Wednesday, December 28, 2005


This past Shabbos I was back at the unique Indian Lakes Resort outside of Chicago for the Biennial Convention of the Midwest Agudah. On my way to the auditorium I noticed the usual array of exhibitors lined up trying to interest people in their projects and products. Among them was a yungerman with a table of seforim on display.

As I scanned the different items, my friend, Chaim Rajchenbach, who recently moved to Chicago from Lakewood and learns in the Kollel of Telshe Yeshiva, came over to me and said, “Do you want to buy the last Sefer Sholol Rov on Chanukah in Chicago?”

Sholol Rov is a compendium of divrei Torah on Chumash and Yomim Tovim; the volume on Chanukah was just recently published. There was a time not that long ago when such seforim didn’t make it to Chicago; there simply was no market for them there. Today you can go to a convention there and find a yungerman selling this sefer and many others. The demand is so great that he sold them all out in a short time; I was lucky enough to buy the last one.

Chaim’s remark that this was the last Sholol Rov for sale in Chicago reminded me of the famous story told about Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch, the famed Telzer Rosh Yeshiva. During the war years, Rav Bloch walked into a seforim store on the Lower East Side of New York City and asked the proprietor for the sefer, Ketzos Hachoshen. The Ketzos is a staple of yeshiva study whose every word is pored over and cherished.

With tears in his eyes, the man handed Rav Bloch a dusty copy of the Ketzos. He said to him, “Ihr zult vissen az dus is der letzter ketzos vos men vet farkoifen in Amerikah, this is the last Ketzos which will be sold in America. It will never be reprinted, there is nebach no demand for it now and there never will be anymore.”

Rav Eliyohu Meir is said to have responded: “Do not despair, I assure you that thousands of Ketzosin will yet be printed and sold in America.”

Look how far we have come since that day. Not only has Rav Bloch’s prediction come true, but there we were standing in Chicago where people once fought the move to build a mosad Torah, of the caliber of Rav Bloch’s yeshiva, in the city.

Now the demand for seforim is so great that I bought the last Sholol Rov in Chicago! I have no doubt that by the time these words have been printed, the shelves will have been re-stocked and more Bnei Torah will be snatching up the sefer.

Not only is a branch of Rav Bloch’s yeshiva thriving in that once Torah-forsaken city, but the inspiring convention was made possible to a large degree through the leadership of Rav Bloch’s talmid muvhak, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin, Rosh Yeshiva of the Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago.

I walked into the session with this sefer in my hand. Flipping through it, I opened to a page with a beautiful vort from Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv that seemed to address our very own times. It caused me to reflect – and rejoice – over the miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate today as our people did in days of old.

The name Chanukah, as we all know, signifies that the Jews rested from battling the Greeks on the 25th day of Kislev: Chanu Chaf-hai.

Many commentators question why we commemorate the events by celebrating the day the Jews rested, rather than the days that they engaged in battle. Why do we celebrate the “resting” after the victory instead of the actual victory?

Rav Elyashiv is quoted in the Sholol Rov as answering: Jews do not celebrate triumph, Jews do not glorify wars or fighting. Victory is a means to achieve a desired end but is not the end in and of itself.

Therefore, the celebration was not a commemoration of military accomplishment. It was a celebration of the spiritual freedom we had wrested from the Greeks following the military victory. The holiday was established to commemorate a spiritual triumph; our freedom to once again observe Torah and serve Hashem, achieved on the 25th of Kislev when the Greeks were defeated.

The Midwest convention was also a celebration. People of my generation who live in the Northeast cannot appreciate the battles that were waged for Torah. We have no idea how daunting it was to establish beachheads of Torah in the cities and states of the Midwest.

When the Telshe Yeshiva came to Chicago forty-five years ago, according to veteran eyewitnesses, there were only three young women who wore shaitels in the entire city of Chicago. The shul intended to house the Bais Medrash of Telshe Yeshiva was initially barred from use by forces opposed to the establishment of a European-type yeshiva in an enlightened America.

