Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Giving Selflessly

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschut

Rashi in this week’s parsha (50:5) tells of a strange financial discussion. Yaakov Avinu yearned to be buried next to his parents and grandparents in the Me’oras Hamachpeilah. To ensure that his children wouldn’t have any difficulties realizing his desire, he met with his brother, Eisov, to negotiate a clear purchase of the plot.

Rashi relates that Yaakov took the gold and silver he had amassed in the house of Lovon and piled it on the table. He offered it to Eisov in exchange for the plot in the Me’orah.

Meforshim are bothered by this encounter. Many ask why, if Yaakov was coming to negotiate, he would immediately offer all of his money. Why did he not begin the discussion with a low offer and proceed to raise it as necessary to make the deal?

One answer given is that Eisov had a single zechus over his brother, one area in which he had excelled: kibbud av. During the years Yaakov spent in chutz la’aretz, Eisov remained at his father’s side, earning untold merit.

Yaakov was addressing this point. “Eisov,” he told him, “I know that you feel that your eternal place is with our father, since you served him so faithfully while I was away, but know this: The true measure of what a person feels or believes is shown in what he treasures. The fact that I was in chutz la’aretz becoming wealthy cannot be held against me if all that money is meaningless to me. So here it is. Take it.”

By accepting the money in exchange for the burial spot, Eisov conceded that money was his primary value. Gold and silver were more valuable to him than his relationship with his father.

Yaakov Avinu turned the tables on his wily brother, showing his reverence for his father and disdain for the money, and thus earning his eternal place in the hallowed cave of our forefathers.

The most common in a long list of hateful anti-Semitic epithets hurled our way throughout the ages has been that Jews love money, control the banks, and hoard millions in secret accounts.

This Rashi, which is based on a Medrash, through discussion of a brotherly financial deal, sheds light on reality. The word kessef, say the seforim, has the same root as the word kissufim, yearnings. The longing that man has to amass worldly goods is a parable for the most meaningful kissufim, the pining of a neshomah for the divine. Yaakov told Eisov to take the whole pile of gold and silver he slaved for in Lovon’s house, earning his fortune by working through freezing nights and scorching days. However, he knew that money is of temporary value. It has no permanence, unless it is invested in eternity. To Yaakov, money was a vehicle to enable him to become more attached to the divine. To Eisov, amassing a fortune was the ultimate goal.

Being conscious of the purpose of financial blessings is an extremely difficult nisayon. Not all merit passing that test, for often, in the process of accumulating wealth, man loses sight of its purpose. Many have said that the pitfalls of wealth supersede those of poverty. People become enamored with their wealth, seeing it as an end unto itself, and waste it on pursuing temporary pleasures which are soon forgotten, instead of seeking out long-lasting investments in the matters upon which the earth’s existence depends.

A wealthy man expressed his frustration to the Chofetz Chaim regarding his inability to donate large amounts of money to tzedakah. He said that when he was a poor yeshiva bochur, he pleaded with Hashem to bless him with wealth so that he could generously help people. However, when his prayers were answered and he attained financial success, he found himself unable to dip his hand into his pocket for others.

The Chofetz Chaim responded with a moshol about a man who was walking down a street and saw a drunk rolling in the gutter, covered in filth. The passerby shook his head in disgust and said, “Were I to drink, I would never behave that way.”

The Chofetz Chaim smiled and explained the fallacy of the man’s reasoning.

“While he is sober, he has control over his thought process, but when he is drunk, he no longer has control,” said the Chofetz Chaim. “He is neither responsible nor aware of how he behaves. A person who is sober does not know how he would behave under the influence of alcohol.

“So too, the poor man has no concept of the pull that money has over its owner and the difficulty one who has attained wealth has in parting with it. When you were a destitute bochur, you were able to see things clearly, but now, you are controlled by your money, not by the clear thoughts of your youth.”

In recent years, even as the economy has entered a tailspin from which it never really recovered, we have seen individuals in our community rise to this nisayon. Thanks to the generosity of individuals who follow the lesson of Yaakov Avinu, new mosdos have been built, yeshivos have been opened and expanded, and vital initiatives and programs have been launched to help others.

Ma’asei avos simon labonim. Yaakov Avinu’s offer to Eisov is a simon, a sign, illuminating our path ever since.

Yosef, who battled temptations in the exile, provides inspiration until this very day. Far removed from his father and family, he maintained his integrity and belief despite the many obstacles thrown his way. The Ramban (47:14) writes that the Torah describes how Yosef Hatzaddik saved the Egyptian economy not only to portray his wisdom, but to teach that despite all the money that passed through his hands and the opportunity to siphon some cash for himself, he remained loyal and faithful to his boss.

