Chanukah 5777 Part VII: Shabbos Chanukah and The Kohanim Gedolim

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On Shabbos Chanukah, or the first Shabbos when Chanukah is spread over two, the haftorah is taken from the book of Zechariah. Among the interesting things going on in these chapters is a vision which shows the Yehoshua, the next Kohel Gadol in filthy, soiled clothing. These garments are to be removed from him before he is to ascend to become the High Priest. While it is understandable why he would need to disrobe from these dirty clothes before taking on such a role, Chazal have interpreted this as Yehoshua being commanded to inform his children that they should divorce their gentile spouses. This interpretation is indeed puzzling. Typically in Judaism, the actions of one’s children cannot disqualify them from serving Hashem. Therefore, the question arises as to why this command is given to Yehoshua’s children.

Rav Moshe Soloveitchik explained in the name of his father, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, that by marrying gentiles, Yehoshua’s children had denied the very fundamentals of the Jewish faith, something that cannot receive atonement. During the Temple service of Yom Kippur,  the Kohen Gadol seeks to have his entire family be forgiven for their various transgressions, yet this is only on the condition that actually are engaged in teshuvah. If Yehoshua’s children were still married to their non-Jewish spouses, he could not achieve atonement on their behalf. Only after these unions were annulled could Yehoshua even perform the Avodah, the most sacred of work.

The Rav records an interesting note, an additional miracle of Chanukah, one that is often overlooked. In the introduction to his laws of Chanukah, Rambam writes of Mattisyahu’s sons that they were “Bnei Chashmonei HaKohanim HaGedolim” or High Priests. At one time, there can only be one Kohen Gadol. Why does Rambam write that all the sons were Kohanim Gedolim? Rav Soloveitchik writes that Rambam is alluding to the fact that each of the sons were eligible to become the Kohen Gadol. Much like the miracle of finding a single cruse of pure olive oil, finding a family that was not touched by the rampant assimilation that permeated Jewish life at that time, was itself also a neis.

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Chanukah 5777 Part VI: Not Just a Toy

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The dreidel is a fundamental part of the holiday of Chanukah. We are taught from a young age that this toy was kept at the sides of the Jews as they clandestinely learned Torah, which had been outlawed by the Greeks. When the Greeks came by, the Jewish people would take out their dreidels and play, fooling the Greeks all the while. Outside of Israel, our dreidels are stamped with the letters “nun”, “gimmel”, “hey”, and “shin”, and we commonly explain that this spells out “Neis Gadol Haya Sham, The Great Miracle Occured There.” The Bnei Yissaschar comments that the letters are referring to something greater than this adage, that they refer to the four primary parts of an individual. “Nun” stands for neshama, the soul. “Gimmel” for the guf, the body. “Hey” stands for “Hakol, the Divine ruach that permeates our being. Finally, “Shin” refers to seichel, the intellect. Each Jew is given these four things that uniquely make them who they are. (As an aside, Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum [rabbi and author based in Cleveland] writes in his book “But I Thought…” about misconceptions in Halacha, that given this explanation of the Bnei Yissaschar, it could be that the dreidels in Israel should be the same as the ones in the diaspora. He lists other reasons as well in his book.) I like to think that the reason for this explanation can be extended to the fact that the dreidel was not merely a plaything in these times. It literally saved lives. The study of Torah had been outlawed by the Yevanim. Had the Jews been caught in the midst of their limud, it would’ve been calamitous.

