Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

The Light of Chanukah

One year, on Chanukah, I was walking through a bustling hallway in a local mall. The various stores competed for attention, luring shoppers with visual displays and brightly-colored promises of savings. I hadn't paid any attention to the young man standing in middle of the corridor, clad in tight jeans and a trendy tee-shirt, sunglasses pushed up on his head. But when he made it obvious that he wanted to talk to me, I paused.


“I need your help,” he said, his accent making it abundantly clear that he was a brother, an Israeli far from home.

I waited for the hard luck story and sincere request for a small loan. It never came.

Instead, with much disappointment, he told me that in previous years, a rabbi dressed like me came to the mall and lit the menorah with the young Israelis who worked at various booths there.

“This year he didn’t come!” the young man said. “Maybe you know who he is. Can you call him and tell him that we’re waiting?”

I spent a few minutes chatting with my new friend before his work – selling holiday ornaments – summoned him back. I didn’t get to say what I really wanted him to know.

In Maseches Sofrim (20:1), we learn that it is forbidden to light neiros Chanukah using an old ner. The Bnei Yissoschor wonders why. After all, if the reason is that an old ner constitutes bizui mitzvah, meaning that it is unfit for the mitzvah, why is it acceptable for lighting neiros Shabbos and Yom Tov?

Perhaps we can answer as follows.

Rav Tzadok Hakohein (Pri Tzaddik, Chodesh Kislev) explains why the months of the Jewish calendar aren’t referred to in the Torah by their names. Why does the Torah refer to months by their number, Nissan as Chodesh Harishon, Iyar as Chodesh Hasheini, and so on? Also, if the months do not have biblical names, why did Chazal find a need to name them?

He explains that every month brought a new understanding of Torah. The patterns in the sky reflected a cosmic shift, and new Divine hashpa’os. Month after month, year after year, things kept changing, presenting new opportunities, new energy and new kochos. Every month there was a different hashpo’ah and understanding in Torah, but it wasn’t germane to that specific month. To have named a month would have meant identifying its unique characteristic, which was impossible during an era when each month was a springboard for freshness and innovation. It was only once Chazal perceived that the era of evolvement was over; the months had assumed a pattern, that they finally selected names, each one reflecting the essential nature of the month.

Iyov said (Iyov 31:24), “Im samti zahav kisli – If I put in gold my faith.” Kisli, my faith, is the root of Kislev, an expression of faith and expectation. This month is a time of bitachon.

Kislev is a month when we are to fortify ourselves with faith. Just as a single light can illuminate winter’s darkness, so can a spark of faith during the month of Kislev brighten what appears to be a bleak situation.

How does one acquire faith?

To really believe, one has to have the patience to look, see and perceive.

Kislev, seforim say, is composed of the words Keis and lamid vov.The explanation is that keis, the cover, the layer of concealment, on the lamid vov neiros, the 36 candles we light cumulatively over the eight days of Chanukah, is removed. By contemplating the 36 dancing flames over the eight days of Chanukah, we see the brightness of the ohr haganuz, the ever-present hidden light, because the cover has been removed

When we say Shema Yisroel, we cover our eyes, hinting at the fact that we believe in Hashem’s Oneness, though we don’t actually see it in olam hazeh. On Chanukah, we uncover our eyes and see more.

Perhaps this concept is fortified by the sefer Tzror Hamor (Va’eschanon, page 134), which states that Chanukah is an amalgamation of the words chanu chof hey, explaining that as a result of all the tzaros and gezeiros, the Chashmonaim were unable to properly study Torah and engage in prayer. They beat back the Yevonim in the merit of their belief in the Oneness of Hashem as expressed in the 25 letters of “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod.” This concept is represented in the word Chanukah, chanu chof hey. They rested after emerging victorious because of their belief in the 25 letters of Shema Yisroel.

We light the menorah and recite “Haneiros hallolu kodesh heim, these flames are holy, ve’ein lonu reshus lehishtameish bohem ela lirosam bilvod – and we may not use them for anything; we may only look at them.”

What can we see in these lights? What message do they bear for us?

Perhaps the lights show us who we are and what we are capable of becoming. The biggest impediment to emunah and bitachon and to improving ourselves is the belief that we have been off track for so long that we can’t change. We become stuck in a rut, thinking that we are too far gone. We fail to see the possibilities and powers that each new day presents. We don’t realize that just as Hashem is “mechadeish betuvo bechol yom tomid ma’asei bereishis,” we can also recreate ourselves and improve every day.

On Chanukah, the Chashmonaim demonstrated that a person can be a mischadeish and start again anytime. When the Chashmonaim decided that they had enough of the persecution by the Yevonim and, relying on their faith, went to war to restore the ability to study Torah and perform mitzvos, there was nothing to mark the period as unique and an auspicious time to start anew.

