The Ninth Night

One of the most persistent themes on Beyond BT is about retaining the enthusiasm and excitement of the initial stages of reconnecting with one’s heritage and spiritual source when real life kicks in… and kicks, and kicks! Another one is squeezing metaphors out of the Chanuka menorah. Here’s another one.

It’s for the ninth night, when the menorah is stored away and there are no more lamps to ignite. Wise Hillel! Shammai, for his own reasons and based on his own tradition, had us start out with eight lamps and reduce the number over each succeeding evening. Hillel, however, taught that over the course of each succeeding night of Chanuka we add another bit of brightness.

This works well for us.

Now, we know this is the darkest time of year. We do not, of course, accept the cynical view of historians, always ready to discredit religious tradition, who view the Festival of Lights as a mere adaptation of that logical reaction to the dark which is to strike to a light. But there is certainly something to be said for the idea that if a little bit of light raises our spirits when it is dark, a little more, as the dark remains, or even, perhaps, increases — along with the cold and, in the regions of the Holy Land, the wretched wet — perhaps a bit more light will help even a bit more, and so on.

And so on, and so on. Until eight. And we have many traditions about eight, the number at which we break past the natural, i.e., the days of creation. Once we are at eight, we have done all we can. There are no nine days of Chanuka; by the ninth day, the regular process of preparing oil had completed, and no miracle was needed. And so on the ninth night we do not light the Chanuka menorah in our homes.

That was well and good in the Bais HaMikdash, but what about for us, now, bereft of its light — and now, on the ninth night, lacking the light of the menorahs in our windows or on our doorsteps or tables as well? What do we do when the crystalline sparkle we thought would always warm us is now gone, and it is still dark, and, it seems, will be for some time — and it is only getting colder?

Well, we know, again, that it would not have done any good to just keep lighting and lighting. Some cultures try to blot out the dark, so to speak, by a riot of tinsel, light and color. Eight days of Chanuka? We’ll sing about twelve days! Ornaments of red, green, gold; color, lights, trinkets, trees, balls — color, light, light, light, light, light, strung up high on trees, projected from the highest buildings!

Does this make the dark go away? Or are we merely jaded by the artificial stimulation, the garish, madding photons vomiting up a “light” that is useless as true illumination — that is, to see where one is going; to avoid obstacles; to gain perspective?

It hurts when the eight days are over and it is still dark and, perhaps, we are not as inspired by the Maoz Tzur and the spinning of the dreydel as we had hoped to be. We miss the warm glow of the olive oil, almost as comforting as a human embrace on a chill night. Real life’s harshness intrudes. But as we hunker down for what is, in fact, the winter ahead, what do we see in the fading echo of the light?

Were we inspired, did we grow, during that period of special illumination? Did we inspire someone else, even a little, in some positive way? Did we do nothing more than spin the dreydel? Did we encourage the dreydel to spin a little less? Or are we spinning when we try to convince ourselves one way or the other?

Each night’s added candle matters until it doesn’t, just as each step a child’s parent takes matters as he runs alongside a wobbling bicycle until, finally, letting go. Once the child rides by himself, whether or not it works out the first time, he never needs the parent running alongside again. Those steps will never be forgotten, though.

What if the child, sadly, forgets them? The parent will not. There is absolute value in this world. We give because giving is good. Giving inspires.

So too the light given off by flame inspires long after the light is gone, even if all we can see now is cruel, thankless dark.

The only darkness that matters is the one inside ourselves, and each other, not the one outside the windowpane. The season is irrelevant; Daylight Savings Time does not have to rule our moods.

We do not need tinsel, or even menorahs, or physical light at all, to illuminate that void if we can, with God’s help, just recall something of what we saw by the light we lit, or that someone we care about lit for us, in the world of the spirit, until the florid blaze of spring.

Our Divinely Approved Chanukah Service

In response to the question “Why Chanukah”, the Talmud relates the story of one jug of oil miraculously lasting for eight nights. In our extra prayers on Chanukah, we mention the underdog military victory of the Greeks. A military victory would probably not be enough of a reason to institute a holiday for all generations. But, neither would a miracle, as the 24 books of the Bible and the Talmud are replete with miracles for which on holiday was instituted. So perhaps there’s another approach to the question “Why Chanukah?”.

There are two major spiritual periods in history. In the first period, God’s presence was palpable and the Talmud relates that there were over one million Jewish prophets. In addition, the Written Torah (the 24 books of the bible) were received via prophecy during that period. The presence and belief in a God was strong, and living with an awareness of God was normative.

However, man was created with a strong ego and drive for self-sufficiency, and many people rebelled against serving God. This rebellion took the form of idol worship–the serving of other gods. The first spiritual period ended with the destruction of the First Temple (587 BCE). The rebellion against God had reached such a high level that He withdrew His presence from the world to a great degree. This withdrawal resulted in the gradual loss of prophecy, and since God’s presence was no longer palpable, the desire for idol worship also diminished.

When the Temple was rebuilt, there were no prophets, no open miracles and the service was at a much lower level. It was during this time that Greek philosophy and scientific exploration flourished. Increased intellectualism led to a heightened focus on the physical world and a lessened focus on the spiritual world and service to God. The Greeks sought to eliminate spiritual practice altogether and, eventually, the sacrificial service in the Second Temple was discontinued.

The Maccabees, who were Kohanim, were willing to give up their lives to restore spiritual service to the world. Since connecting to God through spiritual service is our purpose, they surmised that a life without service is not a life worth living. After many years, they eventually defeated the much larger and better equipped Greek army. The first spiritual act they performed was the lighting of the Menorah. The Menorah is a symbol of using our intellect to access the light of God, and the Maccabees desired to perform this inaugural service in the best way possible.

The Hebrew word for miracle is Nes which means “a sign”. A miracle is a clear sign that there is a force beyond nature, namely Hashem. Hashem wanted to give a clear sign that He fully approved of the Maccabees efforts and desire to serve Hashem in the absence of the Temple. The Nes of the oil was the sign of approval and Chazal instituted the Chanukah Service of lighting the menorah, accompanied by song and praise to Hashem, should take place on a yearly basis.

When we light the Menorah on Chanukah, it is the service of the Kohanim in the Temple that should come to mind. We are showing our dedication to serve God and fulfill our purpose in this world. Hashem has given His divine stamp of approval of this service. After Chanukah, we can keep in mind that the morning davening is also a replacement for the Divine Service in the Temple. Even after the destruction of the Temple, we still have powerful ways to serve Hashem. We should use these opportunities to improve our Divine Service with the desire that Hashem should restore the ultimate services of the Beis HaMikdash soon in our days.

Of Wisdom… Secular and Sacred

Chanukah celebrates more than a miraculous victory; it celebrates the triumph of the miraculous over the natural, and the sacred over the mundane and desecrated. We identify this triumph of the miraculous with establishing the preeminence of Torah vis a vis generic wisdom. (Mosarta…zaidim b’yad oskei torahsecha =[and] you delivered… the malicious into the hands of those who busy themselves wit the study of your Torah).

Since at least the pre-Chanukah period of Hellenization of large swaths of the Jewish population, Jews have grappled with the confluence, congruence and conflict of Torah and generic Chochma. In contemporary Judaism this tension is most evident in various debates over the relative quality, quantity and goals of Torah and secular education, in particular higher education. Ba’alei T’shuva, whose own educations typically inverted both the sequence and initial primacy of these two competing/contradictory/complementary branches of learning are generally more conflicted and bring unique questions and perspectives to bear on these nettlesome issues.

