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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeishev/ Hanukkah: A spark in the dark

Summary

Every year on Hanukkah and Purim we add a special prayer of gratitude in the Shemoneh Esrei and Grace after meals. The secular theatre group in Brisk mocked the words of the sages that only righteous people who are free of sin would be allowed to join the Jewish army. As long as the tiny spark burns it has the power to consume the enormous amount of flax. The merit of the few who had a live holy spark was able to consume and destroy the many. Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the famous Rav of Ponievitch said that the source of all of our problems is our transgressions. The right approach would be to gently and slowly arouse the sleeper from his sleep in a caring fashion. The purpose of our Hanukkah candles is to light up the darkness of the foreign influences surrounding us. By gradually adding one light after another we can slowly build up a relationship with our brothers and sisters who are in the darkness.

Special prayer of gratitude

Every year on Hanukkah and Purim we add a special prayer of thanks (Al HaNissim) in the Shemoneh Esrei and bentching (Grace after meals). In this prayer we express our gratitude to G'd for delivering the Jewish people from the hands of our enemies. On Hanukkah we mention the Chashmonaim who as a few individuals stood up against the mighty army of the world conquering Greek/Assyrian Empire. We say "You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the willful sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with the study of Your Torah." We can understand that it was a miracle that the huge and mighty Greek army was delivered into the hands of the five sons of Matisyahu, the High Priest. But what was miraculous about the impure and wicked being delivered into the hands of the righteous students of Torah?

Brisk theatre group

On a simple level we can answer this question with a story from pre-World War II in the Town of Brisk, Lithuania. A secular theatre group performed a play with the intent of mocking the words of the sages. They showed a scene of the Jewish army going into war based on the teaching of the Talmud (Sotah 44a) that only righteous people who are free of sin would be allowed to join the Jewish army (see Rashi, Devarim 20:8). The players were dressed up as elderly scholars who had spent all their days studying Torah and who were clearly not fit for warfare. Some G'd-fearing inhabitants of Brisk were outraged by this mocking performance and went to the Rabbi of the town to protest. To this the Rabbi answered, "But they are right. These are the kind of people who merit G'd's assistance to overpower the enemy." When we mention that G'd delivered the Greek/Assyrian army into the hands of a few righteous scholars, we are talking about people who had no real training in warfare and in their purity had never been involved in any fights. We thank G'd that, in His great mercy, He miraculously assisted them to win the war at the time of Hanukkah.

Bundles of flax

However, we may be able to understand this prayer on a deeper level. In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Rashi quotes the Midrash (Tanchuma 1 and Rabba 84:5). The Midrash tells a parable about a flax merchant who travels into a city with huge bundles of flax on his camels. A local smith sees the merchant and wonders aloud where could there possibly be enough room for all this flax. A wise bystander, who hears the smith's wonderment, comments to him, "One tiny spark emerging from your billows will burn down all of the flax." So, continues the Midrash, at the end of last week's portion, the Torah lists all the leaders of the descendants of Eisav. When Jacob foresaw these future leaders of his wicked brother, he wondered, "Such a mighty people, who will be able to conquer them?" Comes the Torah in this week's portion (Bereishis 37:2) and says, "These are the chronicles of the family of Jacob, Joseph " i.e. Joseph will conquer them. The Midrash explains this with a quotation from the Prophet Ovadiah (1:18) who predicts and says: "And the house of Jacob will be like a fire, and the house of Joseph will be like a flame. And the house of Eisav will be like straw and it will be ignited and consumed. And there will not be a remnant of the house of Eisav, so says G'd." One spark will emerge from Joseph (Mashiach ben Joseph who will precede Mashiach ben David), and this spark will burn down and consume all of them. The huge bundles of flax appear so mighty compared to the minute spark. However, as long as the tiny spark is alive it has the power to consume all of the flax.

Merit of the few

When the Hanukkah prayer describes that the impure fell into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the willful sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with the study of Torah, it describes what constituted the strength of the little minority to overpower the major Greek armies. It is not describing an additional miracle that the impure fell into the hands of the pure, etc. Rather it describes how these holy sparks of righteousness, purity and Torah study were the merits of the few that enabled them to consume and destroy the many. We all have within us a basic holy spark, but for many of us it has been covered up by foreign influences throughout our long exile. This spark is part of every Jewish soul and can never be removed; it may be dormant but it will always be there.