When there is promise in the air, it is easier to motivate people to join the cause, because novelty inspires passion.

The Chanukah miracle transpired in the middle of the era of Bayis Sheini. There was no new building and no new seder ha’avodah to rally around. Though the people had acclimated to the Greek persecution and accepted it as a fact of life, the Chashmonaim were able to convince them that they were capable of improving themselves and their situation. They motivated a depressed people to realize that although they were in a sad state, they could recreate reality and regain control of their own destiny.

The word Chanukah is rooted in the Hebrew word chinuch, which means inauguration. Chanukah is a time of chinuch, not only because of the chanukas haMikdosh, but also because the Chashmonaim taught us about re-inauguration. They imparted the message that we can start again, re-consecrate, and be mechaneich. Even if we are not at a beginning, we can fashion a new beginning at any time.

To be able to accomplish that, a person has to be able to look past the mediocrity he has become accustomed to, forget old habits and attitudes, and rethink his position.

All around us, we see examples of what happens when people are too set in their ways to see things honestly and too protective of their agendas to acknowledge the truth.

There is an old Yiddish joke about a young child who disliked potato latkes. His siblings loved the scrumptious treat, but he despised them. His wise mother, knowing that it was unnatural, since he loved each of the ingredients on their own, had an idea. She invited him into the kitchen and allowed him to assist her in peeling the potatoes. Then she heated oil and fried the onions, watching his appetite grow. He enjoyed helping her pour the salt and form the latkes, excited to eat the mysterious dish with the delicious aroma.

Finally, they were ready to eat and she laid them out on an attractive platter. Her little helper opened his eyes wide. “Latkes?!” he shouted. “No way!” With that, he ran out of the kitchen. He was too beholden to his anti-latkes habit to admit that as he participated in fashioning them, he had gained a new appreciation for the delicacy.

The joke and its lesson are reminiscent of the stubborn refusal of the Obama administration to recognize the truth when they see it. Like a child who doesn’t see the ingredients, just the latkes, they insist on screaming, “Gun control!” at every opportunity. When two terrorists murder 14 people in San Bernardino, California, liberals refuse to acknowledge the obvious. Instead, they search for ways to use the crisis to further their agenda. While evidence and common sense point to Islamic terrorism, they beat the drums of gun control. Not only do they ignore the fact that California has the toughest gun laws in the country, they refuse to utter the words “radical Islam” or “Islamic terror,” lest acknowledging the obvious would force them to admit that their agenda is built on fallacies.

The administration has shown this tendency to repeatedly act against common sense and the truth. It forced its health plan on an unwilling country, claiming against all evidence to the contrary that the plan would lower insurance rates and become extremely popular. Instead, it has sent rates through the sky and ruined what had been the best health care system in the world. Yet, they still claim that their plan is successful.

The administration forced a deal with Iran, which, in effect, enables it to become the dominant power in the region and acquire nuclear weapons. Acting irrationally, administration members still say that they have achieved an historic accord. Meanwhile, they turn over $150 billion to the world’s greatest supporter of terror, allowing them to continue to disrupt the combustible Middle East. Iran has not yet complied with the International Atomic Energy Group, yet the biggest sponsor of terror is enabled to become stronger and more influential.

Since he was elected, President Barack Obama has been at Israel’s throat, attempting to force a peace deal with the Palestinians. Not only did he not achieve anything, but he made things worse. He ruined a rock-solid relationship between two allies. He tormented Israel’s prime minister, a man with a strong following around the world, renowned for his ability to understand and battle terror and to communicate the danger that Islamists present to the world. Obama inserted the bogus issue of a settlement construction freeze into the negotiations, giving support to the Palestinians in their battle of wits against Israel, causing the talks to implode.

The president has been told how much ISIS has grown, yet he tells the American people that the group has been contained. There is no presidential leadership to indicate that the country will name the enemy and fight it, ridding the world of the threat. He called the Paris attacks a setback as he launched into his war against global warming, blaming it for the terror. Distanced and tone-deaf, he was forced to deliver an address to the nation, defending his strategy, which has been proven to be ineffective.

The administration and like-minded liberals refuse to acknowledge Islamic terror because they claim that acts of terror are not inspired by Islam. Terror is performed by radical groups, who are not Islam, who hijack Islam. Thus the administration never refers to Islamic terror, for it is not Islamic and Islam is a religion of peace. They claim there is nothing in Islam that would prompt believers to engage in terror. They ignore the fact that jihad is an Islamic concept.