Apropos to the Chanukah spirit I’ve translated a brief but profound insight on the topic from one of the seminal Torah thinkers of the previous generation. Due to my great respect for the author O.B.M. and my fear over distorting his message I have refrained from adapting the piece and have attempted what I hope is a faithful, hence quite literal, translation. In so doing the lyricism and beautiful poetic meter of the original has been done great injury and some meaning may have been lost or distorted as well. If it has I hope to clarify the meaning to the best of my understanding and ability in the comment thread.

HaShem’s will is expressed in two units. One unit was expressed by the works of creation in a cosmos that was created through ten ma’amoros* and another unit was expressed at the foot of Mt. Sinai through Torah that was given through ten dibros*. Both are revelations of His will. Yet there is an underlying difference in the way that the Divine will revealed in each of these units is actualized. The way that the Divine will expressed through the works of creation is actualized is coercive. Whereas the way that the Divine will expressed through the Torah is actualized is through the exercise of human free-will. “Let there be light” is a ma’amar that is realized by way of an imperative, compelling law of nature. “Though shalt not prostrate thyself” is a dibra that is realized by way of the free-will of choice.

The wisdom of nature/the natural sciences is indeed the wisdom (of analyzing) the laws of G-ds will that were revealed to us through the ten ma’amoros. But since this wisdom is merely the wisdom of the will of G-d that was revealed to us by a “coercive” presentation it is, as a unit of wisdom, external and peripheral to Torah Wisdom that is the wisdom of the will of G-d that was revealed to us by a “non-compulsory” presentation. This distinction lends us insight into the idiom of the sages who referred to all disciplines other than Torah as “outer” wisdom. This is because the 10 dibros comprise the inner content of the 10 ma’amoros. “If not for my covenant day and night (the Torah) I would never have established the laws of heaven and earth (nature)”. That is to say, G-d never revealed Himself in the “coercive” presentation except to create a setting upon which he could reveal Himself in the “non-compulsory” presentation.

* Ma’amar and dibra/dibur in the singular. Both words mean “saying” or verbal expression. The nuanced difference of meaning in terms of the quality of the communication being expressed by either ma’amoros or dibros is the main topic of this passage.

This paragraph appears in Pachad Yitzchok –Chanukah M’a’amar 4. Anyone capable of studying it auto-didactically or with a mentor in the original is strongly urged to do so as it is best understood in the context of the entire essay and because (not that it needs my approbation) it is a philosophical masterpiece.

Originally Published Dec 21, 2006

Der Meistersingers of Athens – What’s Up with the Tune for Maoz Tzur?

Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to Xmas carols. Maybe it’s because what passes for Jewish music these days is frequently Jewish words grafted onto pop or rock instrumentals. Or maybe it’s because the perpetually waning enthusiasm I see in our young people today might be stemmed if we helped them tap into their neshomas rather than strengthening their connection with secular culture.

I suppose it’s really all three and more. But the bottom line is this: the one thing I despise about Chanukah is the pervasive, annoying, and distinctly un-Jewish niggun the whole world sings to Maoz Tzur – evoking not the heroism of the Hasmoneans but the flaky ambivalence of “Rock of Ages” and the red-suited jolliness of “Good King Wenceslas.”

It should come as no surprise that our popular Maoz Tzur sounds so goyish. It’s been traced back to an old German drinking song, and before that to the 16th Century hymns of the Benedictine Monks. I guess it fits right in with the inescapable practice of gift-giving, also borrowed from Christian society.

I know there are those who don’t object to borrowing Gentile melodies for our niggunim. But why can’t we borrow something that’s worth borrowing? Why do we have to embrace a tune that sounds like it should be accompanied by fat carolers sporting white cotton beards? And if we have to sing it, why can’t we limit it to Maoz Tzur and not repeat it endlessly in Lecha Dodi, Birkas HaChodesh, Shabbos morning kedusha, and twice in Hallel?

Above all, why doesn’t it bother us that on this of all holidays, the season when we celebrate the integrity of Jewish culture, we define our celebration by embracing the culture of Eisav, the culture that continues to dominate us in our final exile and which stands between us and the coming of Moshiach?

What’s that? You don’t know any other niggun? Call me, and I’ll hum a few for your over the phone.

Check out Rabbi Goldson’s latest articles at yonasongoldson.com.

Originally Published December 2008

Doing a Better Hallel On Chanukah

Chanukah is a time of L’hodos U’l’hallel, To give thanks and praise to Hashem and we fulfill that obligation with the saying of the Full Hallel all eight days. Here are some notes from Maharal: Emerging Patterns by Yaakov Rosenblatt on Hallel.

Give Praise Servants of Hashem from this time forth and forever more
Despite Hashem’s loftiness, He is still intimately involved with the life of man and continually bestows goodness through kindness, judgment or mercy.
He raise the needy from the dust is through judgment because the poor should be provided for.
To seat them with the nobles, nobles of His people is through kindness because although raising the poor out of poverty is just, elevating them to sit with nobles is an act of kindness.
He transforms the barren women into a joyful mother of children is an act of mercy since this women is not capable and therefore is not in the realm of judgment, nor is it kindness since children are not above and beyond human needs, rather it is mercy because even though this woman is unable to have children naturally, Hashem still allows her to conceive and bear children.

When Yisroel Went of out of Egypt, the House of Yaakov from a people of a Strange Language
After praising Hashem for His kindness through normal realms, we now praise Hashem for the miracles that transcend nature.
The sea saw and fled, the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep – water takes the shape of its container and the Earth is shaped by man. When Hashem acts and gives form and definition to all creation it is natural that the sea fled and the mountains skipped.
Hashem turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters – when Hashem is the force, even a rock is shaped effortlessly.

Not to us Hashem, but to Your Name Give Glory
This Psalm says the reason that Hashem performs miracles for the Jews is to give recognition to His name, His love and His truth. Only Hashem deserves this recognition and not things like idols which clearly have no power and are weaker than man. Man’s powers are listed in decreasing importance: speech, sight, hearing, smell, feeling, walking, and making sounds.

Hashem will Bless our Remembrance: He will Bless the House of Yisrael
Hashem will Bless our Remembrance requests that the lasting impact we will have on others and the world will be a blessing.
The Dead cannot praise Hashem, nor can any who go down into silence shows that only when the human body and the world are functioning properly can they “sing” the praises of Hashem. King David says allow us to live, allow us to thrive, so our very existence can proclaim your glory.

I love Hashem Who Hears my Voice and my Supplications
You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. King David thanks Hashem for saving his soul which represents the spiritual, the eyes which are the connection between the spiritual and the physical because they do not actively enter the world, but monitor it for the mind/soul to process, and the feet which represent the physical. Tears represent a loss of part of the soul.

How can I repay Hashem for all His kindness to me?
I will carry the cup that You have filled with salvation, and call upon the name of Hashem – A cup that is filled represents ones meaningful accomplishments and we think Hashem for the ability to act in meaningful ways.
I will carry …in my arms to show the cup that you filled precedes me and proclaims your greatness
I will pay my vows to Hashem in the Presence of all His People to use every opportunity to proclaim the greatness of Hashem and to publicly honor Hashem’s glory

Give Thanks to Hashem for He is Good
Thanks also mean to concede, so to the extent that a person recognizes and acknowledges the Hashem has given him everything is the extent to which he will thank Him. Different groups: humanity, Jews, Kohanim and G-d fearing people, have experienced different benefits and will therefore thank Hashem differently.