Chanukah 5777 Part V: Days of Joy

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Chanukah is listed as period where we thank God for the glorious salvation that was afforded to the Jewish people at the time of the Chashmonaim. There is an added element of simcha during this time as well. It’s widely known that this is a time, like other times of great Divine miracles from our history, we refrain from delivering eulogies. Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, mentions that that it’s not only limited to that. He quotes Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, who maintains that this is a time where we aren’t even supposed to share bad tidings. This sense of tranquility is sometimes hard to do on Shabbos, our respite from a busy week, where we seek to create a serene environment without sadness for 25 hours.  On Chanukah, where we’re engaged in melacha all the while (excluding Shabbat and while the lights are kindled) this is a much more difficult task. I’d like to extend this further posit that we should also exclude any machlokes from these eight holy days. The Shelah HaKadosh comments in Shemos on the words “lo sevaaru eish bechol moshvoseichem byom hashabbos” that we are to not light any fire on Shabbos, that this aish, or fire, refers to the aish of machlokes and kaas, the fire of dispute and anger. He says that these embers of should be far from our hearts, and they are things that should not be part of our weekday routine. The holiness of Shabbat is cannot be compromised because of these sparks of dispute and anger. Just as we careful about doing work while the candle flames are lit, we should also keep in mind to stray far from the flames of sadness and disagreement.

Chanukah 5777 Part IV – If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It

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In Maoz Tzur, we sing a line that starts “Yevanim Nikbetzu Alai”, The Greeks gathered around me. Rabbi Avraham Schorr (Halekach VeHalibuv Chanukah Vol. 3) writes that there are a multitude of points to gain from this verse as it pertains to the very mitzvah of Chanukah.

Yevanim Nikbetzu Alai is a statement of Achdus, of coming together, as it’s written about Yaakov (hikabtzu veshamu bnei yaakov). Rav Schorr writes that Achdus, this kibbutz so to speak, is a special entity that only Klal Yisrael is privy to and not found in regard to the other nations of the world, making the statement of the Greeks banding together as one seemingly confusing. We know that Bnai Yisrael are “Goy Echad Baaretz”, we’re considered as one people, while the rest of the world is spread apart. When the Torah records in reference to Esav of the “nefashos” of his offspring (Breishis 36:6), whereas Yaakov’s children are mentioned in the singular “nefesh” across Chapter 46. Rashi here mentions that Esav had six souls in his family, and they are mentioned in plural form because they worshipped many gods. Yaakov, on the other hand, had 70 souls in his family, yet they were called by a single soul because of their devotion to the Almighty.

Now that we see this concept of connecting as one as relating to Yaakov, how is it possible that the Greeks could’ve stolen away this entity of kibbutz solely destined to the Jewish people? Rav Schorr writes that if we as a nation are divided and apart, this idea of togetherness can be taken captive by the umos haolam, and used against us. He supports this postulation with an idea from the Chiddushei HaRim, who quotes the Sfas Emes. When a new king arose over Egypt and did not know Yosef (Shemos 1:8), it’s commonly explained as this new ruler was either an entirely new king or the very same king as before who, Nischadshu Gezeirosav, just happened to have enacted new decrees. Sfas Emes is puzzled by the ability by the king to enact new gezeiros, as this idea of Nischadshu, was also a trait unique to Bnai Yisrael. Yet, if this trait is squandered or underutilized, it can be taken away by those who seek to destroy us.

If we don’t use our collective prowess for achdus, it can be stolen and used to defeat us.

Rav Schorr continues that this can answer the question of the Pnei Yehoshua as to why the Chashmonaim were so vigilant in their pursuit of Shemen Tahor, pure oil. There exists in Jewish law a halachic position of “tumah hutrah betzibur”, that the ritual impurity of an item is nullified and outweighed by the general communal need for that object. There was a great need to light the Menorah, and there were plenty of other containers of oil that had been defiled. Why couldn’t this idea be put in place here, and the Chashmonaim have used this impure oil for the communal need? Rav Schorr answers sharply and poignantly. If Klal Yisrael was able to shirk their communal achdus, their din of “nikbetzu”, tumah hutrah betzibur would not apply in this instance: there’s no tzibbur, no broader community. If the Jewish people fell so low in our unity that we were able to be attacked by another group gathering together against us, there is indeed no kehillah to speak of.

