As the winter begins to set in, bringing with it early nights and cold weather, Chanukah arrives, warming our hearts and souls, and bringing much light to a dark world. How blessed we are!
As we light the menorah each day, we endeavor to perform the mitzvah in the best possible way, going beyond the exact strictures of halacha to fulfill the obligation with all the many hiddurim. We seek to light with olive oil and the best type of wicks. Every member of the family is provided with a menorah on which to light, increasing the lights every day of the chag.
The halacha is that it is not necessary to relight the menorah if it was properly lit and the fire became extinguished shortly thereafter. And the question is why is there no obligation to relight the flame so that it should remain lit the proper amount of time.
The gemara derives that “hadloka osah mitzvah,” the essence of the mitzvah is the act of lighting the menorah. We can understand the reason by realizing that we light the menorah to commemorate the heroic actions of the Chashmonaim. At the heart of the celebration is that the Chashmonaim had the courage of their faith to battle the Yevonim and the Jews who had fallen under their influence. After years of occupation, they said, “We must initiate to fight the forces of darkness. Hashem will help us succeed.”
According to the rules of armies and battles, they didn’t stand a chance, but because they were fighting for Torah and kedusha, and placed their faith in Hashem, they were able to defeat the nation that was widely respected by the rest of the world and considered unbeatable.
They undertook to do what needed to be done without considering the chances of victory. They saw what was happening to their people. They saw the ongoing erosion of Torah and holiness and decided that if they would continue to cower and submit, very quickly there would be little left to fight for. Since they didn’t make decisions based on the natural order of governance and battle, instead relying on Hashem’s assistance, they merited a historic and eternally celebrated victory.
Because they cared enough to go to war against their oppressors and upon their victory undertook to search for undefiled oil with which to light the menorah, Hashem revealed to them a small container of holy oil. Though the oil wasn’t physically sufficient to light a long time, Hashem miraculously caused the menorah to be lit for eight days, until they were able to produce a batch of shemen zayis zoch.
Each night, as we light the menorah, we are celebrating the first time the Chashmonaim lit the menorah and that Hashem rewarded their dedication by causing the menorah to remain lit until they were able to produce more oil.
Our lighting is a celebration of the Chashmonaim’s devotion to their mission of kehunah and kedusha. Immediately upon the military victory they set out to perform the mitzvah of lighting the menorah in its purest form and searched for oil with the seal of the kohein gadol. The mitzvah, therefore, is to acknowledge their greatness and devotion by lighting a menorah.
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 are afraid to undertake 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 to increase Torah and kedusha. The reversal of the natural order was made possible by the great acts of courage and heroism carried out by Matisyahu and his small group.
Though according to the laws of science, the flask only contained enough oil to burn for one day, it fueled the flame for as long as was necessary. So too, although in physical terms those who were virtuous were outmatched by those who were evil, to paraphrase Rabi Chaninah ben Dosah, mi she’omar l’shemen viyidloke omar sheheim yinatzchu, and thus they won.
When Rav Aharon Kotler arrived in America and proclaimed that he was going to open a yeshiva where the talmidim would learn Torah lishmah, people laughed and thought that he wasn’t thinking properly. Yet, from that small pach shemen tahor which he infused with the pure light of Torah, great torches burn brightly all across the country.
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 blossoms across the country.
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 the 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 Yisroel succumbed to the temptations presented by the Yevonim. They had good press and an able marketing team, and were widely promoted as the nation and philosophy of the future. The in-crowd all bought in and joined them. It was only a few outmoded die-hards who didn’t buy in.
The Bach (Orach Chaim 670) writes that during that period, 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 would talk of a similar situation in ikvesa deMeshicha, the period leading up to the arrival of Moshiach. He would say that prior to Moshiach’s arrival, chizuk and encouragement for Torah would decline. But there would be a few resolute individuals who would fight battles on behalf of Torah. He foretold that while they might be few, they would be effective.
Every one of us can be among those few. We can dedicate our efforts to fighting the battle of Torah, halacha, kedusha and tahara.
We don’t always realize that there is an ongoing battle against shomrei and lomdei Torah. If you read between the lines of public declarations and articles, even those from religious people, you can often discern that they despise those who devote their lives to Torah study and live among like-minded people, leaving behind the enticements of the greater world and its institutions of higher learning. They pounce when they think they have found a fault and propagandize against us. They create issues to paint us all in a bad light to assuage any guilty feelings and emptiness in the hearts of those who have slackened in their halachic observance.
The State of Israel, under its current leftist government, is engaged in a full-fledged battle against all that we hold dear. It is not hyperbole to say that they are determined to ruin kashrus in the Jewish state, undermine Shabbos, make a mockery of the conversion process, starve kollel people, and destroy everything Jewish about the Jewish state. The battle to allow Reform and Conservative services at the Kosel is only the first step of a campaign to equate the status of those who have directed millions of Jews from Judaism to those who follow the laws, rules and customs that define Judaism and who is a Jew.
Yet, by and large, we stand idly by and don’t get involved in the battle. Many ignore what is going on, and most who follow the developments read of the battles with a feeling of resignation and detachment. We don’t take the situation to heart and don’t inquire to find out what we can do to stop the debasement and defilement of the Holy Land.
But there are yechidim who do. As the government cuts support for kollel families, people on our side of the ocean step up their financial involvement, pumping tens of millions of dollars into Israeli yeshivos and kollelim. As the government battles kedusha, organizations such as Lev L’Achim expand the gevulei kedusha, bringing more children and families tachas kanfei haShechinah every day.
In this country as well, heroic people are working to expand and fortify the growing tents of Torah. Singular people committed to a goal have raised and given unprecedented amounts of money to support the kollel of Bais Medrash Govoah, the greatest citadel of Torah today. These people are expending much time and energy to accomplish a historic feat. In a time when we hear lots of complaints about the wealthy, it may be a good idea to keep in mind that we should not generalize. Among them are remarkable people who tremendously raised the musogim of giving to Torah causes.
When the Chofetz Chaim foresaw the onslaught against the Torah way of life and the many battles and threats it would endure, he also saw good people of our generation giving their all to bolster Torah and its people.
On Chanukah, we celebrate the Chashmonaim and their mesirus nefesh for kedusha. They rose to restore a 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. And they themselves fought the battles and did what needed to be done.
Too often, 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. And you don’t necessarily need to be blessed with financial recourses to be able to affect change.
A very wealthy philanthropist lost his fortune and went to the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, to share his pain. 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 demonstrate for others how to assist mosdos even if you don’t have money. You will help raise money, you will develop good ideas, and you will utilize your connections and business acumen. By doing so, you will show that anyone can be a tomeich Torah.”
A heartbroken almanah shared her tale of woe with Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the famed rov of Vilna. Her husband had been a wealthy industrialist and was 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 hatzlocha. 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.
Take a look around you and you will see 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 that success was impossible.
Many others worked alone, mocked and derided as failing dreamers, yet they placed their faith in Hashem and lived to see much success. 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.
If each of us would internalize the lesson of the Chashmonaim, we could free ourselves from much oppression.
As we light the menorah, we should remember 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.
The mitzvah is to have the faith to get the fire lit. How long it stays lit, how much light it brings, and how much darkness it chases away is up to Hashem.
Let’s get committed. Let’s get to work. Let us strike the match. Hashem will do the rest.
Ah freilichen Chanukah.