Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Chanukah Mission

As we observe the Yom Tov of Chanukah, it is interesting to note that there is a mitzvah of zeh Keili ve'anveihu to perform a mitzvah in its most perfect form. We find in hilchos Chanukah that the hiddurim in the mitzvah of lighting involve the type of oil and wicks used to light the menorah and providing a menorah for every member of the family. After the fire burns for a half hour, it may be extinguished. The Mishnah Berurah [672, 6] writes that there is no hiddur mitzvah in having it burn longer. I have long wondered why. We would think that the longer the candles remain lit, the more of a hiddur mitzvah it would be.

Perhaps we can explain as follows. We light the menorah to commemorate the heroic act of the Chashmonaim. The greatness of what they did and what we celebrate is the fact that they had the courage to stand apart with faith in Hashem as they battled the Yevonim and those who fell under their influence.

What came after was a result of siyata diShmaya, Divine intervention. Although by laws of nature there was no way they could have succeeded in their mission, their dedication was rewarded by Hashem and they overcame the overwhelming odds stacked against them.

With siyata diShmaya, after the war, they found a small container of holy oil, which miraculously proved to be enough to light for eight days, until they were able to procure more. Their heroic act was the initial kindling of the menorah. The fact that it remained lit until more oil was obtained was a miracle independent of them. Because they performed their mission without weighing their chances of success, Hashem caused them to succeed.

Thus, the mitzvah is to light the menorah – kovsah ein zokuk lah – and there is no hiddur in the lights burning longer, because we are saluting the action of the Chashmonaim, which was their devotion to their mission of kehunah and kedushah, and destroying the tumah, even though victory was not apparent. They kindled the menorah even though they didn’t know how long it would remain lit. The mitzvah, therefore, is to acknowledge their heroism by lighting the menorah. For the menorah to remain lit longer than the initial thirty minutes does not add to the performance of the mitzvah.

Klal Yisroel didn’t feel itself strong enough to throw off the yoke of Greek tyranny until Matisyahu showed that it could be done. Forces of evil are permitted to remain in power, because the people they dominate do not appreciate their own power and do not join together to bring down the wickedness. Evil is toppled when one good man decides that he can bear it no longer and begins to rally people around him.

The miraculous military victory over Yovon is a dramatic example of how the laws of nature are suspended when dedicated people join together to increase Torah and kedushah in the world. That reversal of the natural order in their day was made possible by the great acts of courage and heroism carried out by one courageous individual, Matisyahu, and his small group.

Though according its natural makeup, the flask contained enough oil to burn for one day, it fueled the flame for as long as was necessary until more oil could be made. So too, although in physical terms those who were virtuous were outmatched by those who were evil, they won anyway.

Very often, we hear tales of wonder about how people succeeded in building Torah where no one thought it was possible. How many times have we heard of the rov who came to a town and was told that hair would grow on hand-palms before a yeshiva would take root? The naysayers are long forgotten as Torah takes root and blossoms.

People move to far-flung cities and towns and everyone thinks they are crazy, yet they succeed. People are moser nefesh to do a mitzvah and, in the long run, they gain from it. People who work lesheim Shomayim, with selfless dedication, are not limited by logic or the laws of nature. They go where everyone says you can’t and they succeed because they know that our task is to light the fire; the rest is up to Hashem.

On Chanukah, we pay tribute to the ideals of mesirus nefesh of the Chashmonaim. They took a brave, determined stand against the evil tyranny that brutalized them and sought their destruction as a people. The Chashmonaim were unpopular, as much of Klal Yisorel succumbed to the temptations presented by the Yevonim.

In fact, the Bach (Orach Chaim 670) writes that the Yevonim were able to enact gezeiros, because there was a hisrashlus b’avodah, a general weakening in the commitment to religious obligations.

The Chofetz Chaim foretold of a similar atmosphere towards hachzokas haTorah in ikvesa deMeshicha, the period leading up to the arrival of Moshiach.

The avodah of Chanukah and of these dark times is the same: to support and enable courageous stars to emerge from within our people and free us of our shackles, enabling us to rise.

The Chofetz Chaim regularly delivered a shmuess to his talmidim in his Radiner yeshiva. The shmuessen were actually more of a rumination. He would contemplate, think and reflect. The shmuess was a conversation more than a lecture.

In discussing the battle between Yaakov Avinu and the sar of Eisov, the Chofetz Chaim wondered why the force of evil worked with such energy and drive to block the path of Yaakov. He asked why the paths to kedushah of the first two avos were not impeded in this manner.

The Chofetz Chaim seemed to look into the future as he spoke. “Each of the avos represented a distinct path in avodah. Avrohom’s was chesed, Yitzchok’s was gevurah and Yaakov’s was Torah. The Zohar reveals that a time will come, just prior to the alos hashachar of Moshiach, when people will ignore talmidei chachomim and forgo traditional support for Torah,” he said. “The lack of encouragement will cause talmidei chachomim to weaken in their resolve. This is hinted to by the injury the malach caused Yaakov in his kaf yerech. The thigh supports the body, and the angel thought that by injuring that limb, Yaakov would be unable to battle him.