Out of My Distress I called upon Hashem
There are three levels of hatred, basic dislike (all the nations) because of economic, cultural or military threats, dislike due to differences in values which only the Jews hold (they surrounded me) and deep seated hatred (they surrounded me like bees) due to the subconscious understanding that the success of the nations is dependent on the Jew’s failure. If we act according to our spiritual potential the world’s event will be centralized around us for our benefit. If we do not, we are punished and the the nations are successful.

O praise Hashem all you Nations
Hallelukah combines a word of praise with Hashem’s name and is used to praise the miraculous because the only the one who created the worlds (Heh – this world, Yud – the next) can suspend the rules to perform miracles when he sees fit.

Why We Needed an Open Miracle on Chanukah

Chanukah Brings Forth the Light of Man’s Connection to G-d through Torah

In Derech Hashem, the Ramchal states:

“The significance of Chanukah and Purim is to bring forth the particular light that shone at the time of their original miracles as a result of the rectification they accomplished.

On Chanukah, the Kohanim prevailed over the wicked Hellenists, who wanted to disuade Israel from serving G-d. These Kohanim overcame them, and thus brought all Israel back to devotion to G-d. This especially involved the concept of the Menorah, since the Accusers were against what it stood for. The Kohanim, however, were able to restore everything to its rightful state.”

The Greeks Wanted to Eliminate the Spiritual Realm

Man relates in four ascending realms, the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. The Greeks advanced the intellectual realm but they did not recognize a spiritual realm beyond that. They tried to eliminate all spiritual practices involving G-d, because they contradicted their man-centered orientation. The Greeks sought natural explanations for everything in an attempt to explain away G-d. Although the Greeks recognized the Torah as a great work of wisdom, and even had it translated into Greek, they wanted to sever the Torah from its source, G-d.

The Macabees Restored Our Connection to Torah to Its Full Light

The Macabees clearly understood that the Jewish people (and the world) could not exist without man connecting to G-d through the Torah. The Macabbes defeated the great Greek army even though they were greatly outnumbered. They subsequently rededicated the temple and lit the Menorah which symbolizes man’s connection to G-d through Torah. The miracle of the oil burning for eight days occurred in the course of this rededication.

The War Was Also a Miracle

The Maharal of Prague teaches: “The main reason that the days of Chanukah were instituted was to celebrate the victory over the Greeks. However, so that it would not seem that the victory was due only to might and heroism, rather than to Divine Providence, the miracle was denoted by the lighting of the Menorah, to show that it was all by a miracle, the war as well …”

Nature, Hidden Miracles and Revealed Miracles

According to the Ramban and others, the essential difference between nature and miracle is that natural events occur frequently while miracles are unexpected. Miracles can be divided into two categories: those where Divine control is openly revealed; and those where Divine control is hidden and the miracle is made to appear as a natural occurrence. But, clearly, Hashem is behind nature, hidden miracles and open miracles.

If we know that everything emanates from G-d, what is the significance of the Maharal’s explanation of the re-categorizing the Macabee victory as a hidden miracle as opposed to a natural event?

The Need for Intellectual and Emotional Integration

Although we know that everything is from G-d, if that knowledge remains solely in the intellectual realm, it doesn’t transform who we are. The regularity of nature can obscure the fact that G-d’s hand is behind everything. To affect who we are, intellectual knowledge has to been transformed into emotional intelligence, because the heart/emotion controls our actions and the actions of man are integral to defining him. The integrated person uses his intellect to focus his emotions to perform appropriate actions.

Necessity of the Miracle

Seeing G-d’s hand in the open miracle of the oil and the hidden miracle of the military victory enables us to effect the spiritual changes necessary to reconnect to G-d through the Torah. This clear spiritual signal enables us to transform our intellectual knowledge of G-d to the emotional and, subsequently, to action in the service of G-d. After the Greeks had tried to disconnect the intellectual from the spiritual, G-d’s spiritual signal enabled us to re-integrate all four realms of man.

Miracles Lead to Praise and Thanks

In the normal Modim prayer of Shomoneh Esrai, we thank G-d every day for the miracles in nature that He performs as He sustains us each day. When G-d performs a greater miracle, a hidden miracle, greater praise and thanks is required. When we reclassify the miracle of the victory as a hidden miracle, we are obligated to praise and thank Hashem in a more recognizable fashion and thus we have the Al HaNissim addition to Modim on Chanukah as well as the recital of Hallel. This praise and thanks should be on a higher emotional level than normal and should prompt us to focus our actions more acutely on Torah and mitzvos.

In Summary

– Man has four ascending realms: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual
– The Greeks wanted to eliminate the spiritual realm and it’s accessibility through Torah
– The Macabees realized the impossibility of a world with Torah
– They won the war and G-d performed an open miracle of the oil burning
– The open miracle clarified that the military victory was a hidden miracle and not a natural act
– Although we know nature is also G-d directed, its regularity can obscure G-d’s presence
– Intellectual knowledge must affect the heart so that it can direct the actions of man
– The open miracle revealed the hidden miracle enabling us to reconnect the spiritual leading to action
– Miracles require higher levels of thanks and praises which is why we have the extra Tefillos of Hallel and Hodaah on Chanukah

Originally Posted 12/18/2009

The Eight Sheets of Chanukah

By Ruby

With 5 weeks left to my son’s Bar Mitzvah, invitations were sitting at home waiting to be addressed and mailed. All my wife had to do was create the spreadsheet with all the addresses, set up the mail merge, and feed the envelopes through the printer. I had the really tough job – to buy stamps – and I was determined to do it right. I estimated 150 stamps would do. But which theme stamp would be most appropriate for a Bar Mitzvah? I went looking at the USPS website. Flags? Too standard. “Happy Birthday”? Too juvenile. “I Love You”? Too mushy. Flowers? Too feminine. Fighter planes? Maybe… But not very mitzvah-ish. Then I saw them. Chanukah stamps with a dreidle. Perfect! We’ll be mailing them on Chanukah. And they come in sheets of 20, so I needed 8 sheets of Chanukah. What could be better?

Off to the post office on Pine St. I went, and when my turn came I happily requested “8 sheets of Hanukah, please”.

The clerk frowned and said “Hanukah? We’re out of Hanukah”.

“No! it can’t be!” I exclaimed. “You must have Hanukah stamps”.

So she looked and looked through all her drawers and all her folders. In the end, all she could find was one single sheet of Hanukah stamps.

“But that won’t do”, I said. “One sheet won’t last. I need eight sheets of Hanukah.”

She called over to the next clerk who looked through his folders. He came up with another two. “Three, that’s all we have”, she said.

Suddenly emboldened, I said “Please check in the back. I know you will find 8″.

Her eyebrows raised at my attitude, she headed towards the back. As she passed each other clerk I saw her say something to them, and each time the clerk shook his head. After checking with the last clerk, she looked across the room at me and shrugged. I gave her a nod of encouragement and she disappeared into the back. (If I were one of the people standing behind me in line I would have killed me…) Several minutes later she emerged with a triumphant look on her face.

“8 sheets of Hanukah!” she proclaimed.

“Thank you so much for your perseverance”, I said. “I knew you would find 8″.

“How could you be so sure?” she asked.

“Why, it’s the miracle of Chanukah”, I said.

A Freilichen Chanukah to All.

Originally Published December 22, 2006.