Through this, Yosef earned the love of the people, because the Ribbono Shel Olam, Who bestows grace upon man, provides chein to those who fear Him. Yosef’s faithfulness allowed him to be both effective and beloved.

We hear an echo of this Ramban about the chein bestowed upon those who work with real yiras Shomayim, seeing money not as an end, but as a goal with which to accomplish great things. Those who are selfless in their dedication to others ultimately earn their respect and love.

Two great leaders of pre-war Yahadus, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Avrohom Mordechai Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, once traveled together by train to the capital city of Warsaw for an important mission.

In those days, the train would wait for some time at each station. Chassidim would pass word to each other along the Rebbe’s path, and they would throng to the local stations. For many, it represented the best chance to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe. As the train approached the first stop, the Rebbe’s gabbai told him that they were almost at the station. The Rebbe rose to oblige the people waiting on the platform. The Rebbe asked the Chofetz Chaim to join him, but the elderly giant said that he was worried that the kavod received from so many people would affect him. He said that he would remain in his seat.

The Rebbe turned to the Chofetz Chaim. “Fahr Yidden’s veggen, to satisfy the sincere, authentic will of Jews to express kavod haTorah, it’s worth enduring the heat of gehennom,” said the Rebbe.

Upon hearing this, the Chofetz Chaim linked arms with the Rebbe, joining him. To benefit Yidden, he was prepared to suffer. Together, they stepped out at that station, and at each subsequent one on the way to their destination.

Two humble giants, sacrificing their own inhibitions for the benefit of others. Such has been Jewish leadership throughout the ages, giants overcoming their own reticence and desire for privacy and personal growth for the needs of the time, never deriving any benefit for themselves.

In the news, we read about how the newly empowered American president is playing class warfare, seeking to divide the people along lines of financial success under the guise of righting the economy. There is no one who thinks that raising taxes in a time of economic uncertainty will encourage people to spend money and fuel growth. Were the government to take all the money of all the rich people, it would not be enough to fund the government for even eight days. But the president and his allies in politics, the media and intelligentsia, press on with the plan because their primary interest does not concern the country’s economic health, but rather their own narrow agenda.

That type of poor leadership cannot lead to long-term success.

After much public consternation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed a commission to investigate what went wrong in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11 of this year. The report was released last week, but Clinton wasn’t even interviewed and has been totally exonerated. This is because no one seems to really care about what happened and what went wrong there, leading to the death of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya. What we have is yet another bureaucratic report and another set of recommendations that will be ignored. The president escapes blame for the lies he told, as does Mrs. Clinton for the failings of her office. Obama is free to ignore Benghazi, while Clinton’s road to the presidency in 2016 remains cleared. Republicans are tongue-tied.

President Barack Obama would like former Senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, though Hagel is a notorious anti-Semite. Politicians, such as New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer, who pride themselves on their fidelity to Israel and Jewish causes were remarkably quiet on the selection, lest they incur the administration’s wrath. Once again, they prove that their prime motivation is personal advancement and enrichment. Examples abound in all areas of public service of people in leadership positions acting irresponsibly. Ultimately, the communal welfare suffers and leaders are thought of derisively.

The cornerstone of this week’s parsha, the close to the drama and the highs and lows of Sefer Bereishis, is the Birchos Yaakov. The father of our nation gathered his children around his bed and addressed each one, imparting brachos that would define the unique role each sheivet would play in our people’s history.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky explains that they are referred to as the “Birchos Yaakov,” even though, upon examination, one can readily see that some of the shevotim didn’t receive brachos, but mussar. This is because the fact that Yaakov realized and appreciated that each of his sons was a distinct personality, with unique character traits and middos, was itself a brochah. A parental perspective that celebrates differences and allows individuals to flourish with their unique gifts will result in brochah for those children.

In Tehillim, Dovid Hamelech asked Hashem to open the gates of righteousness for him: “Zeh hasha’ar laHashem - This is the gate of Hashem.” Commentators question why Dovid uses the singular “zeh,” referring to the gate of Hashem, but then asks, in the plural, that the gates be opened for him: “pis’chu li shaarei tzedek.” One answer given is that the gematriah of “zeh” is 12, a hint to the twelve paths of the shevotim which all lead to one focal point, the sha’ar laHashem. Yaakov Avinu enabled each one of his sons to maximize his gifts and contribute his abilities and strengths to the others. Because each shared selflessly with the others, shevotim were created from twelve individuals and a nation was born.