“The malach struck Yaakov Avinu, but he fought on. Although he was hurt, he summoned the strength to overcome his heavenly opponent.”

The Chofetz Chaim said that before Moshiach’s arrival, chizuk and encouragement for Torah would decline. However, he said, the fight would go on, and there would be a few resolute individuals who would fight lonely battles.

He foretold that while they might be few, they would be proud and effective.

Every individual has the ability to grasp an ideal and stand tall in its defense. We all have a singular mission in life, and if we are true to our core, we can summon the strength to realize it. We must never lose sight of what our ultimate goal is, despite all the noise and static seeking to steal our attention. Challenges confront us, but we possess the ability to surmount them.

It is as true today as it was thousands of years ago, when the Chashmonaim confronted the masses to fight with dignity and pride in defense of our mesorah.

On Chanukah, we celebrate the Chashmonaim and their mesirus nefesh for kedushah. They rose to throw off the forces of darkness from the nation that was having its light source blocked. They were the me’atim, the tzaddikim, the tehorim, the people who performed Hashem’s service in the Bais Hamikdosh and in the bais medrash.

Rather than turning to the strong people and others who were trained in physical labor and accomplishment, they themselves led the battle against the forces of darkness.

Too often, we look for others to do our work. We look in the wrong places for saviors and salvation, not knowing that the solution is within us. If we improve ourselves and make ourselves worthy, we can overcome whatever stands in our way. And if it isn’t us who can accomplish the goal, we can assist those who can. It is very difficult to work in a vacuum. Those intrepid souls who do so need all the help and support they can get.

While the first part of the Chofetz Chaim’s prophecy has been realized, it is comforting to know that the second part is coming to fruition as well. Yes, we are bombarded by many who seek to undermine us. We are beset by various problems that beg for solutions. There is an air of negativity and begrudging acceptance of the situation, as many are apathetic.

This past Shabbos, I attended the Torah Umesorah convention which catered to askonim, executives, lay leaders and yeshiva administrators. They are people who enable roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, mechanchim and mechanchos to inspire and lead. They represent the kaf yerech support system for those to whom we entrust our children.

After spending a Shabbos with those people, I see that there really is room for optimism and hope. There are people all across the country who fight on and refuse to be dissuaded from bringing Torah and kedushah to all corners. They, and those like them, are heroes in our time. They are the ones the Chofetz Chaim referred to as he spoke to the bochurim in Radin in a different time and a different world.

Such people are referred to as “tamchin d’Oraysa.” A tomeich Torah differs from a nadvan, who donates to Torah and good causes. The tomeich doesn’t just donate. He stands behind the talmid chochom and supports him, motivating him and enabling him to continue; comfortable and strong.

The quintessential tamchin d’Oraysa shows humility and veneration for Torah scholars. As wealthy, influential and powerful as they may be, they acknowledge the leadership of genuine Torah greats.

Reb Moshe Reichmann zt”l generously supported a local kollel. Once, a close friend asked the Canadian philanthropist to prevail upon the rosh kollel to accept a certain yungerman. Mr. Reichmann looked at him in shock. “Me? What do I know about running a kollel? I am a developer. He makes talmidei chachomim. I have no right to offer an opinion.”

He exemplified the tamchin d’Oraysa who are the yerech, holding up the guf of a nation with distinction.

Being a tomeich Torah doesn’t necessarily involve donating money. A very wealthy European Jew, who was a generous philanthropist, experienced a bad turn in business and lost his fortune. He shared his frustration and pain with the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l. The Rebbe comforted him. “It’s a difficult nisayon,” he said, “but now you have been given a new role, a new shlichus. Now you will show people how you can assist mosdos without money. You will help raise money, you will come up with good ideas, and you will utilize your connections and business experience. By doing so, you will demonstrate that anyone can be a tomeich Torah.”

A heartbroken almanah once shared her tale of woe with Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt”l. Her husband had been a wealthy industrialist and a patron of yeshivos. His business went into a downward spiral and, before he knew what had happened, he was left with an empty bank account. He died shortly thereafter from a broken heart.

The woman told the rov that she went to visit her son, who was learning in a prominent yeshiva, and was appalled by the squalor in which the bochurim were living. After listening to her problems, Rav Chaim Ozer said to her, “It’s your fault.”

The woman reacted with astonishment to the charge. Rav Chaim Ozer explained: “You and your husband were generous and caring friends of yeshivos, and then, unfortunately, you were no longer able to give money. You thought that you were absolved of your obligation to support Torah, but that isn’t true.”

He continued: “You can still do so much. Here,” he said, handing her a sum of money, “take this and buy straw. I’m sure that with your determination, you will be able to get sacks donated. We can fill them with the straw and the bochurim will have new beds to sleep on. Go with hatzlachah. You can still do so much.”

The almanah left, not just with money, but with a new mission in life.

