Earlier in our history, there was another tale of rabim beyad me’atim. During the war of the four kings against the five, Og Melech Haboshon, a fugitive of the war, notified Avrohom Avinu that his nephew, Lot, had been taken captive. Without hesitating for an instant, “Vayorek es chanichov – he armed his disciples who had been born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and he pursued them as far as Dan” (Bereishis 14:14).
One would have thought that Avrohom Avinu would have mobilized the strongest warriors amongst his many servants. Why, then, does the Torah emphasize that these troops were his talmidim born in his home?
The seforim say that Avrohom was not dealing with an ordinary war over land or power. This was a war based on ideology. The gentile nations wanted nothing more than to eliminate Avrohom Avinu, for he was the singular force in the world that combated avodah zara, their belief. Here he was called Avrom Ha’ivri, because it means that he was on one side of the world dramatically opposed to the nations on the side of idolatry.
To this end, they kidnapped Lot in order to show that they had conquered a follower of their nemesis. They hoped to get Avrohom involved in the hostilities, so that he would be killed. The loyal servant of Hashem set out to fight the war for the sake of his Master and he was victorious.
Who would be willing to go out to battle such overwhelming forces with the odds stacked against him? Only those who passionately believed in what they stood for. Avrohom Avinu had many servants, but he insisted on taking only chanichov, his talmidim born in his house, who were infused with holiness and belief in Hashem. Only they could succeed in fighting a war with such seemingly insurmountable odds against them.
How, indeed, did they win this war? How did such a small group of men, peace-loving individuals, presumably not previously tested on the battlefield, manage to defeat such a formidable enemy?
When the Chofetz Chaim heard about the damage that the communists were causing to Yiddishkeit in Russia – including the closing of chadorim, shuls and mikvaos, and prohibiting the performance of mitzvos – he was filled with terrible anxiety. Sitting together with the Radiner rosh yeshiva, Rav Moshe Landinsky, he commented, “Ay! Ay! Rav Moshe, we were negligent. We made a big mistake.”
Seeing the look of wonder in Rav Moshe’s eyes, he explained: “When those reshaim first came to power, we should have gone out to fight them with sticks and stones.”
“What are you saying, Yisroel Meir?” countered the rosh yeshiva. “We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near them. They were well-armed and would have blown us away with their firepower or they would have captured us. But there isn’t a chance in the world that we would have succeeded.”
The Chofetz Chaim expressed a look of wonder and said, “Rav Moshe, did you really think I meant that we would have physically overpowered them? Certainly not. But had we gone out to war against them, Hashem would have seen our mesirus nefesh for His Torah. Through this, we could have broken this klipah of tumah, this barrier to avodas Hashem, and their downfall would be imminent.”
This is how Avrohom Avinu managed to defeat the superior forces of the kings. With great mesirus nefesh, he set out to fight a milchemes Hashem. In this manner, the power of tumah was broken and Hashem delivered them into Avrohom’s hands.
This same scenario repeated itself many hundreds of years later during the period of Bayis Sheini. The Chashmonaim were reliving that which their ancestor Avrohom Avinu had experienced in his war. Starting with a paltry force of just thirteen men (Rashi,Devorim 33:11), Yehudah HaMaccabee led the way to overcome armies of hundreds of thousands of men.
The word chanichov has the same root as the name Chanukah, for just as the victory of Avrohom came about because of the spiritual passion that he had instilled in them, and only in this manner could they have weakened the power of the enemy, similarly, the Chashmonaim were successful because they were chanichim, infused with passion for the ways of the Torah. This was able to pierce the armor of Yavan and bring the tremendous victory of Chanukah.
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Reb Yudel, a Hungarian Jew, was very much afraid when the Russian bear overran much of Hungary, ruining his peace and tranquility. It wasn’t so much the physical hardship and the danger of war that he faced which alarmed him. It was the communist ideology that strived to uproot any semblance of Torah and mitzvos and the spirit of ruach Yisroel saba that made him shudder. What would be his future in matters of ruchniyus and what would be the fate and the chinuch of his children?
Together with his wife, he decided to flee from his country, a very difficult move that was fraught with danger. Those who were caught crossing the border illegally were shot to death, no questions asked. Regardless of the peril, they were willing to be moser nefesh for the sake of Hashem.
