By Reb Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaim
One of the most symbolic mistakes I’ve ever made as a newly religious Jew was the way I had been pronouncing – for YEARS! – a verse in the Hallel HaGadol. You see, I had always enjoyed flowing with this series of ki l’oilam chasdo praises for all those fabulous miracles done for our people throughout the expanse of history. From the time I began regular tfilla (praying), I felt I could resonate with the meaning of these words, in contrast to many other tfillas which took quite awhile to identify with, let alone pronounce correctly.
Thus it was that one day, as I was learning about the deeper meaning of Chanukah, I did a double-take. The drasha (exposition) was explaining how the Chanukah miracle was associated with one of the concluding lines in that prayer:
b’SHIF’Leinu zachar lanu, ki l’oilam chasdo
in our lowliness He remembered us, since His kindness is forever
“Oh WOW,” I exclaimed to myself, with an embarrassed chuckle. “I had always read this as b’SHVILeinu… (for our sakes …)!”
As I continued to learn, the depth behind this “mistake” became painfully clear. Our nation was t-o-t-a-l-l-y unworthy of the Chanukah miracle. We were so extremely shafel, wallowing in the spiritual pits, that it was below what the Creator had designated for being within the purview of His planned interventions. In contrast to Pessach, for example, we weren’t nationally hanging on to even that 1 / 50th level of purity that was the basis of meriting the Exodus. Rather, we had been forgoing circumcision, disusing our holy language and dress, forsaking Shabbos, making public declarations of atheism, etc., etc.
Similarly, I’d learn how the classic mashal (metaphor) about the nature of the feasting we do on the holy days must be modified to accommodate the two Rabbinic holydays, Purim and Chanukah. Whereas on Shabbos our souls are said to be lifted up to the King’s castle to dine with Him and on Yom Tov the experience is likened to His glory visiting our homes, on Chanukah and Purim the spiritual reality is comparable to a King who comes looking to visit His beloved son… and we’re not there! So He starts searching, hears a faint moan, follows it until peering into a deep, dark pit – Oy! There we are. “Gevalt,” the King cries. “My son, my precious son. How did you get in there? I thought I told you to stay farrrr away from these pits!”
But we had no answer.
Then and there, the mashal continues, His royal Majesty jumps into the pit, to the utter consternation of His ministers. “Finally! We’re together again,” our Creator soothingly tells us. “Now let’s work our way back up…” And so we proceed to climb out, slowly but surely. In the process, His holy garments get quite soiled and we expect to receive a giant umbrage from the royal ministers about this. Yet as we emerge, all we see is the awe they have for the King. Why? Because of the deepest love emanating from His Majesty’s eternal eyes…
So that’s the mashal (with a little embellishment!). Now you tell me: Is this about shif’leinu or shvileinu?
Personally, besides my progressive exposure to the teachings of Tsadikkim which made it crystal clear that it’s the former, my ultimate resolution came from within. I had to admit that the fact that I had been pronouncing that line as I did – for YEARS! – despite my relative Hebrew fluency, revealed a giant Freudian slip. Something within my subconscious, obviously based on my liberal, democratic education, was determined to deny any possibility of the existence of shiflus, spiritual worthlessness. Perhaps the intrapsychic term “cognitive dissonance” is more accurate. It means something like this: When the unique network of radio waves that are presently flying around within one’s mind can’t incorporate a particular broadcast of facts coming at it from without, it immediately scrambles them, as a kind of supremely self-sustaining defense mechanism.
B’shifleinu thus naturally blips into b’shvileinu.
Very nice. But surely we’re talking here about more than a natural phenomenon. The words in question are part of a divinely endowed broadcast system! So shouldn’t I assume that My Creator was communicating something through this “mistake?”
Indeed, as I thought more about it I realized that the immature religious side of me had been presuming that at LEAST Chanukah was a time when every Jew is fully appreciated for where he’s holding; at LEAST these eight days were a time for unconditional, “democratic” celebrations.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, right?