There are many missions for the taking. There are causes waiting for champions.

The miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate is primarily that of the tiny flask that burned longer than was thought to be realistically possible. The menorah’s lights signify that the power of light overcame the power of darkness. The oil lasting longer than one day signifies that if you expend the effort and work bemesirus nefesh, physical rules will not apply.

We see wrongs in our world and are told that there is nothing we can do about it. We try to right the wrongs and are mocked. Yet, in fact, if you look around, there are so many people who overcame the odds, building Torah where no one thought it was possible, restoring lives others had given up on, and fighting abuse that people thought was part of life. We see teachers touching souls and impacting them forever. We see righteous men and women not taking no for an answer, standing up to an apathetic society, and awakening people’s consciences. We see people rallying to fight for those who have been wronged.

We see people working with selfless dedication and are amazed that it seems as if logic and the laws of nature don’t apply to them. They tread where no one has dared step before, and they succeed where lesser people vowed success was absolutely impossible. Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt”l, who founded Torah Umesorah, stood up to the passive negativity that was pervasive in his time and dedicated himself to doing what he could so that tens of thousands of children would say, “Shema Yisroel.” He sent his talmidim across the country, infusing them and others with the passion to change people’s mindsets. The spark they created grew into a fire that spread from New York to California and every major city in between, fueled by intrepid souls who forsook fame and fortune to save a nation in a death spiral.

Wherever Torah Umesorah reached, the community blossomed. Many tens of thousands of Jewish children were lost, robbed of a Jewish education, but the day school movement made it possible to change that narrative. Assisted by dedicated baalei batim who worked with mesirus nefesh, the mindset was transformed and a revolution ensued.

These are the heroes of our people. They have taken a desolate land and caused a desert of assimilation to bloom with Torah. It is these heroes who have heard the call of the Chashmonaim. They have been the shluchim for the rebirth of our people decades after we were nearly wiped out. They have succeeded in greater fashion than anyone thought possible, blessed with siyata diShmaya reserved for those who work bemesirus nefesh lesheim Shomayim. 

This week, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman selected my dear friend, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, to run on the Yahadus HaTorah list for the Knesset. Twenty-five years ago, when Lev L’Achim was founded, Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach zt”l tapped the energetic yungerman to lead it. Since then, he has worked ceaselessly and tirelessly, crisscrossing Israel to bring the blessings of Torah to tens of thousands of thirsting people.

With the direction of the gedolim, assistance of an army of volunteers, and support of bnei Torah around the world, he demonstrated the ability of one person to affect tens of thousands.

Monday night, Rav Shteinman said, “He is what the generation needs,” proving again how much one person can accomplish and that if we would dedicate ourselves to our missions, we can transform the world.

Many others worked alone, mocked and derided as failing dreamers, yet they placed their faith in Hashem and lived to see much success. People such as the Ponovezher Rov are the stuff of legend and many stories are told about them. But even in our day, there are people who defied the odds and went on to undertake trailblazing endeavors on behalf of our people. We can all have that impact if we discover our mission and set out to right wrongs and make the world a better place. We have to light the spark lesheim Shomayim. Hashem does the rest.

A delegation once traveled to St. Petersburg to meet with the Russian minister of education in an attempt to convince him to revoke a decree that would have terribly impacted yeshivos. Upon arrival in the Russian capital city, the participants met with the local rov, Rav Yitzchok Blazer, to discuss tactics they would employ to underscore the importance of Torah to the minister. Someone suggested translating the words of the tefillah of Ahavah Rabbah for the minister to demonstrate the depth of love for Torah. Rav Blazer replied, “If we would translate those words for ourselves, we wouldn’t need to do so for them.”

We daven three times every day, but we don’t necessarily take the words to heart. We learn the story and halachos of Chanukah, but we have to recognize their relevance to us and our daily lives. The inspiration is there for those who seek it.

If each of us would internalize the lesson of the Chashmonaim, we could free ourselves from much oppression.

It is because of such people that we can reach and learn and daven. It is because of the mesirus nefesh of people who went forth into an eretz lo zorua that Torah and Yiddishkeit are stronger than ever. It is because of their dedication that we can publicly light the menorah with pride, without fear of our neighbors.

As we light the menorah, we should learn the lesson of the Chashmonaim, and of the gedolim, roshei yeshiva, admorim, rabbonim, mechanchim and mechanchos who have led us on a path of greatness, and be motivated to do what we can to complete their missions and ours.

Rav Yitzchok Blazer would relate from his rebbi, Rav Yisroel Salanter, that on Chanukah it is forbidden to be sad. If someone would tell Rav Yisroel something depressing, he would respond, “Shhh. On Chanukah it is forbidden to say hespeidim and be despondent.”

How can a person be unhappy on the Yom Tov that commemorates Hashem helping those who actively place their faith in Him? The menorah reminds us of the successes of those who refused to be depressed or suppressed throughout the ages. Let’s remember that.

Ah freilichen Chanukah.



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