Rav Schorr writes later in this volume that the words “agudah achas”, like we say in our Yamim Noraim davening, parallels numerically in Gematria to “Mashiach ben David.” This point of “Nikbetzu”, of remaining connected and unified as a people, is not merely a nice idea that has roots in the Torah with Yaakov Avinu: it’s the very key to our ability to bring about the ultimate redemption.

Chanukah 5777 Part III – Igniting the Flames, Illuminating Our Souls.

I’d venture to say that when most Jews think of Chanukah, their eyes light up. After all, is one of the most jubilant times on the Jewish calendar, complete with eight nights of presents and a tremendous amount of culinary delicacies. However, while we revel in the festival of lights, it’s important to remind ourselves that this is time during the year that could’ve ended much differently.
Let’s travel back to the time of the Chashmonaim and try to make sense of what was going on. Klal Yisrael were being attacked by the Greeks, who cared significantly more about eviscerating their connection with the Almighty than they did about killing them. We recite in Al HaNissim “LeHashkicham Torasecha, Lehaaviram mechukei retzonecha” that Yavan tried to uproot the ways of torah and mitzvot that permeated Jewish life. The Temple, the glorious edifice where our nation came and served God, had been defiled. Only through the ferocious fight of a small band of Jews did the battle ultimately cease, and against all odds, they won. This military battle ushered in a great era of reaffirming Klal Yisrael’s connection to Hashem, yet it all could’ve never even happened had the Chashmonaim not been staunch in their effort to reestablish the Temple for ritual use. 
When tragedy befalls the collective nation, even when good is brought about because of it, there are those who seek to find the harbinger for this event. This is not a contemporary phenomenon, yet an idea that is present at Chanukah time as well. The Bach (Orach Chaim 670:4) comments that the reason that the Greeks were successful militarily in their conquest of Bnai Yisrael was because the latter had become lax in their spiritual observance of Hashem’s commandments. The real miracle, maintains the Bach, is not that there was one pure jug of olive oil to be found in the carnage that was left in the Beis Hamikdash, nor was it the fact that this oil kept the Menorah lit for eight days. The true miracle was that the Jewish people did teshuvah and began observing mitzvot again with great fervor.
The comments of the Bach rattle me greatly. There aren’t the musings of a modern-day rabbi who people consider to be an outlier. He’s an individual whose commentary on the Tur is printed right next to the text! The fact that the Jews endured such decrees and damage from Antiochus was because of their laxity in regard to ruchnius is so frustrating to me. There are so many ways that a Jew can have a strong connection to Hashem. 
The Jewish people have 613 mitzvot, yet we know that in reality, there are offshoots of those original commandments and we have even more mitzvot than that. Why so many? What’s the point of having so many mitzvot? If we’re to keep them all, wouldn’t it be better for us if we only had a few mitzvot to adhere to? The Rambam, in his Peirush HaMishnayos at the end of Maseches Makkos, brings up a very poignant idea. If there were only a small handful of mitzvot that were given to the Jewish people, there would be a tremendous amount of pressure to strictly keep them all (think Adam and Chava in Gan Eden in regard to the Etz HaDaas). If we were to transgress one of those commandments, we’d be frustrated and dejected while at the same time, not following the word of God. By having so many mitzvot, even the most nefarious of characters is bound to do a keep some of them. At the same time, we can’t stress about not being able to do all of the mitzvot as no individual is able to complete all of them! There are mitzvot specifically designed for men, women, Kohanim, Leviim, bechorim, those living in the land of Israel, and others. Not even the most pious of figures can do every one of them. There is something here for everyone, an area of mitzvot where everyone can excel. 
Rabbi Avraham Ausband, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of the Telshe Alumni in Riverdale writes that when Klal Yisrael returns to a time of the year when the Jews of old merited a significant spiritual energy, we too are able to capture that power for ourselves today. The Jews at that time could’ve seen their brethren be victorious in a war they weren’t supposed to win as mere luck. They could’ve been downtrodden about their lot of being persecuted. They could’ve ran away completely from any semblance of shmiras hamitzvos. Yet, they did just the opposite, and ran toward the chance to reaffirm their kesher with the Ribono Shel Olam. Just as the Jews rededicated themselves to mitzvah observance, may we be zoche to do the same, and use this time of tremendous historical nissim to bring about salvation in lives as well. 

