A Different Language

The following is not a Chanukah story, but it has so much to do with the spirit of Chanukah. It is about preserving one’s purity, one’s spiritual identity, and to what extent one choshuve Jew was willing to go to accomplish this.

It happened before World War II. Rav Aharon Kotler was the rosh yeshiva of Kletzk, and because of the yeshiva’s financial situation, he was compelled to travel to America to collect funds. While there, through some miscalculation, Rav Aharon found himself one Erev Shabbos in a city far from the East Coast where there weren’t many Yidden. Where would he be able to spend Shabbos? He found out that there was a small Jewish community in that area, but because the people were very lenient in their standards of kashrus, he would not be able to partake of the seudos in any of their homes.

After further inquiry, he learned that the rov of the city was a yorei Shomayim who kept the highest standards of kashrus, but that there was no chance that he would agree to have him as a guest, because he was a hermit who lived isolated in his house. He did not even appear in shul and had no connection with his surroundings. If, on rare occasions, someone had a question in halacha, they would somehow contact the rov. Otherwise, there was no communication between him and the community.

Seeing that Shabbos was approaching and there was no chance of finding a proper place to stay, Rav Aharon decided to try and ask this rov to host him for Shabbos. He reached his house and knocked on the door. The rov opened the door. When he heard the request, he refused adamantly. Rav Aharon tried asking a second time, but the rov remained steadfast in his refusal. Rav Aharon remained outside the house, not knowing what to do. On the one hand, it was clear that he could not stay at the homes where kashrus was not properly observed. On the other hand, he did not want to fast on Shabbos. What to do?

He decided to make one last ditch effort with this rov. He knocked on the door one more time and, in desperation, called out to the Yid, “My name is Aharon Kotler. I serve as rosh yeshiva in Kletzk, one of the most distinguished yeshivos in Poland. By chance, I found myself here right before Shabbos and I don’t have where to stay.” When the rov heard this, he opened the door and said, “You say that you’re a rosh yeshiva. They all say that. I will agree to have you as a guest on condition that you pass my test. I will ask you five questions in learning. If you can answer them, you’re invited to stay in my home.”

Rav Aharon, the gaon of gaonim, related that the shailos were very difficult for him to answer. One of them was a question that, by chance, he happened to see shortly before that time in a sefer. Otherwise, he would not have been able to answer it. Two of the other questions involved remote Yerushalmis that most people did not learn. In the end, Rav Aharon passed the bechinah and the rov happily invited him as a guest for Shabbos.

 For the entire Shabbos, the rov spoke to Rav Aharon in learning. The host and his guest were totally immersed in the delight of learning with bekius and gaonus in all facets of Torah. The time flew by quickly, and before they knew it, Shabbos was coming to an end. Rav Aharon described the rov as a gaon in the class of none other than the Rogatchover.

At seudah shlishis, Rav Aharon turned to his host and said that he would like to ask him a personal question. When he agreed, Rav Aharon asked, “What is this strange way of life that you have chosen for yourself? To remain closed up in your house, not to accept any visitors, and not even to go out to shul? What prompted you to do this?”

The rov opened up to his distinguished guest and divulged what was in his heart. “A number of years ago, Hashgacha had it that I was compelled to move here to America. What can I tell you? I found that the standards of Yiddishkeit here were a far cry from what they were back home. I came to shul and discovered that the davening was very rushed. I was still in the middle of Pesukei Dezimra when the tzibbur was finished the entire davening. I was left in shul by myself. Wherever I went, all I ever heard was talk about one subject, money, money and money, in different forms and expressions.

“I was very shaken and I wondered how long I would be able to remain steadfast in my ways and not be influenced by this culture. How long would it be before I, too, was affected by this atmosphere and spoke this foreign language of gashmiyus? I was in real danger of losing all that I acquired in my years in yeshiva. Therefore, I decided to remain locked up in my house, where I learn and daven according to my standards. I have cut off all ties with the outside world, even with the Yidden here, and Hashem will grant me the kochos to remain a ben Torah” (Sefer Lesitcha Elyon, Parshas Vayishlach).

While this behavior may seem extreme to us, to this rov it was the most sensible thing to do. His most precious commodity was his neshomah, and he felt its purity being imperiled. He did what the Rambam says to do. The Rambam states that if one sees that people do not conduct themselves in a proper way, he should live alone and isolated (Hilchos Deios 6:1). Perhaps it seems peculiar to us because we have become acclimated to the secular culture and are desensitized to its alien hashkafos.