For seven years, he has not taken the terror issue seriously. When an American was beheaded this past summer, he addressed the nation for a few moments and then returned to the golf course. With the anxiety in the country growing, he stood on Sunday night in front of his teleprompter and read the speech his aides forced on him. The president introduced nothing new to combat the rising terror around the world. He preached against looking at Muslims differently. He reverted to his agenda that Islam is a religion of peace and that gun laws are responsible for the carnage. He then went out to a Hollywood-style party.

Agendas based on fiction enslave a person, making him incapable of seeing things as they are, impairing him like a form of blindness. They hold back any hope of success in tackling the problem and instead, allow it to fester and grow.

The re-consecration celebrated on Chanukah is brought about by rethinking what we had thought was reality, remembering old ambitious dreams and letting go of darkness brought on by wrongful agendas. This enables us to lift ourselves out of whatever is pulling us down.

We are all familiar with the tradition that there are 36 hidden tzaddikim who sustain the world. Yet, we mistakenly assume that those individuals have a lifelong lock on the position. Rav Aryeh Levin taught that although there are 36 secret tzaddikim whose merit supports the world’s existence, anyone can be that tzaddik on any given day. Just because someone was ordinary yesterday doesn’t mean that he can’t be a tzaddik who upholds the world today.

Every person has the ability to rise to that exalted level. You just have to believe in yourself.

Perhaps the 36 Chanukah candles hint to that concept as well. The keis lamid vov, the concept of a cover being removed from the 36 candles that are kindled on Chanukah, is a reminder that we can be a lamid vov tzaddik if we remove the cover and see the ability we possess.

Perhaps we can say this is the reason why people present gifts to family and friends on Chanukah. The concept celebrates the notion that we can all have new beginnings. It reminds us that Chanukah is a celebration of the chinuch of the Chashmonaim.

When we think of new, we should know that there is nothing as new as fresh resolve, and nothing as promising and exciting as a new attitude.

Rav Nachman of Breslov reveals another meaning of the name of this month. Kislev, he says, is roshei teivos of “Vayar Ki Sor Liros” (Shemos 3:4). Hashem saw that Moshe Rabbeinu stopped to ponder the bush that was burning in the desert and not being consumed by the fire. The Seforno says that he paused and tried to understand the phenomenon he was witnessing, “lehisbonen badovor.”

Lesser people observe phenomenal occurrences and walk by, seemingly oblivious to what they have seen. They don’t want to have their comfort zone punctured by seeing something new that might cause them to look at the world differently. It is much easier and less taxing to look, say, “Wow!” and keep walking, without being challenged or getting involved.

Moshe Rabbeinu was different. Stopping, approaching and trying to understand what he was seeing marked him as a leader.

That is the avodah of Kislev.

Rav Zalman Sender Kahana Schapiro was famous throughout Lita and Poland as a talmid chochom and tzaddik. There were legends about his brachos, as everyone believed that they had a special power.

In his town, there lived a water carrier. One day, the am ha’aretz heard a speech about the importance of Torah and the respect that talmidei chachomim deserve for their accomplishments. He was convinced and decided that he would become a Torah scholar.

The unlearned, simple man went to the famed rov and asked for a brochah. “Rebbe, I want to become a talmid chochom,” he said. “Please bless me.”

The rov looked at the water-carrier for a long moment and said, “Reb Feivel, tell me that you want to become a talmid chochom.”

The water-carrier nodded eagerly. “Yes, rebbe, I do.”

“No, Reb Feivel. Shout it like you really mean it!” said the rov.

The water-carrier was a tall, burly man with a loud voice. “Rebbe, ich vil zein ah talmid chochom!” he shouted with all his might.

The rov’s household heard. Neighbors down the street heard the water-carrier’s voice.

The rov blessed him, and the uneducated laborer soon found his place in the bais medrash. He eventually became a choshuve talmid chochom.

In retelling this story, Rav Yeruchim Olshin wondered why Rav Zalman Sender made the water-carrier express his wish in that manner. Surely, the rov’s brochah would have worked regardless of whether the man shouted it at the top of his lungs or not.

Rav Olshin explained that Rav Zalman Sender wanted the fellow to perceive his own ability, contemplate the possibility of growth, and make a conscious decision. Then, the brochah is just an added benefit. No one can give us a brochah if we don’t first bless ourselves.

So perhaps that is the chinuch we celebrate on Chanukah – the opportunity to find a way out, to discover latent gifts within ourselves. Through contemplating them – seeing them for the first time – we allow them to shine.

That is why we don’t use an old ner. Find a new ner, we are being told. Tap into the message of these days and their power. We can find chiddush. We can bring newness into our lives.

Had I had the time, this is the message that I would have loved to share with the sweet Israeli teenager in the mall: Don’t wait for rabbi to come with the menorah. Don’t look outside of yourself for light. Don’t wait for others to be your shamash.

There is a fire within you. You just need to find the flame.

Ah lichtigen Chanukah.



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