When we demonstrate through our actions that we understand and appreciate why Hashem has blessed us with financial ability, everyone gains. When we all contribute that with which Hashem has blessed us for the benefit of each other, we gain and the community gains. When we give selflessly, we grow. We cause each other to grow and enable success to take root.

One of the most popular columns in the Yated is the Chinuch Roundtable. It is worth mentioning that this week is the two hundred and fiftieth edition of the column, representing five years of providing counsel, empathy and direction to the parents of a nation who want to be mechaneich their children properly.

The educators who comprise the Roundtable are all busy people with responsibility for mosdos, talmidim, and, in many cases, daunting financial burdens as well, yet they find the time and energy to respond to their searching questioners. They live with a responsibility to help every Yid they possibly can. They don’t just teach and lead. They inspire.

They embody the teaching of the Medrash which says that Hakadosh Boruch Hu didn’t trust our biblical leaders with public responsibility until they displayed dedication to individual sheep, really feeling the thirst and desperation of His creatures. The panelists care for each parent and each talmid.

We are honored to be the vehicle for their ideas, messages and insights. May the zechus horabbim stand by them, their families and their students, bringing them brochah and hatzlachah.

May Hakadosh Boruch Hu shower our people with parnossah b’revach, and may our roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, mechanchim and askonim continue to build, expand and merit the ultimate redemption, which will soon be upon us in the merit of this great mitzvah, veshovehah b’tzedakah.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Big Picture

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


On the Yomim Noraim, as the baal Mussaf solemnly intones the words, “Ve’al hamedinos bo yei’omer,” we contemplate the fate of those countries that are being judged. “Eizo loro’ov ve’eizo lasova.” Each one faces its unique challenges and opportunities. As we hear those words, we imagine hunger being meted out for underdeveloped African nations with no infrastructure, floods and typhoons for distant islands in the path of treacherous weather patterns, pestilence for war-ravaged republics where despots rule, and hurricanes for backward Caribbean fiefdoms.

Very few of us imagined the possibility that the strongest nation that ever existed could be crippled by a calamitous natural disaster, and that just as the rebuilding would begin, the country would again be confronted by a new enemy, which we are seeing with increasing frequency: horrific, inexplicable violence, the product of a monster which seems to reside within the hearts of too many of the country’s young people raised on a diet of moral and spiritual deprivation.

A tragedy beyond comprehension took place in a picture perfect New England town. The carnage occurred in a school, a place that should be off limits to the ills of the world. It affected young children eagerly settling down for a day in a first grade class, enthusiastic minds awaiting a day of knowledge and play with some recess, lunch and snack. The smallest, youngest, most innocent members of society were cut down by a totally senseless act of terror that this country had rarely known before.

The closest parallel to what the good people of Connecticut and the United States experienced would be the acts of terror which take place in Eretz Yisroel, perpetrated by Palestinians on children in a school bus, innocents of all ages on Egged busses, families in their homes such as the Fogels in the pastoral village of Itamar, or people driving on roads. This country, which had largely been spared from such acts of horror, has now once again experienced the dread that such irrational acts cause.

And now, many worry about what will be with this country, the golus home of so many Jews. As the blood of young, tiny innocents, victims of a vicious, senseless rampage, runs freely through tree-lined, idyllic streets, painting landscaped lawns crimson, we all need to look in the mirror to ask ourselves if we aren’t affected by increased evil evidencing itself around us. We have to question whether our teivos are as safe as we thought they were or if they are springing leaks as well.

Obviously, the perpetrator was mentally unstable and, obviously, his act does not represent anyone or anything, but there is a message in it nonetheless. We know and believe that there are Divine messages for us in all that transpires in this world.

Chanukah’s brilliant lights, which brought joy and hope into our homes, providing us with energy to face our daily struggles, are now extinguished, giving way to the leilei Teves ha’aruchim, the longest nights of winter. As the glow of the menorah fades, we struggle to recapture the illumination, and so, as Yidden always have, we tread a path through the cold and dark to our Gemaros and to the bais medrash, the only real escapes from the lurking outside elements.

Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach zt”l would often recount that in pre-war Vilna, every seat in the shul was taken on the winter Friday nights. No ehrliche Yid was willing to forfeit the opportunity to engage in many hours of uninterrupted Torah amidst the blanket of peace provided by Shabbos.

Rav Shach would often paint a picture of that scene in shmuessen delivered at the Ponovezher Yeshiva. He would add emphasis by retelling what befell Rav Dovid Karliner one Friday evening as he sat learning in his shul.