Chanukah Then and Now

By Azriela Jaffe

The Judaism of my youth was defined by what I was not able to do. Is that not what characterizes any observant Jew? I may not eat non-kosher food, as G-d commanded. I may not work on Shabbat, as G-d commanded. I may not eat on Yom Kippur – as G-d commanded. I may not eat chometz on Passover – as G-d commanded.

True, but these Jewish ideals were alien to me as a child. We didn’t know from kosher, I had no awareness of even the concept of Shabbat, and although as dutiful – and perhaps superstitious- secular Jews, we always attended synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, we ate lunch that day, too. Our Passover celebration did include a rather abbreviated seder, but I had no understanding of chometz, or the avoidance of it – we bought a singular box of matzohs for the seder table, and enjoyed our bagels the next morning, (with no guilt, mind-you, as my uneducated family had no idea that this was a problem).

So what then, do I mean by this notion that my Jewish identity formed around what I could not do – when in fact, our family was so assimilated, it would have been difficult to differentiate us in any way from our goyish neighbors, and there were seemingly no restrictions on our life?

You knew our Judaism in December. Although my parents worked extremely hard to assimilate our family in every way imaginable – and they succeeded – there was only one time a year when they took a firm stand, and we children knew that we were Jewish, and different from non-Jews. Our family did not have Xmas trees and wreaths of holly on the door. Our family did not go to church on X-mas day, we went to the local Chinese restaurant and to the movies afterwards, where the parking lot was littered with hundreds of other Jewish-owned vehicles. We were Jewish, and therefore, we didn’t celebrate X-mas.

As a child, I saw this as a problem. The rest of the world got to have fun, and we were deprived. When we lit the menorah and eagerly awaited our presents, the complete absence of spirituality around the holiday made it only a competition we were sure to lose – which kids got the most presents – the Jews, or the non-Jews? We would comfort ourselves with the thought: Our holiday lasts 8 days, and the Christians only get one day, so we’re actually luckier. But I distinctly remember as a child that lucky is not how I felt. I was a Jew and therefore, I was not allowed to do the holiday that the rest of the world celebrated. We were different, and deprived.

With the perspective of adulthood, I now see my Chanukah “celebrations” with gratitude. It was my parents’ last hold-out, and through it, they formed my identity, albeit uneducated, as a Jew, different from my Christian neighbors. They had given up all other semblance of separation between us and the non-Jewish world, yet somehow, they hung on to this one. Thankfully, as an Orthodox Jew of many years now, I do not have memories as a child of singing Xmas carols, even if M ’aoz Tzur was not in our family’s vocabulary.

The Judaism of my children’s youth is also defined in part by what they cannot do, according to Jewish law, but now, their heads, hearts, and souls are filled with so much they can, and do, look forward to about Chanukah, there isn’t a glimmer of deprivation. The excitement of Chanukah starts early in school with Chanukah chagigas, lessons from their Morahs and Rebbeim about the true spiritual meaning behind Chanukah, and the exciting story of the Macabees, and of course – what would Chanukah be without homemade menorahs brought out of their storage bags year after year? The house smells of latkes, Tatty comes home early from work so he can light the menorah with us, and as we sing M ’aoz Tzur by the window, we thank G-d not only for the miracles that the Macabbees experienced so long ago, but also, the miracle that we are frum, and despite our secular lineage, we have returned.

The Macabees waged a war against assimilation, and with Hashem’s help, they won. We waged our own fight, and also, with plenty of help from Hashem, we’ve won, too. Thank you, G-d.

Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort. Visit her web site here.

First published Dec 22, 2008

Continuing to Access the Power of Chanukah

We pasken like Beis Hillel and we increase the candles as Chanukah progresses indicating an increase in accessing the power of the holiday.

R’ Yaakov Astor discusses this in Reality and Potential


Most people can experience the initial joy that comes along with lighting the menorah. By the second day, for many of us, the flush of the experience is not as intense. By the third day, it is even less so, and keeps on diminishing with each ensuing day.

But for others whose spiritual sensitivity is deep and internal, they experience the joy of the festival in an ever increasing fashion, with the last day being the climax.

Beit Shammai say we structure the law according to the average Jew who uses only his nefesh. Therefore, it is logical to start off with eight candles the first day when the novelty of the mitzvah and the flash of inspiration elevate the act for even the average Jew. Since each ensuing day becomes less intense and more routine, we naturally decrease as we go.

Beit Hillel may in fact agree that the majority of Jews experience Chanukah on a lower, nefesh level. However, they say that the law in this case must be groomed according to the minority of individuals who strive for the deepest experience and the greatest spiritual heights. Accordingly, we start off with one candle on the first day and increase each ensuing day. The law reflects the experience of the elevated Jew, whose experience increases with intensity as Chanukah wears on.

From another perspective, Beit Hillel are saying that the law must accommodate human potential — what a person can ideally become, while Beit Shammai reason that law must accommodate reality — the present level on which we actually find ourselves.

Read the whole article here.

Rabbi Noson Weisz explains the spiritual battle mankind faces and our role in it in Chanukah and The Importance of Being Jewish :


The current spiritual era of human history can be characterized as one of knowledge/belief. One can no longer detect God’s Presence in the world through the use of his ordinary senses, as God no longer makes Himself so available. It is no longer possible to reach God through the channel of direct communication. Human dealings with God must be based on the more subtle basis of deductive knowledge or belief. This spiritual era began with the construction of the Second Temple by the Members of the Great Assembly. Its two seminal markers were the development of the Oral law and the Mishna on the one hand, and the rise and spread of Greek philosophy and science on the other.

It isn’t by coincidence that the Miracle of the Lights associated with the Menorah is the symbol of the Jewish victory over the Syrian Greeks. The Menorah symbolizes knowledge. In spiritual terms, light and oil symbolize the ability of Divine Wisdom [the light] to be expressed in terms of human knowledge [the oil]. The word for oil in Hebrew is shemen, which is a compression of the word shemona, the number eight, symbolizing the heavenly Sphere of Bina, or understanding. All human knowledge is an expression of the spark of Divine knowledge contained within it.

To understand the spiritual essence of the world, we must realize that knowledge can cast darkness as well as light. Before the advent of Greek science and culture, it was impossible to look at the world and not see God. Nothing about the world could be explained other than in divine terms. Before the world could pass into a spiritual historic era where God was not universally manifest, man had to develop a system of knowledge that could explain the major phenomena of existence without the need of constantly referring to God [or gods].

We have hit upon the problem of Jewish ‘mityavnim.’ Being Jewish is important only because of the special knowledge that we Jews have to offer the world. Inasmuch as our spiritual era concerns the struggle between the two systems of knowledge, the system represented by the Oral law, versus the system represented by Greek culture, and whereas we Jews are the sole repositories of the system of knowledge represented by the Oral law, we are very important indeed. The track that leads back to Sinai can only be followed through the Torah. But Jews who embrace the other knowledge are as necessary to the world as the Italians in our example. They merely add color.

And that precisely is the tragedy of the Jewish ‘mityavnim.’ The nations never accept the Jewish abandonment of Judaism. Whether Jews prefer the foreign culture to their own or not, in the eyes of the world they remain members of the Jewish people who are truly unique in terms of embodying the very system of knowledge to which the ‘mityavnim’ no longer subscribe.

Read the whole article here.

Our Chanukah Opportunity

Chanukah is about light, specifically the light that brings awareness, connection and closeness to Hashem. On the first day of creation, that light burned bright, but it was diminished when the first man, Adam, introduced more physicality into human consciousness with his transgression.