Sleeping in the fire

In 1937, the Agudat Israel World Organization had a major convention in Marienbad, Czechoslovakia, known as the Third Kenesiya Gedolah, attended by the greatest Rabbis of that generation, as well as many activists. They spent several days of long deliberations regarding the various problems facing world Jewry. Finally, they came to the closing session where they planned to make decisions and draw conclusions from their discussions. Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the famous Rav of Ponievitch, was honoured to address the final assembly. In his speech he told a parable of a house that had caught fire with a person sleeping inside. The neighbours quickly gathered to discuss the best way to save the person inside the burning house. An attempt to carry out the sleeping person on his bed was aborted as the bed was broader than the door frame. After further deliberations they decided to bring some axes and saws to break down the doorframe. An intelligent person, who happened to come by and observed the chaos, asked what all the commotion was about. When he heard the story, he was shocked and cried out to the neighbours, "You fools! You are wasting precious time. By the time you are finished, there might be no one to save anymore. Wake up the sleeping person and let him get out on his own feet and save himself from the danger." "We are like these neighbours", said the Ponievitcher Rav. "We have been sitting here for several days looking for ways to save our fellow Jews and solve their problems. My dear brothers and friends, the ground is burning under our feet and we have to deal with the root of our problems. The source of all of our problems is our transgressions. We must find a way to arouse everyone to repent, and then there will be no problems to solve." The Rav concluded his fiery speech and said: "This gathering has to conclude with a call, 'Jewish people, wake up!'" This is what the Talmud teaches (Berachot 33a): "It is not the snake that kills. It is the sin that kills." There is a lot of evil surrounding us but we are the ones who empower this evil with our own sins. However, we also have the power within us to conquer the evil. But as long as the spark of the Jewish soul lays dormant, it has no power to ignite. Only once it has been awakened it can grow into a big and strong fire that will consume all the evil around it.

The eagle gently awakens its young

My late father used to say that when someone is in a deep sleep, one has to be very cautious how to wake him up. If one tries to wake him up with a loud noise, the person will be shocked and confused and may go back to sleep or run away. The right approach is to gently and slowly arouse him from his sleep in a caring fashion. This is how the Torah describes G'd's approach with the Jewish people. As it says in Parashas Haazinu (Devarim 32:10-11): "He found them in the land of wilderness He encircled them, He taught them understanding, He guarded them like the pupil of His eye. Like an eagle arouses its nest, hovering over its young." Says Rashi, the eagle does not suddenly return to its nest but slowly approaches, making noises as it rubs its wings against the trees, so that the young birds wake up gradually.

Lighting the outside

This lesson we find by the light of Hanukkah as well. We follow the ruling of Beit Hillel (see Talmud Shabbos 21b) who teach that we start the first night and light one candle. The second night we light two candles, and so we add on a candle each night until the eighth night when the menorah is fully illuminated with eight candles. Unlike the candles we light on Shabbat and the Festivals, these candles are not lit just to light inside the house but primarily to light up the outside. In Israel, many people light their menorah outside the house as it used to be the custom in the times of the Mishnah and Talmud. In the Diaspora where this is not a practical way of performing the mitzvah, the custom is to light by the door or in the window so that the light still shines towards the outside of the house. This indicates that the purpose of our Hanukkah candles is to light up the darkness of the foreign influences surrounding us.

Gradually adding light

We do not follow the ruling of Beit Shammai who teach that we light all eight candles on the first night. Such a bright light would be too strong and could blind the people who are out there in the darkness. Instead of being attracted to the light, they may get confused or run back into the darkness. By gradually adding one light after another we can slowly build up a relationship with our brothers and sisters who are in the darkness of missionary influences, in the grip of exotic cults or just living in secular ignorance of the beauty of the Torah. In this way, we can slowly show them the glow and warmth of the light of the Torah and ignite their dormant spark and bring it to life. The Jewish people has a mission to be a light to the nations; however, as a first step let us concentrate on being a light to our own dear brothers and sisters who still sit in the dark.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.


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