“Rav Dovid Karliner would sit late into the night on leil Shabbos engrossed in his learning. One Friday night, he sat immersed in the sweet world of the Rashba, lost in the intricacies of the sugya, with a flickering candle illuminating the page before him.”

“As he sat there,” Rav Shach related, “he encountered a question put forth by the Rashba that challenged his entire understanding of the sugya. Of course, Rav Dovid Karliner didn’t just look at the Rashba’s answer. He first considered the question from every angle, slowly analyzing each idea. He pondered possible answers, probing each solution carefully, one by one. When he had thoroughly examined the entire topic and fit the question into the bigger picture, he allowed himself to look at the Rashba’s teirutz. With the entire sugya clear as day in his mind, he looked back down at the page. And then, suddenly, the candle burnt out.

“As Rav Dovid’l sat there in shock, an anguished cry left his mouth. ‘Gehennom iz noch erger!’ The pain of gehennom is worse than this.’”

To Rav Dovid Karliner, one of the greatest Torah giants of his time, the only way to assuage the pain of not being able to read the p’shat he had arrived at after so much hureving and toil on a cold, dark, Friday evening was by remembering that the pain of gehennom was yet worse. Torah wasn’t just something that he did. Learning wasn’t just studying. It was life itself. His life was Torah. His life was the Rashba. The frustration and regret he felt upon losing his connection to the Rashba and to Torah on a Friday night was comparable to the torture of gehennom.

Do any of us feel that way?

The story embodies the powerful bond that the Yidden a few generations back had with the seforim before them, the way they lived and breathed the questions of the Rishonim, and how a peaceful resolution to a Rashba meant a peaceful resolution to their day.

As you read the story, you can picture the bais medrash Yid hunched over his yellowed sefer. You can close your eyes and visualize the poetry of a timeless Jew by the shtender, a candle illuminating the tome in front of him. You can visualize the shuckeling figure, humming a tune without words, turning one page and then another.

This picture of the eternal Yid hunched over his seforim, Gemaros and Rashbas is the image of chodesh Teves, the month in which we currently find ourselves.

Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l, the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, explained that the final day of Chanukah is referred to as Zos Chanukah. He would say that this is because the final day of Chanukah, when there is no menorah to be lit, is the only day of Chanukah when the regular seder of learning is not interrupted. The name Zos Chanukah indicates that this day beholds within it the message of Chanukah: uninterrupted Torah study in a world of darkness and superficiality.

Here we are, with Zos Chanukah, the final day in a chain stretching back to Elul and the Yomim Noraim, behind us. Now we need it to help us light up our path towards realizing our dreams and becoming the person we want to be.

Rav Kasriel Kaplan was a talmid chochom in Radin. Following the travails of the Second World War, he made his way to Yerushalayim, where he lived the rest of his life. He would often regale the bnei yeshiva of the Chevroner Yeshiva with stories about the Chofetz Chaim, his revered neighbor back home.

Rav Kasriel related that one year, his wife planted a few flowers in an attempt to dress up the dirt path in front of their humble dwelling, adding color to the landscape. The Chofetz Chaim noticed the added décor and asked Mrs. Kaplan if she could perhaps do without the flowers. He explained that while he had nothing against the beautiful plants, and he in fact appreciated them, he anticipated that his own rebbetzin would likely be equally impressed and would plant flowers along the dirt path to their home.

The Chofetz Chaim told his neighbor that he worried that the enhanced appearance of his front yard would cause visitors to be more careful when walking along the path. He feared that the bnei yeshiva, the talmidim of Radin, would be vigilant when coming to the home of their rosh yeshiva, the Chofetz Chaim, and perhaps one or two might feel afraid to approach the house, hesitant to visit lest they damage the flowers.

The Chofetz Chaim told Rav Kaplan that the home of the rosh yeshiva must be part of the yeshiva, accessible and welcoming to each and every talmid, “and we must never discourage a ben Torah from coming to his rebbi’s home.”

Our path to the places where our shiurim are held, to the local botei medrash, and to the homes of our rabbeim must not be unfamiliar to us. They should be well tread upon, utterly familiar to us and comfortable to walk on, because they embody who we are and what we are all about.

In addition to being a haven from the depravity of the surrounding world, learning Torah provides us with the perspective to see past the here and now, enabling us to view events that transpire in the world and in our daily life with the clarity and depth of the Torah.