The light was diminished further after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash when direct communication from Hashem through prophecy ended. Concurrent with the loss of prophecy, the Greeks shifted mankind’s focus away from Hashem and the spirtual, towards the understanding of nature and the physical. This caused further diminishment of Hashem’s light. A counterbalance to this concealment was the blossoming of the Oral Torah and the introduction of Brachos.

Our opportunity is for each of us to utilize the power of learning Torah, performing mitzvos, and davening and saying Brachos to increase the awareness of Hashem in the world. In our rushed day to day life, we often lose sight of the fact that every spiritual act we perform brings Hashem’s light into the world. The more we focus on that fact, the more light we begin.

So when we light the candles we should recognized that we are addressing Hashem, the source of all blessing who always was, is and will be. He created and is the ultimate authority of the spiritual and physical worlds. The physical world conceals Hashem, but he has set aside the Jewish people to sanctify the world through the performance of the mitzvos, and specifically during the next 8 nights through the lighting of the Menorah and the recognition that Hashem is the force behind everything that occurs in this world.

Make every candle count. A Freilichen Chanukah!

Here are some shiurim to help you fuel your flames.

Rabbi Welcher on Miracles of Chanukah

Rabbi Welcher on the Hashkafa of Chanukah

R’ Moshe Schwerd – Chanukah: Bringing The Light To The World And To Yourself

R’ Moshe Schwerd on Chanukah’s Message of Inspiration

Rabbi Tatz – Many Shiurim on Chanukah

Aish – Many Shiurim on Chanukah

Looking for Our Brothers

A few years back I found out something about myself that surprised and amazed me. It was Erev Yom Kippur and a colleague of mine, we’ll call him Zalman, and I were on our way to Williams College (a small liberal arts school in western Massachusetts). We were going to meet with some college students to talk about Yom Kippur and present an opportunity for some to come to Jerusalem for a winter session. We drove up the New York State Thruway before turning into the back woods of western Mass. It was hours before we found our destination and a warm delegation of thirsty souls. After our presentation and discussions had run their course it was time to make the long trek home. It had certainly been worth our while. A number of students had shown interest in coming with us to Israel and as it turned out a few from that night made it “all the way to the Wall!”

On the way home Zalman and I had tossed our hats and jackets into the back seat of his station wagon and we had ceased to talk about work and began to talk “in pajamas” as the phrase goes. I asked Zalman how he had gotten involved in Yiddishkeit and what had spurred him on. He began to tell me how he had a brother that went to camp one summer and drowned. My heart fell into my stomach. He explained how he started to wonder, “What’s it all about?” and “Where do we come from and go to?”

When he finished, I asked him if he had heard about my story. He acknowledged that he had not. I told him that I had a little brother that went to the dentist to get a load of teeth fixed and they gave him gas and he never woke up. I explained with vivid recollections all the haunting philosophical questions that have followed me since. Here we were two grown men with families at home barreling down the New York State Thruway and we were both crying about matters that happened more than three decades earlier.

Then a verse from this week’s Torah Portion came to me. Yosef confronts a man who is really the angel Gabriel while he blunders on his way and the angel asks him, “What are you looking for?” Yosef answers, “I am looking for my brothers!” (Breishis 37:15) I told Zalman, “Look at us two crazy guys! Here we are grown up guys with families and it’s Erev Yom Kippur! Under normal circumstances we should have been in bed along time ago but here it is already Two O’clock in the morning and we are hustling down the thruway to get home. If the angel Gabriel would turn on his police lights and pull us over and, instead of giving us a ticket, he would peek into the car and ask us, “What are you guys doing out here at this crazy hour so far from home? What are you looking for?” If he would ask us the same question he asked Yosef, I think we could give him the very same answer with the fullest of hearts, “We are looking for our brothers!”

I never understood this aspect of my own life until that drive. Sometimes HASHEM puts a hole in our hearts, we get such a deep hurt that we spend the rest of our lives filling the gap and it may form the basis for our main accomplishments in life.

Each year on Chanukah, at some point shortly after candle lighting, I pile the kids into the car with a handful of candies of course and we take a ride all over our town and even to some uncharted areas. We drive through some of the wealthier and some of the more modest sections of town but our goal is not to scout out real estate at all. Rather what we are looking for in the heart of the night, in the windows of Jewish homes, are flickering Chanukah flames, keeping in mind the words of the wisest of men, Solomon “The candle of G-d is the soul of man.” (Mishle’) It’s always a treat and a thrill of endless depth, especially on Chanukah, looking for our brothers.

Originally posted 12/15/2006

The Dreidel of Life

This article is cross-posted at Oy!Chicago.

Just like the notion that there are two sides to every story, there are four sides to every dreidel. Over the years I have found myself associating the sides of that little dreidel (made out of recycled plastics) with memories of the past and the present along with thoughts about identity and perseverance

Let’s face it – playing dreidel is probably the closest thing to ancient kosher gambling. It takes skill and savvy, and that little kiss that you blow onto the dreidel cupped in your hands can make all the difference between a gimmel (getting all the pot) and a nun (getting nothing). I was enamored with the official game and would play it all the time in my Hebrew School days. My friends and I would have contests to see whose dreidel would spin the longest (I think my record was 45 seconds). Around fifth or sixth grade the game became pretty lame, but I was back to the dreidel circuit during my college years, though that’s a whole other story.

My kids (ages 14, 11, 7) are big fans of this seasonal game of chance. Although they have mastered the art of the upside-down spin, it’s the access to parent-sanctioned candy that keeps them playing the game year after year. In fact, they will keep playing it through the winter and into the spring. I’m guessing it’s the chocolate coins that keeps them playing and not the feeling of being historically connected to our ancestors who played the game when Greek soldiers would pass by.

I think the dreidel is one of the best Jewish symbols ever. Its size and function impart valuable lessons. I identify and navigate through many different social (and social media) circles during the day. A dreidel is small enough that if I were to put it in my pocket for a day, I think it would remind me that there’s another circle that I’m intrinsically part of.

No matter how many times we spin the dreidel it will always fall down on one of four sides. The outcomes are often this way in life. Sometimes we gain everything we want and sometimes we gain nothing. Sometimes we have to compromise and give up our half of what we want and sometimes we all have to pitch in a little of what we have for the greater good. Regardless of what side out dreidel lands on, we can always pick up the dreidel – and ourselves – so that we can continue trying to win the game.

The Candles and the Tree

It was the December after my ninth birthday. A menorah rested on the bookshelf over the television console. Across the room, beside the fireplace, the lights of a tree twinkled red and green and blue. I was standing next to my mother as she held a candle in her hand. My father wasn’t there. He wasn’t into these things.

My mother lit the lone candle, ushering in the first night of Chanukah. She didn’t recite the blessing. She didn’t know it. I remember watching the wick catch, watching the flame grow bright, and asking myself, “Now what happens?”

“We light the candles for eight nights because the oil burned for eight days,” my mother had told me. What oil? I wondered. But something about her brief explanation convinced me not to ask. Maybe she didn’t know, either.

A year or two later, at my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained. Waiting for the morning of December 25th when all the presents could be opened at once seemed far more dramatic than diluting the experience over a week, especially when those wrapped boxes mysteriously appeared under the tree day after day over the course of almost a whole month. Chanukah just couldn’t compete.

Only two decades later did I come to appreciate how much my own experience had truly been a Chanukah story.

