There he sat in his house in London all alone. It was the third night of Chanukah in 1941 and one of the greatest thinkers and marbitzei Torah of his generation, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, the author of Michtav M’Eliyahu, was engrossed in thought. His mind brought him far, far away to Brisbane, Australia, where his rebbetzin and daughter lived. They were visiting family in their beloved hometown of Kelm in Lita when World War II erupted. Now they were trapped in Lithuania, unable to return to England. They were finally able to escape by making a long and arduous trip through Russia, Siberia, and Hong Kong, a journey of 4-1/2 weeks all the way to Australia. Now, Rav Dessler, who so longed for his family to be with him, wrote a letter to his beloved daughter.
“My daughter, my yearning, daughter of my soul, Henna Freidele tichyeh livracha, surely you are my beloved, my daughter, surely you are my life, and my life has left me for a distant place. This is how I feel with your wandering far, far away from me. When I light the Chanukah candles, my thoughts take off far, far to you, my soul, so far away. Who knows from whom you hear the brachos of hadlakah and whose candles you’re watching as they kindle? My heart rustles from within… From my eyes flow tears until I can embolden and strengthen myself in faith in Hashem.
“Tonight, my warm tears fell on our silver menorah, onto the candles themselves, but their small light was not extinguished. And I wondered about this sight: Why weren’t the candles put out? Then I heard those very candles proclaiming: ‘Haneiros halalu anu madlikim, these lights that we kindle upon the miracles… These lights are sacred… Then I remembered that by the candlelight I also said, ‘She’asah nissim la’avoseinu, who has wrought miracles for our forefathers in those days at this time.’
“Then I felt shame and humiliation. Surely Hashem brought you to your haven after a lengthy trip to the edge of the world. He performed miracles and continues to do so. Should one cry by the lights that bespeak His miracles? I gained strength and I started singing Maoz Tzur Yeshuasi… O’ Mighty Rock of my salvation… Troubles satiated my soul… But with His great power, He brought forth the treasured ones…
“Now, by the light of the candles of emunah and bitachon in Hashem Yisborach, our songs have been united. We deeply felt that Hashem alone made, makes, and will make more miracles. That our souls have united and we are close together, standing as one, viewing one light. There is no distance before the light of His emunah. Did He not Himself say, ‘For My salvation is close in coming’? I sat by myself, laden with thoughts… I was calm and I cried and no more. I got up and my heart has returned before Hashem, Who made and will make miracles. There is no distance before the One who brings close those who are distant. His yeshuah is close in coming and I have been comforted.
“My daughter, my soul! Let’s hope to Hashem that in just a bit, He will gather us together and that He will still grant us good days and years of nachas, and satiate us with all that is good. For His chesed shall be with us just as we awaited Him…”
One can’t help but be stirred by this emotion-laden letter, written in a most trying time. Eventually, the family was united and indeed merited to enjoy generations of talmidei chachomim and ovdei Hashem to this day. From this letter, a profound thought emerges. As we stand in our homes lighting the menorah and praising Hashem for the great miracles, we can become united with the rest of Klal Yisroel all throughout the world, for we are all standing before that same pure light of simple emunah in Hashem. But in the mitzvah of hadlokas neiros, there is even a greater chiddush: It can unite us with previous generations who lit the menorah, all the way back to the times of the Chashmonaim.
In Michtav M’Eliyahu, Rav Dessler writes that the stories we find in Tanach and Chazal were not recorded merely for us to know history. Rather, each chronicled episode is meant to teach us fundamental lessons in avodas Hashem for us to learn and incorporate into our daily lives.
It is the same with the neis of the flask of oil on Chanukah. Remembering the miracle for generations is meant to teach us that the inner light of Torah can never be extinguished and that it will withstand the darkness of hester ponim in golus in every generation. Even if a person’s heart is numbed by hardships and nisyonos, the inner spark of kedusha within him will never be snuffed out. The Chashmonaim merited to reveal this with their great mesirus nefesh. The crisis in their day was precipitated by Jews mingling with the Yevanim and becoming so close to them that they became Hellenized. With the Chashmonaim’s valiant efforts to separate from the sinners and to protect the Yidden from the rule and culture of the Yevonim, they merited tremendous salvation and miracles.
But in addition to a yeshuah, they experienced much more. Their fire and zeal were even able to kindle the souls of those who had distanced themselves from Yiddishkeit. How did this happen? How were they able to galvanize such a massive baal teshuvah movement and be mekareiv so many lost souls so quickly?
