This coming week is Chanukah and I was going to write about hallel and hodaah…but Jersey City happened.
What are we to think? It is just horrific. How can we even contemplate the pain and the suffering of young children bereft of their mother, a young husband widowed so horribly, and parents left to mourn a son or daughter? All of them were cut down in the most horrific and senseless way. It feels almost sacrilegious to even try going beyond the pain, to try transcending the admas kodesh where their blood was spilled in the way that blood of our kedoshim has been spilled throughout the ages for no reason other than the fact that they were part of the Am HaYehudi and their very presence was somehow an affront to the bloodthirsty cruelty of today’s incarnation of Eisov.
The idea hit me that perhaps davka now, when we are figuratively sitting on the floor together with our brothers and sisters in Jersey City, when we are sharing at least in some small way in their pain, it is the optimum time for us engage in hallel v’hodaah and make a cheshbon hanefesh about how much we have to be thankful for in our times.
Growing Up in the Shadow of the Nazis
My generation grew up with survivors. They were the adults in our lives. Every day, when I went to shul as a child, I would meet the Nazis in the form of the numbers on the arms of these precious Yidden as they put on their tefillin. It wasn’t a chiddush. It was just the way it was. After davening, when my father would take us to the bakery to buy bread or rolls for breakfast, the bakery lady who loved to see “Yiddishe kinderlach” would stretch out her arm to give each of us kids a free sprinkle cookie. She also had those ubiquitous numbers on her arm as she stretched it out with the cookie.
“Hitler,” “Der Deitch” and “The Germans” were part of our lexicon, for better or for worse. Those survivors, who are now sadly becoming rarer and rarer to find as they slowly leave us for the Olam Shekulo Tov, were never one hundred percent sure that another Holocaust wasn’t around the corner. The way they were glued to the news coming from Eretz Yisroel during the wars, whether it was the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War or the Entebbe raid, is still indelibly marked in my memory. They were terrified that Jewish blood would once again be wantonly spilled by the nations. They had seen the cruelest of mankind and had no illusions of what human beings – even those who appeared very cultured and appreciated the music of Bach, Beethoven and Wagner – were capable of doing. They had seen it. They had felt it on their own skin.
That is why those survivors had such a profound appreciation for the democracies in the United States and Canada that had allowed them to not only live unharmed, but to thrive and rebuild. They understood that nothing could be taken for granted. The fact that they were able to establish families, then yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, and an entire beautiful infrastructure for Jewish living while prospering financially was recognized as the greatest brocha.
Nevertheless, they remained cognizant of not “shteching der oigen’”of our hosts and in general always tried to project a conservative, toned-down exterior.
Remembering to Not Take Our Liberties for Granted
Having all the governmental bodies tripping over themselves last week to condemn hate – some more sincerely than others – is something that we should not take for granted. In other times, there were governments that blamed us when the goyim killed us.
We cannot and should not take anything for granted in golus, and the fact that this wonderful country wants to protect us and is sincerely trying to prevent another incident like the one in Jersey City is something that we, as Yidden, must appreciate and realize is an anomaly in our 2000-year golus.
Yes, even as we mourn, we must still express hallel v’hodaah over the good fortune of the Jewish community in our times for protecting us, giving us equal rights, and enabling us to grow and thrive.
Growing up in America, we tend to take these liberties for granted. Many of us didn’t grow up with survivors reminding us with their very presence that things weren’t always this way and that the times in which we are living are remarkably good for Yidden.
Hallel v’hodaah means, first and foremost, actually contemplating our good fortune and appreciating it. That is why, to my mind, the mitzvah of hallel v’hodaah on Chanukah is one that takes the most effort. It is easy to get swept up with the mitzvah of lighting the candles or an enjoyable Chanukah mesibah, but to actually take time to think about why have to be grateful as we say Hallel each day, or during Modim, is much harder.