Today there are Torah communities dotting the entire Midwest and we take it for granted.

Throughout the weekend people were saying to each other, “Can you imagine this? This type of convention never could have been possible fifteen years ago!”

Indeed, wars had to be won to achieve this flowering of Torah. Though we don’t celebrate military victories, we still thank Hashem for the miracles, the redemptions, the show of strength and the salvation, as indeed the entire Al Hanissim is filled with such praise. We even thank Hashem for the milchamos themselves, though we certainly have no desire for war.

Why do we praise the Ribono Shel Olam for wars that cause so much pain and suffering? Should we not only focus on victory?

Perhaps the answer is that in order to truly appreciate the victory, we have to understand that it took a war to bring us to the spiritual heights that helped us merit Divine salvation. The Ponovezher Rov explains that the war Chazal refer to is the war between the forces of kedusha and the forces that block and undermine our growth in Yiddishkeit.

Much mesiras nefesh and strong-willed determination was required in order to develop Torah communities in the Midwest. It required years of dedication, cultivating one family and then another and another and another, until towns were turned over. Communities were developed and nurtured through the sweat, toil and tears of hundreds of individuals. Slowly, but surely, individuals were forged into minyanim and then into kehillos and finally into a force that now commands universal respect.

We may reflect on the wars, but Chanukah is the time to savor the victory. It is a time to dwell on all that has been accomplished in this country since the arrival of thousands of Holocaust survivors on these shores, some 60 years ago.

When they came, a desert of desolation greeted them. Chillul Shabbos was rampant. Learning in Kollel was an anomaly – to be scorned or at best, grudgingly tolerated. Kashrus supervision was disorganized and chaotic.

I recently spoke to my brother-in-law, Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky, who was born in Long Island’s Five Towns. He was reminiscing about growing up in Woodmere, Long Island.

As a young child during the early 1960s, Orthodox Jewish life in that town was almost unnoticeable. Being the child of a rabbi and a scion of Torah scholars often made him stand out from his peers. He remembers walking into a store on the main street of the next town, Cedarhurst, when an elderly man gestured to him. Respectfully, he responded to the old man’s crooked finger beckoning him closer. The man bent over and pointed to the yarmulka on the boy’s head. Then, as if he was conveying sensitive, top-secret information, he scolded him in a whisper, “You should not be wearing a yarmulka in public. It’s a chillul Hashem.”

Many of us can remember shuls that had just one Shas that was hardly used. Today, there is hardly a shul without six or seven complete sets of Shas, many of which accompany scores of people on the journey through the Daf Yomi cycle.

Yeshivos abound in the farthest flung corners of this continent. Kollelim are springing up in virtual deserts. Children are clamoring to learn more and more Torah. In a country where it was difficult to find a kosher piece of meat, kosher products are omnipresent wherever one travels. Awareness of halacha has reached every home that sports a kosher mezuzah.

Indeed, the pach shemen that contained only enough oil to support a handful of Kollel yungeleit in two kollelim, has miraculously expanded to support many thousands who have raised the banner of limud HaTorah and shemiras hamitzvos all across the country.

Indeed, the battle was waged and won. And though we can never really rest, we can breathe a bit easier as we celebrate the chanu chaf-hei of our forbears and aspire to rekindle the menorah in the Bais Hamikdosh Hashlishi.

Sholol Rov translates into large booty; booty is the rewards of war. To the winner goes the sholol. This Chanukah, as we celebrate the victory the Jews of ancient times were granted and their return to the Bais Hamikdosh, let us also celebrate the triumph of Torah in our own days and the sholol rov with which we have been rewarded.

Yes, there is much room for improvement; there are many areas in which we are lacking. But Chanukah is the time to focus on victory, the time to celebrate how far we’ve come since the day Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch was sold the “last” Ketzos in America.

Ah Freilichen Chanukah!


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