Chanukah 5777 Part II- Identical, Unique, and Completely Different

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Over the past couple of weeks, my 5th grade students have been putting on skits to reenact what we’ve been learning in Chumash class. At one point in preparing for their performances, one student was puzzled. “We’re all working the same storyline. It’s not fair! All the skits are going to be the same!” Before I could respond to my perplexed pupil, another one of my students chimed in and without missing a beat responded “Just because it’s the same story in the same perek doesn’t mean it will be the same skit. Each group will add different things and act out scenes in ways that other groups won’t.” Reflecting on this very mature answer, it occurred to me that this was a poignant reflection in regard to Chanukah.

Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, our Torah reading is taken the passages of Bamidbar that relate to the korbanos that were given by the Nesiim on the inaugural day of the Mishkan. The first offering was given by the Nasi of the tribe of Yehuda and this continued with the different shvatim for eleven more days when the final offering was brought by the Nasi of Shevet Naftali. The aliyot are repeated virtually verbatim, except for exchanging each tribe and Nasi and sometimes other small differences. Anyone who has been at Shacharit on any of the mornings of Chanukah can basically lain the entire torah reading. At times, the communal cacophony following along becomes almost as notorious as the Rosh Chodesh reading or the Pesach “Ka’Eileh.” The commentators are curious: if the korbanot that each tribe brought were identical, why does the Torah list each tribe’s offering in detail. Our sages tell us profusely that the words of the Torah are meted out very carefully, and there is no extra letter, word, or phrase. Couldn’t the fact that each Nasi brought the same korban have been mentioned in a single pasuk?

Ramban answers that to the casual reader, each offering seems identical, yet the kavanah, the specific intention devoted to korban was anything but that. Each tribe was different, and their offerings took on different nuances. The tribe of Yehuda was the tribe of Malchut, of majesty. The kavanah of the korban that Nachshon ben Aminadav gave was in the spirit of nobility and royalty. This is the same in regard to Yissachar being the shevet of Torah, and the korban of this tribe included the kavanah of Torah elements.

Twelve tribes. Twelves identical korbanot. Twelve entirely different kavanot.

This is an idea that we can relate to our Avodat Hashem as well. At times, it’s not unusual to feel that our formal prayer structure is very limiting. We say the same tefillot every day, three times a day. Granted, there are different additions and omissions for various holidays and occasions, but for the most part, our davening structure can be seen by some as being a little rigid. Yet, each person approached tefillah differently. While I daven, I may be saying the same words in the siddur as my neighbor, but there presumably different thoughts going through our minds. As we traverse through the Amidah or any other part of the siddur, we have different kavanot in different places. With this idea in mind, every one of us can capture the grandeur of the korbanot of the Nesiim, and find ways to imbue tremendous additional meaning to our own individual tefillah.

Chanukah 5777 – Divine Nature

FullSizeRender.jpgThe miracles of Chanukah transcend the laws of nature, derech hateva. Rabbi Gavriel Zinner, author of the encyclopedic series Nitei Gavriel and rabbi of a congregation with that same name, explains that Chanukah is the time on our calendar that teaches us that nature has no power without Hashem. He quotes the Chiddushei HaRim that the thought process of the Yevanim was solely based on derech hateva. It never occurred in their minds that there could be a divine force that could combat the natural order of the world. This is the exact koach of Ner Chanukah, going above and beyond nature, lemaalah min hateva. This enlightens and showcases to Klal Yisrael that nature has no power without divine placement. This, notes Rav Zinner, is the exact opposite of the logic of the Greeks, who wanted to tie everything to derech hateva. The natural order of the world is an ironclad belief system, but when it comes to Hashem, the Being that set derech hateva in place, all bets are off.