Talk about rude awakening. As much as the theory had worked nicely for the so-called Judeo-Xn value system, it simply was not authentic Judaism. That “the Shechina (Divine Presence) never dwells below ten tfachim (about 2 feet),” I’d soon learn, is a substantial principle in the Talmud (Succa 5B). It’s referring to those who indulge in earthbound pleasures. And the fact that the Chanuka Menorah CAN be lit as low as three tfachim is merely an exception to the rule. An exception for the sake of encouraging us – but NOT a reprieve. The special Divine visit we gain at this time is meant to return us to the reality of being ABOVE ten tfachim and strengthen our resolve to NEVER go back to that deep, dark pit where sensualism and atheism call the shots (Nesivos Sholom throughout his Maamarei Chanukah ; see pp. 10, 14, 45-50 for starters).
In the meantime, I’ve had a few more years to qualify my relationship with this topic and have come up with a more positive spin, based on a few questions, which I’d like to now share:
1) Why does the verse praise the Alm-ghty’s remembering our shiflus, as opposed to what we say in the post-Shma prayers, that He is magbia shfalim, uplifts the lowly? How does it help to remember us if we’re still stuck!?
2) Every single other verse in the Hallel HaGadol stresses the greatness of G-d and makes no bones about where we were holding. “To the One who performed great wonders alone… To the Splitter of the Sea into pathways… To the Guider of Israel’s passage through it… to the Knocker of great kings…” Etc. So perhaps this reference to our shiflus is not meant to put us down but just to bring out another, unique excuse for praising Him?
3) The Mishna teaches (Avos 4): Haveh meod meod shafel ruach, that we should “be of very very lowly spirit.” The Noam EliMelech (on Shmos) points out that it doesn’t state that we should mashpil rucheinu, actively degrade our spirits, just that we should accept our spiritual state as being very low. Could this be referring to a retrospective orientation; the value of accepting our lowness AFTER the fact of having fallen?
4) The Halacha (Jewish law) is that there is ktsas Mitzvah, a conditional obligation, to feast on Chanukah. Only if a concerted effort is made to imbue the evening with religious song and praises is a Jew justified in feasting then (Rma on O. Ch. 670: 2). This is comparable in the Halachic literature to a bas talmid chacham, daughter of a learned, pious Jew, who marries an Am HaAretz, a coarse, unlearned Jew. The law here as well is that while it may be a perfectly kosher marriage, those who attend should be careful not to eat unless there’s an atmosphere significantly imbued with religious songs and praises (ibid, M. Brura s”k 8, in ref. to M. Avraham in ref. to Mordechai). Now this imagery perfectly fits our discussion. For while this marriage, as far as the girl’s spiritual wherewithal is concerned, is considered shafel meod, a clear antidote is given for uplifting it. So perhaps this is also applicable to the shafel aspects of every Jew on Chanukah?
These are all rhetorical questions, of course. Undoubtedly it helps that He remembers us. As per that mashal, though He might not yet have revealed Himself above our pit, we must believe in the PROCESS the King takes to find His lost son. Similarly, the Hallel HaGadol (which by the way, tradition has it that it’s sung everyday by the angels) is most definitely all about positivity. The point of noting our lowness is not about us but about the miracle of the distance the Creator is Willing to go for Redeeming us.
Even jumping into the pits!
Finally, the idea of viewing our shiflus as retrospective merit is surely the implication of that otherwise problematic Mishna. No one should ever seek degradation, or purposely match a bas tamid chacham to an Am HaAretz. But once that’s the case we must realize that there’s a most beautiful way to gain from it all.
Songs and praises.
That’s it. Incredible! Genuine, heartfelt zmiros and shvachos on Chanukah can turn each and every Jew’s terrible experiences of shiflus into ones worth remembering… for an eternity.
As we sing in the Maoz Tzur:
naaseh nes l’shoshanim
a miracle was done for the roses
We’re the roses; those lovely flowers embedded amongst awesome amounts of thorns. The thorns are not just our external enemies. They are the b’shvileinu-mindsets that try to confuse us into believing the reason our Maker helps us out of so many holes is in order to make our lives there more comfortable. But the truth is the opposite. It’s ONLY in order to demonstrate the greatness of His love for bringing us back home…
ABOVE the allures of this world.