One of the many lessons that emerge from analyzing the maasei avos in the parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis we currently read every Shabbos is that our forefathers viewed their experiences not as isolated incidents - negative or positive - but as part of something much bigger. Avrohom Avinu was on his way to the Akeidah when he saw Har Hamoriah looming in front of him (Bereishis 22:4.) He visualized the future, the nitzchiyus, the smoke of the korbanos being olah lereiach nichoach, and all the glory that would yet come forth from that exalted spot.

He turned to his companions and inquired if they saw this as well. When they told him that they didn’t see anything up ahead, he told them, “Shevu lochem po im hachamor - Stay behind with the chamor, while I go up with Yitzchok on the mountain you don’t see or appreciate.Chazal explain that Avrohom was comparing his co-travelers to an “am hadomeh lachamor,” a donkey. Those who failed to see the mountain are similar to the animal that symbolizes base instinct, with neither depth nor vision. They are people who cannot see past the chomer, the material. Their only concern is for their next meal.

Avrohom Avinu saw things differently.

In the very dramatic reunion between a father broken by longing for his son and the son torn from his father’s side while still a teenager, we read in this week’s parsha (46:29) not of the father’s jubilation or tears upon their reunion. Rashi (ibid.) tells us that Yaakov Avinu’s reaction upon encountering his son, Yosef, was to recite Krias Shema.

Yaakov Avinu had feared that he would never again see his beloved son. He was undoubtedly full of joy to see and hold him once again. But when he saw Yosef together with his brothers, Yaakov was witnessing a much larger picture than a reunion of individuals. He saw the chibbur, the connection and achdus, between the shivtei Kah and the Divine Oneness it reflected. He was overwhelmed by the achdus of Hashem, and the words of Krias Shema, ending with Echod, sprang forth from his lips.

When Yosef and Binyomin meet in this week’s parsha (45:14), they fall on each other’s shoulders and cry. Chazal teach that they were not crying over the pain of separation and the joy of reunion. They weren’t mourning their mother, whose tears would define a nation. They were crying over the churban of Mishkan Shiloh in the cheilek of Yosef. They were weeping over the two Botei Mikdosh that would be destroyed. They thought of the eternal home of Hashem, which would be built in the portion of Binyomin, and lamented its subsequent destruction.

They cried over events from a time well ahead of where they stood, but which were clearly visible to both tzaddikim, who, like their zaide, Avrohom Avinu, saw the bigger picture.

Only by seizing the perspective of our avos can we rise above the seemingly endless stream of negativity, pessimism, grim prognoses and dire warnings. Eretz Yisroel is in danger, right here we are surrounded by devastation, our mosdos are struggling, and there are too many crises in our camp. Shootings and murder are quickly becoming commonplace, and there is decreased respect for human life accompanied by an epidemic of lawlessness.

People fear the fiscal cliff and, moreover, what is behind it. They worry that America may be changing for the worse. The proposed new defense secretary is someone with a history of antagonism toward Israel. With increased regularity, religious Jews are appearing in the media, accused of reprehensible behavior. They are negatively portrayed as representing all of us. People who should know better say the silliest things, either unconcerned or not knowing how they will be depicted in the media. We see bris milah under attack and fear what will be

We need to horeveh in learning until our vision shifts and until we learn to look with depth to see not just what is happening on a superficial level, but with a higher gaze, one focused on nitzchiyus.

Rabi Akiva was able to smile when he saw impure foxes making their way out of the holiest spot in the world, for he understood that, in the bigger picture, this was a positive development, a step closer to a world of tikkun.

Rav Shlomo Heiman zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, would deliver his shiur with tremendous passion, exerting himself to explain and analyze each fine point. He would tremble and sweat, at times even fainting from the effect. One day, there was a severe snowstorm and only four talmidim were able to make it to yeshiva to hear the shiur. To their amazement, Rav Shlomo delivered the shiur with his characteristic fire and energy.

After shiur, upon witnessing the toll that the exertion his rebbi expended for such a small audience had taken, one of the talmidim asked Rav Shlomo why he knocked himself out for only four boys. Rav Shlomo responded, “Do you think that I am delivering a shiur to four bochurim? My words are being passed through four talmidim, but they are being given to hundreds of talmidim. The talmidim that you four will yet have and their talmidim as well!”

This story is often repeated to illustrate the lengths to which a rebbi must go for each individual talmid, but in it we hear something else as well. We understand what it means to see a bigger picture, to see a reality unrelated to the “facts on the ground.”

Chanukah was an opportunity to refine our vision. We were to use the days of hallel vehoda’ah to view the people around us as the blessings they are and our families as gifts to be cherished. Do we view our jobs with gratitude, thanking the Ribbono Shel Olam for allowing us a means to serve him through feeding our families? Do we appreciate our shuls and the mosdos that serve our children? Do we take the time to contemplate the myriad chasdei Hashem that surround us all day, every day?