There is a place in this world that transcends time and space and all physical confinements. That place is so close to us and yet so far. It is the inner core of our neshamos. If we are able to travel beyond our outer veneer, our physicality, under the flesh, beneath our limbs, beyond our senses and personal interests, deep into the inner recesses of our soul, then we are standing in the world of spirits. There, all neshamos are united, not separated by any of the external barriers. In that inner world, if even one neshomah is aflame, it can ignite all the others.
When Rav Yisroel Salanter first saw a train, his reaction was: One hot one pulls with it many cold ones, referring to the locomotive that, with its energy, pulls along many other cars. The lesson he took from this was that one tzaddik, with his zeal, can influence many who are uninspired.
The Chashmonaim, with their zeal, were able to penetrate the innermost area of their own neshamos. That is a place that connected them to the rest of the neshamos in Klal Yisroel and to bring them back to Hashem. And not only were they able to connect with the neshamos of their own time and place. They were able to impact the souls of all future generations, for as we said, in the world of neshamos, time and space are not barriers.
This is why the chachomim commanded us to light candles on Chanukah. It’s a lot more than just commemorating a miracle of the past and thanking Hashem. When we absorb the ramifications of the yeshuah and its lessons, and pierce the innermost spot in our neshamos, we can connect with the Chashmonaim and have somewhat of the same awareness of Hashem that they did when they actually witnessed the miracle.
The Gemara says: “If one regularly lights candles, he will merit to have children who are talmidei chachomim” (Shabbos 23b). Rashi explains that this refers to neiros Shabbos and neiros Chanukah, for they bring the light of Torah. The obvious question is asked: We see many people who light the most beautiful menorahs with the greatest hiddurim, and yet their sons are not talmidei chachomim. Why?
The Alter of Kelm, in his great humility, writes: “I and other people my age have never fulfilled the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles.” How can this possibly be? He explains with a moshol.
A man bought his friend a plane ticket from Eretz Yisroel to New York. “You can spend your time there as you please,” he said, “but I am asking you to fulfill a very important mission for me. In order for you not to forget to do it, I am putting a bracelet on your wrist as a reminder. Do not remove the bracelet, so that you will remember to do as I ask.”
The messenger was thrilled at the proposal. He was careful never to remove the bracelet, but while he focused on the bracelet, he forgot to fulfill his mission. When he returned home, he waved the hand with the bracelet at his benefactor and proudly said, ‘I didn’t remove the bracelet for even a second. Not when I went to sleep and not even when I took a bath.”
“Well, did you fulfill what I asked you to do?” asked the benefactor. “Did you fulfill the mission?”
“What mission? Oh, the mission! I’m sorry, but I totally forgot.”
“Fool that you are! I didn’t buy you that free ticket so that you could guard my bracelet. The bracelet was merely a means to remind you of the purpose of your trip. If you forgot the main purpose, what good is there in merely wearing the bracelet?”
On Chanukah, the act of lighting the candles is certainly the mitzvah, but it is meant for a deeper purpose: to remember the nissim and wonders that Hashem performed for our ancestors, to recognize how much Hashem loves us, and to deepen our relationship with Him.
One who regularly fulfills the mitzvah of Chanukah will merit sons who are talmidei chachomim not by merely lighting the candles, but by also using them as a means for inner growth and internalizing the lessons to the extent that they penetrate the depths of our soul. Then the inner flame is transferred to the next generation. But if the lighting is merely an external act, then there is no guarantee for one’s children to be talmidei chachomim.
This is what the Alter of Kelm meant when, in his humility, he said that he never fulfilled the mitzvah of ner Chanukah. Of course he lit the candles, but he felt that he never reached the apex of what Chazal felt the mitzvah should be: to reach the core of his neshomah. He felt like the messenger who was so careful to guard the bracelet but forgot the main purpose of his mission.
The Gemara says that on the 25th day of Kislev begin the eight days of Chanukah, when we may not say hespeidim (Shabbos 21b). Rav Elimelech Biderman relates a chassidishe vort: The eight days are meant for us to tap into their kedusha and maximize their potential, to ignite our emunah and to draw closer to Hashem, and not to eulogize them afterwards and bemoan the fact that we missed a golden opportunity.
May we be zoche to feel the inner light of Chanukah penetrating our hearts and to merit yeshuos for Klal Yisroel. Ah freilichen Chanukah.