When I left home for college I left behind the tree with the menorah. December 25th had become as irrelevant as Santa Claus, and I preferred an envelope with a check to wrapped presents that would most likely be returned for credit. I eagerly adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers, celebrating dormitory weekends by emptying six-packs rather than observing commercialized annual holidays with empty rituals.

Sometime toward the end of my university career I found myself attracted to Zen. Not in the traditional style, with its practices of discipline and self-mastery, but the pop-spiritual variety learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar modern scriptures.

Aligning myself with the spiritual energy of the universe became my goal. I wanted to choose good over evil because ultimately that brought good karma and spiritual contentment. Surely, this was the road to Truth.

But we all know which road is paved with good intentions. As sincere as I may have been in my aspiration to travel the road to truth, I found with annoying frequency that when my desire to do good clashed with my desire to indulge evil, good threw in the towel at least two times out of three. Forced to take stock of myself, I had to concede that, for all its high-sounding ideals, a spiritual discipline that produced no moral discipline wasn’t worth its mantras.

I hadn’t developed much discipline in my academic life, either. Oh, my grades were good enough, but four years studying English literature and writing had left me with neither gainful employment nor vocational direction. It was 1983, a decade late to join the hippies or beatniks, but that didn’t stop me from swinging a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhiking across the country. If I hadn’t found Truth in the ivory tower, perhaps I might find it in the heart of America.

Sixth months crisscrossing the country brought me no closer to Truth, but it did whet my wanderlust, and I soon boarded a flight across the Atlantic to continue my journey through Europe, after which Africa, Asia, and Australia lay upon my horizon.

Half a year in Europe ended with a short hop across the Mediterranean to Israel, where I sought the classical Jewish experience of volunteering to pick oranges on a kibbutz. But it was December, with little agricultural work to be done; moreover, the dollar was strong, resulting in some 9 million American tourists in Europe, many of them draining south into Israel as winter weather set in. I found the kibbutz placement office blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for Rolling Stones tickets, oblivious to signs screaming, NO PLACEMENTS BEFORE JANUARY.

Desperate for a break from the stresses of travel on a shoestring, I cast about for some way of imposing routine upon my life before departing for Africa and, somehow, found myself invited to attend yeshiva.

Yeshiva? The word was unfamiliar, but the offer of a bed, hot meals, and a daily schedule of classes proved irresistible. It was two weeks before Chanukah, and I would finally learn about the secrets of the menorah and the miracle of the oil.

Although a period of peaceful coexistence followed Alexander the Great’s occupation of the Land of Israel, it didn’t take long after Alexander’s death before the Greeks began to feel first discomfited and later threatened by their Jewish subjects and the Judaism they practiced. Greek philosophy recognized man as the pinnacle of creation, perfect in his accomplishments, answerable to no one but himself. Greek mythology embraced a pantheon of gods characterized by caprice and selfishness, by lust and vengeance, thereby sanctioning similar behavior among men. How offended must the Greeks have been by a Jewish society devoted to self-perfection through submission to a divine code of moral conduct.

When they could no longer tolerate the Jewish threat to their ideals, the Greeks contrived to destroy Jewish ideology. Whereas their predecessors, Babylon and Persia, had employed violent oppression, the Greeks plotted with far greater subtlety: in place of physical violence or outright prohibition of Torah observance, they originally banned only three practices: Shabbos, bris milah, and Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new month.

The Sabbath testifies to the divine nature of the universe; without this weekly reminder, we easily loose touch with and ultimately forget our relationship with our Creator. Bris milah is the sign of our higher calling, reminding us that we can control our physical impulses rather than allowing them to control us, that each of us is a work-in-progress striving toward self-completion and self-perfection. Rosh Chodesh is the ceremony that fixes the calendar and imbues the Jewish holidays with an intrinsic holiness. Without Rosh Chodesh, placement of the holidays would become arbitrary, leeching all meaning from them the way American Federal holidays have lost all substance in the eyes of most Americans.

The Jews refused to submit, and in the end the Greeks resorted to more oppressive decrees and, ultimately, to violence. But their plan had been sound: had they succeeded in stopping our adherence to these three precepts, they would have succeeded also in reducing Torah observance to an empty ritual, one that might have continued on for generations, but would have quickly become bereft of all meaning and spiritual significance. For this reason, the observance of Chanukah always includes one Shabbos, always passes through Rosh Chodesh, and is eight days long as a remembrance of the bris, the covenant between the Jew and his Creator.

Chanukah celebrates victory not only over our Greek oppressors, but also over the Hellenists, those Jews who promoted a new synchronism of Judaism, wherein they hoped to intermingle Jewish practice with that which they found most attractive in Greek culture. The Maccabees recognized the total incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other. Without staunch defenders fighting for Jewish identity, the flame of Judaism would inevitably be extinguished and only the tree of foreign culture would remain.

Despite the victory of the Maccabees, the Greeks did not disappear. To this day they persist in their cultural assault against the values of Jewish tradition. The nine year old boy in America, or Britain, or even in Israel, who looks at the Chanukah candles and wonders what they mean, who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree, testifies to the victory of the Greeks.

But not every child has forgotten the lights. The rekindling of the menorah each year reminds us that the torch of Jewish tradition continues to illuminate generation after generation and dispel the darkness of apathy and assimilation. However much the ideological descendants of the Greeks strive to extinguish the lights, the eternal flame that burns within the soul of the Jewish people still shines on and on.

In my own observance of Chanukah, I rejoice that my own children are growing up not only with the lights of the menorah, but with a growing understanding of what they mean. I’m grateful that I can give them what my parents were unable to give me: self-knowledge, the greatest weapon against cultural extinction. They have always known that a tree beside the fireplace in December is not part of their world; as they grow older, they come to appreciate why it is not, and why a menorah is.

Through the generations and across the world, our people have successfully adapted to living as guests among disparate societies, but only by retaining a strong sense of our history, the values of our heritage, and a familiarity with the culture that keeps our sense of identity alive and vibrant. Compromise these, and the Jew, together with his Judaism, will surely vanish. Preserve them, and we guarantee that the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks will be renewed in every generation as a victory of the Jewish people over assimilation.

Originally Posted on Dec 23rd, 2007

Darkest Before the Dawn

Miketz Shabbos Chanukah 5774-An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

-For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

And it came to pass at the end of two full years….  

-Bereshis 41:1

He put an end to darkness…( Iyov 28:3)

-Bereshis Rabbah 79:1

Behold, darkness will cover-up the earth, and the nations will be enveloped in palpably dark clouds; but HaShem will shine His light upon you, and His glory will be revealed through you.

-Yeshayah 60:2

 The Hebrew word ner is commonly mistranslated as “candle”.  In truth, a ner is a lamp that holds the oil and the wick.  In other words, it is the receptacle for the light. While the Torah is the very light itself; mitzvos, our physical, sometimes ritual, acts serve as “the awakening from below” and they evoke the sympathetic vibration of “the awakening from On High” — an outpouring of Torah light that settles into and illuminates these acts. In this way maasei hamitzvos-the acts of fulfilling the commandments, serve as lamps for the Torah’s light.  This is the meaning of the pasuk : “For the commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is light, and reproofs of ethics are the way of life. “(Mishlei 6:23)

The general rule of time-bound mitzvos is that they must be performed during the day. However, there are three mitzvos that are exceptions to this rule and that are meant to be performed at night from within the darkness davka; eating the korban Pesach, matzah and marror, reading the megillah (the nighttime reading is the primary one, the gemara says that it must be “repeated” by day) and ner Chanukah.  Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains that each of these mitzvos is exceptional because they derive from geulos– redemptions.