May the precious days of Chanukah serve as a reminder of our good fortune, inspiring us to take advantage of the many talented, dedicated maggidei shiur and kollelim eager to help us establish a permanent foothold in the bais medrash, regardless of schedule or personal situation.

It should not take national tragedies and manifestations of venomous behavior for us to appreciate our good fortune and cherish our family and friends. We have to learn how to better feel people’s pain and how to appreciate what we have while we have it. We must be thankful for what we are blessed with, not complaining about the minor bumps of life but taking advantage of what Hashem has granted us.

We have to remain focused on what is real and permanent. We have to stop acting selfishly and foolishly. We must recognize that our words and actions are on public display. There are no longer any secrets. Our inner dirty laundry is hanging publicly for all to examine and mock. We do not have the luxury of thinking that no one is watching or noticing our malfeasance. Sensitivity and intelligence would be prudent in times like these.

Our task in this world is to mekadeish sheim Shomayim and to make the world a better and safer place for children and everyone else. When we engage in any activity, or speech, we must ensure that it accomplishes one or both of those goals, if it doesn’t we should not be engaging in that action.

May Hashem open our eyes. May we see His revealed kindness and how the events unfolding around us are the final chapters in the story of the Jewish people, the last steps in our journey back to home.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lonely Success

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


I was in a mall on Motzoei Shabbos, when an Israeli man who operates a stand there came over to me. He was very sad.

“I need your help,” he said to me.

I was sure he was going to unload upon me a hard luck story and hit me up for a loan. But I was wrong.

“Every year, there is a man dressed like you who comes to the mall and brings a menorah for all us Israelis working here. He didn’t come tonight. Maybe you know who he is and can call him and tell him we are waiting for him here.”

I looked at this man who had been working a whole Shabbos and was amazed by the power of the netzach Yisroel that burns inside of each Jewish heart. I spoke to him a bit and cheered him up, and with that he was back at work selling his holiday ornaments.

Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah?” asks the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos. What is it that we are commemorating now for eight days? What are we celebrating? What are the lessons inherent in this holiday for all of us to learn?

The Gemara’s answer is one with which we are are all familiar. The Gemara relates that during the period when the Yevonim ruled over Eretz Yisroel, they entered the Bais Hamikdosh and defiled all the flasks of olive oil used to light the menorah.

When the Maccabim were victorious and beat the forces of the Yevonim, they searched and were able to find only one flask with the kohein gadol’s seal on it. The flask contained just enough oil for the menorah’s lights to burn for one day, yet they miraculously continued burning for eight days. The next year, the chachomim established these days as holy days of Hallel and thanksgiving.

That is the extent of the Gemara’s explanation of the miracle of Chanukah. The obvious question is why the Gemara does not elaborate upon the extent of the Yevonim’s domination of the Jews in Eretz Yisroel and the Maccabim’s miraculous military victory over Yovon. These episodes, which took place during the period of the second Bais Hamikdosh, do not appear in Nach, as does the miracle of Purim.

We all know that the Yevonim sought to separate the Jews in Eretz Yisroel from their observance of Torah. They targeted their spiritual lives and sought to convert them to lives of secular accomplishment and hedonistic luxury which they introduced to the world. They were not anti-Semitic per se and were content to let the Jews live in peace. Their beef wasn’t with the Jews as people. It was with their fidelity to the Torah and its teachings.

To accomplish their goal, they enacted edicts against Shabbos, bris milah and Rosh Chodesh, and succeeded in spreading their Hellenistic way of life throughout Eretz Yisroel. While many resisted the attempted indoctrination and forfeiture of tradition, many more - those referred to as Misyavnim - became Hellenized. They joined the campaign against their brethren who remained loyal to Torah, actively seeking to bring them over to an enlightened lifestyle.

No doubt they used Hellenist literature to bolster their arguments. Marshaling their modern-day intellectual proofs, the enlightened ones sought to undermine the old-fashioned beliefs and practices of the backward Jews who clung to their traditional ways. They tormented the faithful with theories intended to dislodge them from their firm grasp of the Tree of Life.

“We are not out to destroy you or force you to engage in harmful conduct. On the contrary, we’re interested only in improving your lives,” the Misyavnim taunted them.

“Don’t you understand that if you would abandon bris milah as it was practiced for thousands of years, your children would be healthier?” the campaign went.