From Heartfelt Appreciation to Perfunctory Hodaah
I am sure that many people have encountered this problem, and I am not revealing myself as an ungrateful, insensitive person by bringing it up. Did you ever experience something that filled your heart, your soul, and your very essence with thanks to Hashem and you thought you would never say Modim perfunctorily again? It may be the day you got into a certain yeshiva or Bais Yaakov, the day you got married, the day a child was born or after the doctor thought you or your child might have a serious illness and the tests came back negative. Whatever it was, you were filled with such thanks that you thought it would last…until a few days later, when everything was back to normal and you barely realized your lips were murmuring the words of Modim as routinely as ever.
Yes, it is hard to retain feelings of hallel v’hodaah, but I saw in a sefer an eitzah that I would like to share with Yated readers. It is perhaps something from which we can all benefit as we say Hallel for eight consecutive days this Chanukah.
Creating Thankful Code Words
Take any posuk in Hallel or even a few words in Hallel and use them to remind you of one special chesed that Hashem did for you. Imagine that a person was suffering from a health issue with chronic pain and it was an ordeal to simply get through each day. The yissurim were everywhere. Every action was painful. And then, either the pain went away or he found a medication that worked. Wow! He can function! The first few days he feels the difference and is filled with thanks, but after that, it becomes normal. Perhaps an eitzah is to create code words out of Hallel. Let me explain.
Imagine if a person chose to underline or focus on these few words of Hallel: “Afofuni chevlei movess… The pain of death encircled me, the confines of the grave, trouble and sorrow I found. I invoked the name of Hashem, please Hashem save my nefesh… Hashem saved me and lifted me up…” Every time he says those underlined words, they will serve to remind him of his prior pain-filled existence and how thankful to Hashem he is for the reprieve.
Or perhaps a person was in terrible financial difficulty and Hashem somehow helped him in a profound way. Imagine that he underlines in his mind the words of the posuk “Min hameitzar korosi Koh – From the depths I cried out to Hashem,” and every single time he reaches that posuk it serves as a code word for him to remember his pain and suffering and the yeshuah that Hashem provided.
The fact that we only say Hallel a limited number of times throughout the year ensures that we don’t get too “used to” these code words and they will retain their meaning.
We all have had things for which we must be thankful, for which we were thankful, but for which our feelings of appreciation dissipated with time. Perhaps this Chanukah, as we focus on hallel v’hodaah, we can choose several pesukim in Hallel to serve as “code word” pesukim to remind us of the personal things for which we are still so thankful in our personal lives.
Returning to Jersey City, yes, it is indeed a time to mourn the horrific loss of young lives. Simultaneously, as we enter Chanukah, I think it is a time when we all need to recognize and thank Hashem for the benevolent golus of America on the one hand and be cognizant of the fact that it is still golus and we cannot abuse the privileges that we were given.
Imagine if all of us, this Chanukah, would think about Jersey City when reciting the posuk in Hallel that begins “Lo omus ki echyeh… I shall not die but rather I shall live and relate the deeds of Hashem.” Imagine if at that moment, we would realize how lucky we still are in this golus. Despite everything, we have full rights and protections, and despite the attempts that Eisov makes to harm us, we have lived and are living relatively unscathed in this golus.
Chanukah is the time of hallel and hodaah. Perhaps, if all of us will think about at least one aspect of the praise and thanks that we owe to Hashem and devise a “code word” posuk in Hallel to really bring it to life, we will indeed be able to express proper hallel and hodaah to Hashem this Chanukah.
The Lesson of Parshas Vayishlach
There is, however, one last thing that is important to point out about Jersey City. There are no coincidences. If Hashem chose to take these pure korbanos during the week when we read Parshas Vayishlach, the parsha that teaches us how we should always deal with Eisov, perhaps we have to relearn the parsha. Yaakov Avinu was so machnia himself to Eisov. He bowed and bowed, he sent presents, and in general he did everything in his power to calm Eisov and certainly not to arouse his wrath. We saw this behavior when observing the way Holocaust survivors interacted with the non-Jews in their own lives.
The esteemed editor and publisher of this paper, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, put it best in his prescient column last week when he wrote: “We need to be good neighbors and practice common courtesies, if only so that people’s only interactions with Jews are positive ones. This country has been good to us. The Constitution affords us freedoms we never enjoyed before in our long golus. We must not abuse them or act in ways that could lead anyone to question our patriotism, morality, virtue and simple decency.”