By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
A story is told about an American tourist who went to visit a Yerushalmi Yid. Upon entering the humble apartment, the tourist found him in an exalted state. The visitor asked him why he was so full of joy. The Yerushalmi answered him with a twinkle in his eye. “Didn’t you hear?” he asked. “Moshiach is here in Yerushalayim. Of course I’m besimcha.”
The visitor was a real tourist type. He left the old Yerushalmi’s apartment and ran to the Kosel. He thought that if Moshiach was in Yerushalayim, the best place to find him would be at the Kosel. He got there and looked around, but was stunned when everything seemed regular. He looked at everyone there. No one impressed him as being the Moshiach whom Klal Yisroel has been awaiting for centuries. Quite upset, he returned to the Yerushalmi and told him that he went to the Kosel looking for Moshiach and couldn’t find him.
“Where is he?” asked the tourist. “Where would he be if not at the place that the Shechinah hasn’t departed from?”
The Yerushalmi looked at his fellow Jew and said with a smile, “You don’t look for Moshiach. He looks for you. You have to prepare yourself for him so that when he comes, you will be worthy of redemption. Achakeh lo bechol yom sheyavo. Part of the wait, part of longing for Moshiach, is to be a true ben chorin. A ben chorin, a free person, is one who busies himself studying Torah and having it influence and mold his character.”
Chanukah is a Yom Tov that celebrates this idea. It is a time when we celebrate the Chashmonaim and their mesirus nefesh for kedushah. They didn’t go looking for the person who would lead the charge against Yavan. With mesirus nefesh, they rose up to throw off the forces of darkness from the nation that was having its light source blocked. They were the me’atim, the tzaddikim, the tehorim, the people who were osek baTorah, ki ner mitzvah veTorah ohr, but they were not meyayeish.
Too often, we look for others to do our work. We look in the wrong places for saviors and salvation from our problems, not knowing that we have to perfect ourselves and that the solution is within us. If we improve ourselves and make ourselves worthy, we can beat back all those who torment us and all that afflicts us, even if it is the most powerful nation and philosophy on earth, much as the Greeks were in the days of the Chashmonaim.
There is a discussion in the Acharonim if the mitzvah of zeh Keili ve’anveihu, to beautify mitzvos, applies to having a nice menorah. The menorah itself is not the actual cheftzah of the mitzvah, as the mitzvah pertains to the materials that are necessary for the lighting, namely the oil and the wicks. The Mishnah Berurah (672:2) rules that everyone should endeavor to obtain the nicest menorah and best lights he can.
Perhaps we can suggest that even if you believe that the rule of beautifying mitzvos only applies to the act of the mitzvah itself, the custom of beautifying the menorah is almost universal, for that is in the spirit of the Chashmonaim: to go beyond the metzuveh. They fought the Yevanim even though, technically, they had no chance to win, and perhaps there was no obligation for them to go to battle under those conditions.
The Medrash Maaseh Chanukah relates that “Matisyahu Kohein Gadol said to the Chashmonaim, ‘Boruch hagever asher som baHashem mivtacho. My seven sons and I will join with you and your three sons… I have complete faith that Hashem will perform miracles for us and that we will be able to beat the Yevanim.’ They fasted and begged Hashem for mercy… and proceeded to do battle.”
While analysis of how he was permitted to place himself and the others in danger when we have a rule that we do not rely on miracles is beyond the scope of our discussion here, the fact remains that Matisyahu and the Chashmonaim went beyond what was called for in order to preserve Am Yisroel and their devotion to Torah.
And when Hashem caused them to win the war, they could have lit the menorah with oil that was defiled, for the din is that tumah hutrah betzibbur. It would have been halachically permissible to light with oil that was found in the Bais Hamikdosh, even if it did not have a tahor stamp on it.
Nevertheless, after such mesirus nefesh, they weren’t prepared to settle for the minimum. The Chashmonaim who went to war to preserve the kedushah of Am Yisroel weren’t about to light the menorah with oil that wasn’t tahor betachlis hahiddur.
Thus, we can suggest that we go to great expense to commemorate the actions of kohanecha hakedoshim and the nissim that were performed for them by being mehadeir in the menorah as well as in the oil and wicks, for there is no greater hiddur perhaps than beatifying the mitzvah even when there is no obligation to do so.
Klal Yisroel didn’t feel itself strong enough to throw off the yoke of Greek tyranny until Matisyahu rose up and inspired them. Today, as in those days, forces of evil are able to prosper because people of goodwill cannot come together to topple them. Murderous tyrants can be toppled, as we have seen. What it requires is a man of courage who can no longer take it. People rally to him, and the momentum they create is able to restore the forces of light and justice.
The miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate is primarily that of the tiny flask which burned longer than was thought to be realistically possible. The menorah‘s lights signify that the power of light overcame the power of darkness. The oil lasting longer than one day signifies that if you expend the effort and work bemesirus nefesh, physical rules will not apply.