After all, who should know better than the educated, advanced Greeks who brought civilization to the European world? No doubt they began their campaign with a broadside against metzitzah. They said it wasn’t necessary and even brought testimony from certain Misyavnim to prove their contention. They even claimed that it was only because they cared about the Jews and their children that they sought to ban the practice. 

Matisyahu Kohein Gadol decided that it had gone far enough and that he would do all in his power to halt Jewish subjugation to the Greek gods and philosophies. Just as his forefather, Levi, displayed tremendous courage when he went to war to protect the honor of his sister, Dinah, Matisyahu took on a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

He took a lesson from his great-uncle, Moshe Rabbeinu, who sought volunteers to put down the Eigel rebellion, calling out, “Mi laHashem eilay?” Sheivet Levi then gathered around him.

Matisyahu also took inspiration from his grandfather, Pinchos, who put his own life in jeopardy to end a catastrophic plague on the Jewish people centuries earlier.

Armed with the Levite mission to be shomrei mishmeres hakodesh and the knowledge that Hashem sides with those who fight battles lemaan Hashem without any personal agendas, Matisyahu rallied his brothers to his cause. The small band of faithful Jews took on the forces of the Hellenist enlightenment.

As the Jews saw that Hashem was with Matisyahu and his fellow Maccabim, they began deserting the Yevonim. As the victories of the traditionalist forces mounted, Misyavnim started jumping sides. Eventually, almost all the Jews were brought back to Rabbinic Torah Judaism. It was then that the miracle of Chanukah occurred, with the finding of the flask of pure oil.

Yovon is referred to in the Medrash as a force of darkness. The Medrash states that the posuk of “Choshech al p’nei sehom” refers to Yovon. It alludes to Greek mythology, philosophy, art, gymnastics, Olympics - everything perceived by the world as representing advancements in mankind’s so-called evolution from pre-historic times.

All this is regarded by Chazal as the very antithesis of civilization. Since this culture deifies human intellect and prowess, it represents darkness and agents of the dark side of humanity.

Klal Yisroel didn’t feel itself strong enough to throw off the yoke of Greek tyranny until Matisyahu showed that it could be done. Forces of evil are permitted to remain in power, because the people they dominate do not appreciate their own power and do not join together to bring them down. Evil is toppled when one good man decides that he can bear it no longer and begins to rally people around him.

The miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate is primarily that of the tiny flask that burned longer than was thought to be possible. The menorah’s lights signify that the power of one small crucible of light-giving oil overcame the power of darkness. The oil lasting longer than one day signifies that if you expend the effort and work b’mesirus nefesh, physical rules will not apply.

The miraculous military victory over Yovon is a dramatic example of how the laws of nature are suspended when singular dedicated souls join together and enable light to triumph over darkness. That reversal of the natural order in their day was made possible by the great acts of courage and heroism carried out by one courageous individual, Matisyahu, and his tiny group of followers.

That victory was thus part and parcel of the same dynamic that brought about the miracle of the pach shemen. That is perhaps the reason it is not singled out in the Gemara’s discussion of what comprised the miracle of Chanukah.

A flask of oil, which according to its physical and chemical attributes can only burn for one day, can last for as long as is necessary, just as the forces of good, though outmatched by evil in terms of numbers and strength, can thoroughly eviscerate the forces of darkness.

At times, when attempting to solve problems, we are told that we cannot do this or that, or that what we are proposing cannot work. Yet, so often we see that people who work with selfless dedication are not limited by logic or the laws of nature. They tread where no one has dared step before and they succeed where lesser people vow that success is absolutely impossible.

Seeing such people in action is contagious and serves to inspire others to scale seemingly unattainable heights.

That is why the neis of Chanukah is celebrated by kindling lights in our doorways and on our windowsills facing the street. This is why the mitzvah is to light the menorah as soon as sundown begins and darkness starts spreading across the city.

That is why the shiur that Chazal give for the duration of the lights is “ad shetichleh regel min hashuk,” that the lights of the Chanukah menorah must remain lit as long as there are people out on the street.

As long as people are out in the public thoroughfare, we need to remind them of the miracle. We need to prominently remind them not to yield to the temptations of darkness.

“Don’t surrender to defeatism,” we call out to them. “Don’t regard what you do as being of minor consequence. Remember that Matisyahu started out as one lonely man of faith with all the forces of the world stacked against him. Because he did not let defeatism overtake him, the Yevonim and Misyavnim were conquered and the forces of good prevailed.”

We gather our family around us and light the menorah to proclaim to the world that Hashem felled the mighty, the many and the evil. They were demolished by the weak and the few, the just and the holy.