In each case the geulos in question are introduced in terms of illumination: Just before the redemptive exodus from Egypt the Torah proclaims; “…the children of Israel, however, had light in all the areas where they lived.” (Shemos 10:23) The hidden-miraculous salvation from genocide of Purim resulted in “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16). While the geulah of Israel from the cultural-imperialism of the Seleucid Greeks is post-biblical, the mitzvah it engendered is the one that requires the kindling of actual lights.

The root of every geulah is the one appearing at the beginning of our Sidra; the release and redemption of Yoseph Hatzaddik from prison.  This is why the midrash identifies the end of Yoseph Hatzaddik’s prison term with the end of darkness.

Chronologically, there were no rabbinic mitzvos introduced after ner Chanukah.  Rav Leibeleh Eiger points out that, appropriately, the mitzvah of Ner Chanukah is the very last of all the mitzvos. As all the mitzvos serve as lamps illumined with the Torah-light to drive out and vanquish the darkness, there could be no final mitzvah more fitting, no more apt coup de grâce to put darkness out of its misery and bring us out of the misery of darkness, than the mitzvah of ner Chanukah. While other mitzvos do away with darkness metaphorically and metaphysically the mitzvah of ner Chanukah does so physically. Ner Chanukah exemplifies the convergence of mashal and nimshal-symbol — and that which is being symbolized.

It is no accident that Parashas Mikeitz is read almost every year on Shabbos Chanukah. While the redemption of Yoseph Hatzaddik is the root of all light-suffused geulos — the proverbial end of darkness, the geulah of Israel from the domination of the Seleucid Greeks is, to date, the last. Moreover it was this last one that engendered the final mitzvah-lamp that serves as the ultimate paving stone on the bridge that leads to Mashiach and the truly final redemption.

Our sages taught that דלית נהורא אלא ההוא דנפיק מגו חשוכא – “that there is no light other than the light which emerges from within the darkness” (Zohar II Tetzaveh 184A).  Taken to its logical conclusion it follows that the deeper and duskier the darkness is, the more dazzling the light that comes out of it will be.  No galus-exile has been gloomier and obscured by more shadows than our present one.  It has endured and oppressed us for millennia and has so masked any glimmer of hope that it beggars credulity that any light will ever really emerge from it. But, paradoxically, it is precisely because this darkness seems so impenetrable that it is the harbinger of, and guarantees that, the greatest light is yet to come, a light that was hitherto unimaginable.

Unto itself the light of an individual Chanukah menorah is a humble, almost negligible thing.  Yet the synergy of the neros Chanukah in concrete practice of all of Israel collectively, the unification of these metaphorical and, simultaneously, tangible mitzvah-lamps has the power to illuminate our redemption from within the darkness, until Mashiach’s coming.

Adapted from Toras Emes-Chanukah 5630-1870 A.C.E. D”H Ki (pp 56-57)

The 60 Second Guide to Chanukah

The Battle of the Spiritual vs the Physical
To understand any Jewish Holiday it is helpful to restate the foundation of Judaism, which is that there is a G-d, who is completely spiritual who created a world with physical and spiritual parts. Man is the only creation with both a spiritual side (the soul) and a physical side (the body). The Jewish people’s role is to lead mankind to an integration of the physical into the spiritual. We accomplish that by filling our lives and the world with G-d focused thoughts, speech and actions.

Physical Orientation of the Greeks

After the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, the presence of G-d in the world was much less evident. Even though the temple was rebuilt, man’s spiritual awareness of G-d was greatly diminished in the Second Temple period. Concurrent with the diminishment of G-d awareness was the rise of Greek thought and culture with its focus on man and the physical universe.

The Spiritual Battle Against the Jews
The initial conflict of Chanukah pitted Jews who had assimilated into Greek culture and abandoned all spiritual orientation, against Jews still focused on the Jewish mission of integrating the spiritual into the physical. Eventually the Greek government joined the anti-spiritual fight and the Talmud mentions three decrees: no Shabbos because it is a testimony that G-d created the physical world, no Bris Milah because it signifies that even the most physical aspect of man must have a spiritual orientation, and no declaration of the new month (Rosh Chodesh) because it shows that even time is spiritually sanctified by the Jews.

The Military Victory
A small group of Jews decided to fight against the Greek spiritual oppression. Although badly outnumbered, the spiritually oriented Jews led by Mattisyahu eventually succeeded in expelling the Greeks from Jewish areas in Israel and from the Temple in particular. The fact that the victory was a miracle was not overwhelmingly apparent, because it sometimes happens that the weak overpower the strong in military battle.

The Miracle of the Oil

When the Jews reclaimed the temple they wanted to perform the temple’s daily Menorah lighting with spiritually pure oil, which would take eight days to prepare. They found one container of sealed purified oil which would last for only one day. They lit it and it miraculously burned for eight days. It was thereafter instituted that every Jewish home should light candles for the eight days of Chanukah in celebration of this miracle and our success in defeating our spiritual enemies.

Appreciating Miracles
The Hebrew word for miracle is Nes which means a sign. A miracle is a sign that there is a force beyond nature, namely G-d. Although G-d is in reality always present, He is often hidden in our world. In fact the Hebrew word for world is Olam, comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for hidden: the physical world hides the presence of G-d. When we learn about the spiritual realities of G-d’s world or do spiritual acts such as lighting the Chanukah Menorah we increase the G-d awareness in ourselves and in the world and continue to march towards the fulfillment of the Jewish people’s spiritual mission.

Chanukah’s Message of Inspiration

Is growth the mission of the Jew or his essence?

Can we stay in the same place or are we always rising falling?

What was special about Aaron HaCohen’s service and what is the message for us?

How does our lighting of the Chanukah menorah bring out the great traits of Aaron in us?

How can we use Chanukah to spark real growth?

R’ Moshe Schwerd gave a fantastic shiur this past Moatzei Shabbos which provided answers to these questions.

Click here for Chanukah’s Message of Inspiration.

Santa and the Little Jewish Girl

By Marsha Smagley
Twas the night before Xmas, (or maybe a week before),
When all through the house, (that is. my best friend’s house),
Not a child was stirring, not even a mouse… (Except for the little Jewish girl, that would be me)
In hopes that.. (Santa) soon would be there! (That is until the little Jewish girl chased him away!).

The Episode
When I was four years old, I told Kathy, my best friend who was Catholic, and her three siblings, that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. The little Jewish girl (that would be me) thought she was supposed to tell the truth. Although I do not remember many things from when I was four years old, unfortunately, I vividly remember that one.

It took place in a modest apartment in Chicago in the early 1960’s. The little Jewish girl of fair complexion, with very short thick strawberry blonde hair, stood in front of her best friend and her three siblings, all contently nestled on the couch in their apartment, and innocently, did the unthinkable…
Read more Santa and the Little Jewish Girl

R’ Moshe Schwerd – Chanukah: Shielding Our Children from Assimilation

Understand:
…the strong relationship between Chanukah and Succos.
…the different nature of Persumei Nissa (publicizing the miracle) on Chanukah
…what the Greeks were claiming back then
…what the non-Jewish nations want from us today
…where we are failing in the battle against assimilation and how we can succeed
…and more

Download the mp3 – R’ Moshe Schwerd – Shielding Our Children from Assimilation (right click and save target as).