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When learning this week’s sedrah, one cannot cease to be amazed by Yosef’s way of talking to Paroh, king of Mitzrayim. Egypt was a land where the name of Hashem was not in their lexicon. They were self-sufficient, with their fields nurtured by the Nile River. They served idols and were immoral. Yet, Yosef talks to Paroh as if he were a ben Torah. When Paroh told Yosef, “I dreamt a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I heard it said of you that you comprehend a dream to interpret it,” Yosef answered, “That is beyond me. It is Elokim who will respond with Paroh’s welfare” (Bereishis 41:15-16).

Yosef repeated this later, saying, “What Elokim is about to do, He has shown to Paroh.”

What makes this more incredible, says the Alter of Kelm, is that Yosef had been through very hard times. At the age of seventeen, he was taken from his father and thrown into a pit teeming with snakes and scorpions. He was sold to Yishmoelim, who sold him to Potifar, who he served for over ten years. Then he found himself in prison, where he suffered terribly. Suddenly, the messengers of the king come to the prison and rush him out to meet the king. When he reaches the palace, Paroh turns to him to interpret the dream. All eyes are on Yosef, as he is the man of the house. He has the ability to extricate himself from his grave situation. But instead of agreeing with Paroh, Yosef declares, “That is beyond me. I am incapable of doing this.”

Rav Yeruchem Levovitz compared this to a new bochur who enters a yeshiva. His first day there, he asks an astounding kushya that stumps everyone. They are all amazed at his keen perception of the sugya and heap praises upon him, when, matter-of-factly, he mentions that he saw the kushya in Chiddushei Rebbi Akiva Eiger. Immediately, all of the amazement is cooled down. It is still a great kushya, but it is no longer to his credit, as he didn’t think of it. No longer is he considered brilliant. This is exactly what Yosef did. He made it clear that it was all from Hashem and had nothing to do with him.

We see from this the great chinuch that Yosef received from Yaakov Avinu. The fact that all is from Hashem was so ingrained in his bones that under no circumstances would he deviate from the truth – not to ingratiate himself with Paroh, not to save himself from prison, and not to look normal in the eyes of all those around him. It made no difference that this kind of talk was strange in Mitzrayim and that he might look foolish in their eyes. He would not deviate from the truth regardless of what the consequences were.

And wonder of wonders, even Paroh started talking this way, at least for the moment. After Yosef interpreted his dreams, Paroh started mentioning the name of Hashem. “Then Paroh said to Yosef, Since Elokim has informed you of all this, there can be no one so discerning and wise as you’” (Bereishis 41:39). Yosef refused to change his ways of talk and compromise his ideology, and he maintained his purity of soul. He paved the way for the Yidden who would live in Mitzrayim for centuries not to change their way of talk either. They were redeemed in the merit of not changing their names, their language, or their clothing. They maintained their identities, as Yosef paved the way for them to do so.

At the time that the Chashmonaim started waging their battle for self-survival, a most sizable portion of Jews had embraced the ways of the Yevonim. They spoke about matters alien to their mesorah. They were engaged in Greek philosophy and gymnasiums glorifying mind and body. What the human mind could not comprehend was no longer part of their world. They no longer believed in Olam Haba and looked at Olam Hazeh as an end unto itself, to enjoy all physical pleasures. They abhorred the Torah with its laws and constraints, and abandoned all that was spiritual. By the time the battle started, only thirteen tzaddikim were willing to stand up and fight. They refused to speak this new language. They refused to allow society to taint their own purity. Their only recourse was to put their lives on the line. If not for their valiant efforts, the Torah would have been forgotten (Ramban, Vayechi).

This is why on Chanukah, there is so much of an accent placed on pirsumei nisah, publicizing the miracle, the salvation that came about because of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. The battle against the Hellenists did not end with the yeshuah of Chanukah. The world is still filled with the heretics who refuse to acknowledge that there is a Higher Force guiding us and that there is the Upper World, where, eventually, we will have to give an accounting for our actions. The lighting of the Chanukah candles is a declaration to the world that despite the overwhelming majority of people who are disconnected from their Creator, we still remain connected. Like the Chashmonaim of yesteryear, we speak a different language than the rest of society. We look at this world as merely a corridor, with many opportunities to bring us to the banquet hall in Olam Haba.

 On Chanukah, as we watch the neiros radiate their light amidst the darkness, let us reflect on this idea. Klal Yisroel is known as “She’airis Yosef,” the Remnant of Yosef, for just as Yosef was all alone in golus, so are we. And just as he faced the challenge of maintaining his purity, so do we. Are we following in his ways to be resolute in speaking our language? Are we emulating the ways of the Chashmonaim, being steadfast and not allowing ourselves to be affected by the modern culture? Or perhaps, in subtle ways, we are compromising conducting ourselves b’ruach Yisroel sabbah. Chanukah should ignite in us a new awakening in realizing how unique we are and to strengthen us in maintaining our purity. In this way, we will continue to perpetuate the legacy of Yosef and the spirit of the Chashmonaim.