a treat and a thrill of endless depth, especially on Chanukah, looking for our brothers.

Originally posted 12/15/2006

Darkest Before the Dawn

Miketz Shabbos Chanukah 5774-An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

-For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

And it came to pass at the end of two full years….  

-Bereshis 41:1

He put an end to darkness…( Iyov 28:3)

-Bereshis Rabbah 79:1

Behold, darkness will cover-up the earth, and the nations will be enveloped in palpably dark clouds; but HaShem will shine His light upon you, and His glory will be revealed through you.

-Yeshayah 60:2

 The Hebrew word ner is commonly mistranslated as “candle”.  In truth, a ner is a lamp that holds the oil and the wick.  In other words, it is the receptacle for the light. While the Torah is the very light itself; mitzvos, our physical, sometimes ritual, acts serve as “the awakening from below” and they evoke the sympathetic vibration of “the awakening from On High” — an outpouring of Torah light that settles into and illuminates these acts. In this way maasei hamitzvos-the acts of fulfilling the commandments, serve as lamps for the Torah’s light.  This is the meaning of the pasuk : “For the commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is light, and reproofs of ethics are the way of life. “(Mishlei 6:23)

The general rule of time-bound mitzvos is that they must be performed during the day. However, there are three mitzvos that are exceptions to this rule and that are meant to be performed at night from within the darkness davka; eating the korban Pesach, matzah and marror, reading the megillah (the nighttime reading is the primary one, the gemara says that it must be “repeated” by day) and ner Chanukah.  Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains that each of these mitzvos is exceptional because they derive from geulos– redemptions.

In each case the geulos in question are introduced in terms of illumination: Just before the redemptive exodus from Egypt the Torah proclaims; “…the children of Israel, however, had light in all the areas where they lived.” (Shemos 10:23) The hidden-miraculous salvation from genocide of Purim resulted in “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16). While the geulah of Israel from the cultural-imperialism of the Seleucid Greeks is post-biblical, the mitzvah it engendered is the one that requires the kindling of actual lights.

The root of every geulah is the one appearing at the beginning of our Sidra; the release and redemption of Yoseph Hatzaddik from prison.  This is why the midrash identifies the end of Yoseph Hatzaddik’s prison term with the end of darkness.

Chronologically, there were no rabbinic mitzvos introduced after ner Chanukah.  Rav Leibeleh Eiger points out that, appropriately, the mitzvah of Ner Chanukah is the very last of all the mitzvos. As all the mitzvos serve as lamps illumined with the Torah-light to drive out and vanquish the darkness, there could be no final mitzvah more fitting, no more apt coup de grâce to put darkness out of its misery and bring us out of the misery of darkness, than the mitzvah of ner Chanukah. While other mitzvos do away with darkness metaphorically and metaphysically the mitzvah of ner Chanukah does so physically. Ner Chanukah exemplifies the convergence of mashal and nimshal-symbol — and that which is being symbolized.

It is no accident that Parashas Mikeitz is read almost every year on Shabbos Chanukah. While the redemption of Yoseph Hatzaddik is the root of all light-suffused geulos — the proverbial end of darkness, the geulah of Israel from the domination of the Seleucid Greeks is, to date, the last. Moreover it was this last one that engendered the final mitzvah-lamp that serves as the ultimate paving stone on the bridge that leads to Mashiach and the truly final redemption.

Our sages taught that דלית נהורא אלא ההוא דנפיק מגו חשוכא – “that there is no light other than the light which emerges from within the darkness” (Zohar II Tetzaveh 184A).  Taken to its logical conclusion it follows that the deeper and duskier the darkness is, the more dazzling the light that comes out of it will be.  No galus-exile has been gloomier and obscured by more shadows than our present one.  It has endured and oppressed us for millennia and has so masked any glimmer of hope that it beggars credulity that any light will ever really emerge from it. But, paradoxically, it is precisely because this darkness seems so impenetrable that it is the harbinger of, and guarantees that, the greatest light is yet to come, a light that was hitherto unimaginable.

Unto itself the light of an individual Chanukah menorah is a humble, almost negligible thing.  Yet the synergy of the neros Chanukah in concrete practice of all of Israel collectively, the unification of these metaphorical and, simultaneously, tangible mitzvah-lamps has the power to illuminate our redemption from within the darkness, until Mashiach’s coming.

Adapted from Toras Emes-Chanukah 5630-1870 A.C.E. D”H Ki (pp 56-57)