And from a few years back: how the present-giving orientation of the holiday threatens to usurp its purpose. Recapture the essence of the holiday.

Download the mp3 – R’ Moshe Schwerd – Chanukah and American Materialism (right click and save target as).

Chanukah – Beyond the Facade

By Yered Viders

Our homes are illuminated with the timeless Chanukah lights and the timeless message they convey. Looking at the lights, I wondered why the B’nei Binah (“Men of Insight”) — whom we acclaim in Ma’oz Tz’ur for establishing the Festival of Chanukah — selected such a mundane way of commemorating the historic miracle. Light a candle. That’s it?

Imagine Jewish leadership instituted a Festival to commemorate the recent miracles associated with the Gaza attacks. What would be a fitting, meaningful tribute? What commemorative event could really drive home the message of emunah, bitachon and Hashem’s secure watch over His People and His Land? A parade? A military re-enactment? No, I got it. Let’s turn on our living room lights at sunset and leave them on for 30 minutes!

Truth be told, while we associate candles with “special events,” in days of antiquity, candles were just a means of illumination. They were the modern-day equivalent of the 60 watt bulb that enabled our forefathers centuries ago to remain productive after the sun had set. Of all the ways of commemorating the miracles of Chanukah -– what’s so significant about the seemingly insignificant candle?

Lest the rarefied days of Chanukah be lost in a torrent of doughnuts and latkes, it behooves us to consider this point.

The answer, I believe, is to train our powers of perception to register what lies beneath the service. The symbolism. The depth. The “more than meets the eye.” As oppose to the “what you see is what you get” philosophy of the Greek regime. Yavan thinking was staunchly averse to attributing anything spiritual to nature, history or the human condition. Face value. One dimension. Reality begins and ends with what’s tangible.

To uproot this sinister mindset, our forefathers — true B’nei Binah — crafted the perfect “ritual” to highlight the centrality of what lies beneath the surface. If you want — it’s just a candle. It’s just a mundane, functional way of illuminating the home. On the other hand, if you choose, it’s so much more than just a candle. It’s a “symbol,” and if you double-click on that symbol you can tap into deep spiritual reservoirs brimming with timeless lessons of emunah, bitachon, mesiras nefesh and the Jewish People’s unique capacity to live above nature and history. Behind that flickering light you can discover all the fundamentals of faith that have sustained us throughout the centuries.

For better or for worse, we live in a non-thinking generation. Many scholars have noted that the attractive “-isms” of generations past have imploded upon themselves, leaving only a few misguided souls truly championing a particular philosophical outset. What, then, has filled the void and competes with our capacity to think deeply into matters? The media, for one. We are bombarded with advertisements and “tidbits” of information on seemingly every nook and cranny of our environment. Our human interactions are quite often at a shockingly shallow level as we jot off the next text while waiting at a light. We are a headline-society without, seemingly, the time, patience or interest for plumbing the depths. Are we under military attack? No, thankfully not; but our precious minds that have the capacity to seek emes and our Yiddishe eyes that have inherited the capacity to identify Hashem behind the opaque crust of nature and history are threatened everyday with the allure of the superficial view.

To spur us on in this fight for depth, we have a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Sages who instituted Chanukah –- not just that they saw fit to give us the enlightened days to endure the winter (and the long winter of galus) but the manner in which the B’nei Binah established the celebration: encouraging and inspiring us to retain our behind-the-scenes perception in a world where façade masquerades as the coin of the realm. Let us live up to the challenge of the Chanukah lights and may we merit to see depth in ourselves, in one another and our world at large.

Chanukah: Overcoming Our Greekness

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller
Dear friends:

Chanukah is here!

When you think of the victory of light over the darkness that the ancient Greeks tried to spread, you can’t help but think of the world as it is today, sit by the light and know that there is light in the darkest times.

Everything that we think of as “light,” becomes “dark” in a world in which there is no spirituality. The Greeks weren’t so different than today’s “spokesmen”. They saw the human being as the world’s center.

Everything that makes you a member of a unique people demands that you see things very differently. You didn’t emerge as a Jew out of nowhere. G-d promised the patriarchs that the traits that they developed would live in their descendants beyond their lifetimes. Their heritage is reflected in our value system.

The three most severe sins are idol worship, sexual immorality, and murder. Avraham’s dedication to chessed (kindness) gives us the fortitude to resist temptation to the sins of sexual immorality. You can’t be a giver and at the same time an exploiter; the Greeks negated this principle completely. To them, any relationship that gives gratification to the person more in power is legitimate and healthy.

Today the plague of intermarriage is the way secular humanism, an offspring of Greek thought, is still conquering us, not physically but by making our uniqueness as a people irrelevant. It feels like the most normal thing in the world.

Yitzchak’s dedication to G-d was absolute. The ultimate “idol” is human ego. The moment that Yitzchak showed his willingness to give his life to do Hashem’s will, he transmitted the ability to stand up and deny every possible form of idol worship to his descendants.

The Greeks’ obsession with defiling the Bais HaMikdash showed how completely they understood (not necessarily consciously) that it opposed everything they stood for. It was a place of miracles, awareness, depth, joy! The core of all of this was a transcendental, invisible G-d who could never be totally understood even by the greatest human minds. But the heritage that the Greeks left us is the way looking at every religious ritual as something irrelevant at best and contemptuous at worst. The only god they and their descendants still worship is human ego.

Yaakov grasped the nature of the soul and its eternal connection to G-d. He could never justify murder. By definition, murder means killing someone who is of no threat to you. That would mean somehow seeing him as “unnecessary” in the greater scheme of things. Yaakov saw other people as eternal, precious, and attached to G-d. To the Greeks, human life had only relative value. They habitually abandoned deformed infants to die of exposure on their hauntingly beautiful hillsides.

The clash between these cultures continues.

These issues are not new. The Greek exile is very much with us emotionally and sociologically. The issues are still the same.

There is a fourth issue as well, one that you have to take to heart if you want to make a change. The Haftorah (prophetic portion read after the Torah reading on Shabbos) tells us not just about the three grave sins, but also of one that is worse still. It is oppression of your fellow man. In a similar vein, the sages tell us that there are three cardinal sins, idol worship, sexual immorality, and murder, but that lashon hara parallels all of them in its gravity.

Lashon hara means saying negative or damaging things about your fellow Jew for no positive purpose. It reflects disintegration of our sense of peoplehood, and our grasp of the unique spirituality of each one of us. This is the tikkun that we face now more than ever, because “fixing” the other issues is almost impossible without an underlying sense of love and unity.

Yosef epitomizes both. His early revelation of his dreams reflected not (as people think) his ego as much as his sense of responsibility for his brothers. This comes out more when, as the later parshas reveal, he was able to put aside every normal human desire to humiliate them in return for their betrayal. His sense of their significance was based on his recognition of what it meant to be part of the Jewish people.

In Yosef’s own moment of temptation, when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, what saved him was seeing Yaakov’s image before his eyes. Yaakov was able to pass on to his children what the glory of being a human being is really about. The reason that Yosef resisted her (even though, as the Midrash says, she threatened to have him tortured to death), was that immorality would defile him as a human being. His esteem for his own humanity was the basis of his esteem for his brothers.

Chanukah is the time when you can look at the light of the menorah, and let it reflect the light of your soul, and the souls of the people in your life! Enjoy watching the flames, eating the latkes and/or sufganiot, and have a great holiday.

Love always,

Tziporah

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