As Jews, we know that the Almighty is capable of bringing about unbelievable miracles in our days, just as He did in the times of the Chashmonaim and before. Nevertheless, we are commanded to not rely solely on miracles to save us. This wily band of Jews fought valiantly, all the while not knowing if they’d be victorious, let alone even stood a chance against the ferocious onslaught of the Yevanim. Hashem, in His mercy, aided the Chashmonaim in trouncing the Greeks, and in doing so, obliterated the Greek notion that the world relied only on derech hateva. For Hashem, there is no derech hateva. As we say in Al Hanissim, Hashem “delivered the mighty 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 wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.” Where is the derech hateva? What’s happened to the nature of the world? Nature would teach you that the mighty would triumph over the weak, or that they would prevail by outnumbering them. Nature would laugh in your face at the mere possibility that these dominant, wanton sinners would be clobbered by a puny group of Torah scholars, whose time was spent more in the house of study than on the battlefields. While the Greeks, and the rest of the world looking to destroy the Jewish people are left scratching their heads, we stand are able to stand tall. We know that to go lemaalah min hateva, to go above and beyond the laws of nature, is precisely the derech hateva of the Almighty.

Vayeishev 5777 – In Good Times and Bad

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If you think the relationship you have with your siblings is poor, take a look at how Yosef and his brothers get
along in Parshat Vayeishev. The brothers, who can sense that this dreamer is the apple of their father’s eye, do not exactly relish being told by their least favorite sibling about how his dreams are all about them bowing down or serving him. Things intensify to the point where the brothers plot to kill Yosef, and are only deterred by the eldest brother, Reuven, that maybe this is not the best idea. Rather, they sell Yosef into slavery and tell their father that he’s been shredded to pieces by a wild animal.

Yet, throughout this ordeal, Hashem is with Yosef, guiding him. The Torah tells us that (Bereishis 39:2) “The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.” He transitioned into a successful man from the lowly slave that entered Egypt not long before. Nevertheless, despite this success, he was still thrown into jail. After Yosef spurns the continued advances of Potifar’s wife, she turned around and made false claims about him. The sentiment in the  is the same: (39:21) “The Lord was with Joseph, and He extended charisma to him, and He gave him favor in the eyes of the warden of the prison.” There is a massive practical lesson to be learned from these two events in the life of Yosef, a message that we all know but don’t always remember. Just as Hashem was with Yosef in his time of success and struggle, so too is He with us in our times of great and not as great.

There’s a great story of Rav Noach Weinberg z”l trying to recruit a student to learn in yeshiva, yet the student rebuffs the offer and responds “God and I are tight.” He proceeds to regale Rav Weinberg with a tale of him riding his motorcycle on a winding mountain road when suddenly, a massive truck came from around a corner, barrelling straight toward him. The man was forced off the road, off the side of the mountain. He’s plummeting toward earth when as suddenly as the truck appeared, a tree appeared in front of him. The man grabbed onto the tree branches for dear life, able to hold on to watch his bike go up in flames below. He was able to walk away from the incident unscathed. “God put that tree there for me, and saved me”, said the man. Rav Weinberg was intrigued by the story and without missing a beat responded “Yes, but who do you think sent the truck toward you?”

As they say, there are no atheists in a foxhole. It’s easy for someone to see the hand of God when their back is against the wall. In Judaism, we have a bracha of Dayan HaEmet for somber occasions, but we also have a bracha of Hatov Vehameitiv, when good fortune is graced upon us. At times, it’s more difficult to stop and recognize Hashem’s presence in our life when things are great at work, at home, and everywhere else. I don’t need anything! Hashem was with Yosef at all junctures of his life, good and bad. We say in Ashrei “Karov Hashem lechol kor’av, lechol asher yikre’u be’emes”, Hashem is close to those who call to him in sincerity. It doesn’t specify whether times are good or bad. The God we call out to in times of trouble is the same God that gives us more during our times of plenty. May He continue to always guide and protect us.