They sold their house and most of their belongings to be ready to escape at the first opportunity. First they found a guide who helped smuggle people out of the country. For this they paid a hefty sum of money. They would be part of the first group that would cross the border. Understandably, the preparations were made in utmost secrecy. The fateful date of their flight was set for the fourth night of Chanukah.
The trail to freedom was a difficult one, through forests, bushes, hills and rocky, unpaved roads. The leader of the group demanded absolute quiet, for the extra noises could give them away, and who knew what dangers lurked in the shadows? There were ruthless Russian soldiers everywhere, ready to pounce on their prey.
Although the journey was a difficult one, it didn’t trouble Reb Yudel at all. He knew that in just a few hours it would be over, and he and his family would be free from the communist treachery. What occupied his mind was something else entirely. It was Chanukah,and never in his life did he miss lighting candles. Could he possibly still fulfill the mitzvah on this night?
He approached the leader of the group and explained what he wanted to do. He asked if he could possibly light a candle for a short while. The man looked at him incredulously and would have yelled at him if not for the necessity for quiet. He whispered to him angrily: “Have you totally lost your mind? Even the tiniest bit of light could give us away. If you dare do it, you will endanger all of us and we will be forced to kill you.”
Left without a choice, Reb Yudel was resigned to missing the mitzvah on this fourth night of Chanukah. But just a bit later, the group stopped to rest in an old shack at the end of a forest. Now he felt that it was safe to light the candle. In a corner of the room, he took out matches and lit four candles after reciting the brachos. He hovered over them to conceal the light as much as possible.
The other members of the group, most of them not Jewish, were not happy at the sight of these candles. They were afraid that even in the shack it was not wise to light candles. But seeing how much it meant to this strange man, they remained silent and did not complain. They did, however, glance at the candles with angst, hoping that soon they would be extinguished.
In a few minutes, however, their worry turned to horror as a Russian soldier entered the room with a rifle. Immediately, he ordered them to line up against the wall with their hands up. Now all hope of freedom was lost – and all because of this crazy Jew and his nonsensical candles.
But, lo and behold, the soldier did not shoot them immediately. His gaze focused on the candles. He stared and stared at the flickering lights as if frozen in his place. Suddenly, to the surprise of the entire group, he removed a bottle of vodka from his backpack and offered them all drinks to warm up their frozen bodies. Seeing the look of wonder on their faces, he explained:
“Be aware that my group of soldiers has been following you from the moment you entered the forest. When you went into the shack, we decided that the time had come to kill all of you. I came in here to shoot all of you. But then something happened.”
He hesitated as tears flowed from his eyes and he spoke slowly in a voice choked with emotion.
“Perhaps you won’t believe this, but these small candles that are flickering remind me of bygone days. You see, I am a Jew, and in my parents’ home, we, too, lit Chanukah candles in a silver menorah.”
Suddenly, the memories flowed freely.
“I was a religious Jew and it has been twenty-five years since I left the ways of my parents and became a diehard communist. For twenty-five years, I hadn’t seen the Chanukah lights, for my sole purpose in life was to serve Mother Russia and its ideology, which has proven over the years to be empty and futile. These candles have shaken me to the core. I will not harm my brothers or anyone who is with them. You are free to go on your way. Good luck! We will not harm you!”
The group of refugees was awestruck, for not only weren’t the candles a hindrance to their escape, but, to the contrary, they had saved their lives. In an instant, Reb Yudel was transformed from a crazy man into a hero. His candles softened the heart of the Russian Jew hardened by years of indoctrination of communism. Yes, just a little bit of light pushes away the deepest darkness (adapted from Drashos Hamaggid of Rav Shabsi Yudelevitz).
In this day and age, when our nation is surrounded by enemies who are ready to devour us and anti-Semitism is rampant throughout the world, we worry. And in our private lives, when facing our own personal struggles against forces of darkness, we ask, “From whence will my help come?” (Tehillim 121:1). Our way to salvation is to continue walking in the ways of the Torah and to resist the influences of the world. Despite the fact that we are vastly outnumbered, Hashem will bring us a yeshuah. After all, it takes just a little bit of light…