Hashem had rachmonus on us and fought our battles, causing the zeidim to fall into the hands of the oskei Torah. We sing songs of thanksgiving and Hallel, and we remind ourselves that in our day as well, the Yevonim, in other guises, continually attempt to ensnare us.

We have to be ever vigilant, for if we falter, the forces of Hellenism are waiting to ambush us. They pounce upon us with cleverly worded propaganda to curtail our hallowed religious practices.

We live in an age when talk is cheap and positive actions are few and far between. People speak strongly, often with little thought or intelligence, but are very slow to act. Leadership positions are occupied by people who don’t possess the ability to rally people to join them effectively for good causes.

Yevonim hide behind the power of the ballot box, the pen, the web, blogs and populist demagoguery to attack us. Misyavnim offer wild accusations to back up their unfounded charges. They spare no effort to vilify and castigate us. The more growth our community experiences, the more scorn the Misyavnim heap upon us.

The menorah and the Yom Tov of Chanukah remind us that we should not hesitate to defend Torah and mitzvos. The lights of the menorah proclaim to us to seek out the people who carry the flag of Torah and the Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadols of our day and rally around them.

We should resolve to use our abilities to spread goodness and kindness in this world. We should seek to inject greater purpose in our lives. Instead of just sitting back and criticizing others, we should seek to join together and mightily wave the flag of Torah, truth and justice. We should be prepared to forsake some of our physical comforts and put ourselves on the line for the values we believe in and that matter.

When the call of “Mi laHashem eilay” goes out, we must all answer. We must always be prepared to answer, “Hineini.”

One of the lessons we learn from the miracle of the pach shemen is that although we may view ourselves as being but a small, tiny vessel, if we commit ourselves to the service of Hashem with the self-sacrifice of Matisyahu, the light of our lives can be enduring and everlasting.

There are many people like the Israeli in the mall who are in desperate need of some support. There any many people who have yielded to the temptations the Yevonim throw at us and are unable to overcome the urge to do what they think they must to get ahead.

The man who brings the stand-keeper his menorah every year may not realize that he is this individual’s only kesher with Yiddishkeit. He may become dejected in his work. He may think, “Why am I wasting my time bringing a little candle to this mechallel Shabbos to light? It anyway has no affect on him.” Little does he know that the man’s neshomah is crying out for sustenance and he is satisfying that craving. And one day, my friend, Rav Zev Dunner, may open a branch of his Masoret Yehudi schools for Israeli yordim in New Jersey and this man will send his child to that institution and he will return to the fold.

There are many heroic stories of people who stand up against the tide of Yovon in our time. Many of them are lonely and desperate for help.

One of them called me as I was contemplating what to write about this week. The son of the Kamenitzer mashgiach, he is a rov in Yerushalayim, a boki bechol haTorah kulah, nigleh and nistar, and the mechaber of eighty-six seforim.

Rav Michel Stern could sit and learn and pasken shailos in comfort in Ezras Torah in Yerushalayim. But somehow he became involved with a city outside of Chaifa. He began traveling there some ten years ago and, thanks to his efforts, there is a community of some three hundred people who are shomrei Torah umitzvos. He leaves Yerushalayim Motzoei Shabbos and doesn’t get back home until Thursday night.

Rav Stern opened a kindergarten and elementary school and even a kollel. He says that there is no limit to what he can accomplish in the city of Tirat Hakarmel, if only he had funding.

He would happily go on being a nistor, hidden from view, without any public knowledge or accolades, but he no longer has a choice. In fact, he discussed his predicament with Rav Chaim Kanievsky, asking him for advice on what he can do to keep his project going. Rav Chaim told him that, sometimes, in order to accomplish a goal, it is necessary to go public and broadcast one’s activities.

There are others like him who look at the lesson of the pach shemen tahor and stand mightily against the forces of spiritual darkness and deprivation. Some of them we read about in this newspaper. These include those who placed their own needs aside and worked mightily so that Sandy’s victims can put their lives back together. Then there are those we don’t usually read about, including the ones in the trenches fighting to save children from the streets and getting them enrolled in schools, and those who engage in desperate battles against abuse and depression which plague so many people who are desperate for a drop of light and love. These people labor mightily against the forces of darkness, spreading Torah and kedushah in ways large and small, impacting Jews one by one and by the dozens.

When you light your menorah, think of them and thank them, promising to support them so that these lonely individuals can light up our world with the remnants of the pach shemen tohar and make it a much better place for all of us.

Ah lichtigen Chanukah.