The miraculous military victory over Yavan is a dramatic example of how the laws of nature are suspended when 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 mesirus nefesh demonstrated by Matisyahu and his followers.
That victory was of the same type that brought about the miracle of the pach shemen. A small amount of oil, which according to its physical and chemical characteristics could only burn for one day, burned for as long as was necessary, just as the forces of good, though outmatched by evil in terms of numbers and strength, thoroughly eviscerated the forces of darkness.
We see wrongs in our world and are told that there is nothing we can do about it. We try to right the wrongs and are mocked. Yet, in fact, if you look around, there are so many people who overcame the odds, building Torah where no one thought it was possible, restoring lives others had given up on, and fighting abuse which people thought was part of life. We see teachers touching souls and impacting them forever. We see righteous men and women not taking no for an answer, standing up to an apathetic society and awakening their consciences. We see people rallying to fight for those wronged by an out-of-control justice system, and we cheer them on, hoping that they will succeed against all odds.
We see people working with selfless dedication and are amazed that it is as if logic and the laws of nature don’t apply to them. They tread where no one has dared step before, and they succeed where lesser people vow that success is absolutely impossible.
They are the heroes of our people. They have changed a desolate land and caused a desert of assimilation to bloom with Torah. It is those heroes who have heard the call of the Chashmonaim. They have been the shluchim for the rebirth of our people decades after we were nearly wiped out. They have succeeded in greater fashion than anyone thought possible, blessed with siyata diShmaya reserved for those who work bemesirus nefesh leSheim Shomayim.
That is why the neis of Chanukah is celebrated by kindling lights in our homes facing the street. That is why the mitzvah is to light the menorah as soon as sundown begins and darkness starts spreading across the sky.
That is why the shiur that Chazal gave for the duration of the lights is “ad shetichleh regel min hashuk”; the lights of the Chanukah menorah should 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 inconsequential. Remember that Matisyahu started out as one lonely man of faith, with the powerful Greeks and most of his own people against him. Because he did not let defeatism overtake him, the Yevanim and Misyavnim were conquered and the forces of good prevailed.”
We gather our families around us and light the menorah to proclaim that Hashem felled the mighty, the many and the evil. They were demolished by the weak, the few, the just and the holy.
Hashem had mercy 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 Yevanim, in other guises, continually attempt to trap and kill us.
We have to be ever vigilant, for the forces of Hellenism are ever present. They cloak themselves in the guise of enlightenment and intellectual purity as they accost us with cleverly worded propaganda to curb our growth and poison the way people view us.
In our day, the modern Yevanim hide behind the power of the pen, the web, blogs and populist demagoguery to attack us. Misyavnim offer wild accusations to back up their unfounded charges. 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.
During the Gaza War which Israel fought four years ago, Lev L’Achim waged its own war. Schools in the line of fire in the country’s southern region were closed, as the rocket-fire was too fierce. Several intrepid Ashdod yungeleit traveled to Ashkelon and set up shop in a basement bomb shelter. They dispensed warmth, pizza and Torah. Local teenagers were so bored that they came and were intrigued. When the war ended and normal life resumed, these kids were still interested, so the yungeleit continued coming, creating a small afternoon bais medrash in Ashkelon.
Slowly, they had some real talmidim, and finally they finished a masechta with the secular teenagers. On Chanukah, the talmidim, accompanied by their Lev L’Achim rabbeim, went to celebrate the siyum at the home of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. The aged gadol was very moved by the sight of the teenagers in his home proclaiming, “Hadran alach,” to the first masechta they had learned.
As the siyum ended, one of the boys asked Rav Shteinman for a bracha. He asked that the resistance of his parents to his Torah study weaken. “In fact,” he told the rosh yeshiva, “if they knew where I was now, they would be furious. I told them that I was going to play soccer.”
Rav Shteinman said to the boy, “You have answered a question of mine. Why, in Al Hanissim, do we thank Hashem for the milchamos? War is a necessary evil, as people get killed and hurt, and lives are destroyed. Why do we thank Hashem for the war, when, in fact, we should just be thanking Him for the nissim and niflaos?
“But now, I have a new understanding. It is for milchamos such as yours – the wars waged by these determined teenagers – that we thank Hashem!”
We all have our personal battles and wars, and to the extent that we win them, we recite Al Hanissim, thanking Hashem for providing us with the wherewithal to overcome and persevere.
As we light the menorah, we remember to use our abilities to spread goodness and kindness in this world. We appreciate the kochos that Hashem blessed us with and acknowledge that we can accomplish greatness if we try hard enough. Read the fascinating interview in the Yated this week with Rav Ben Zion Kook about Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv to see what man is capable of if he sets his heart to learning.
If we dedicate ourselves with mesirus nefesh to being bnei chorin and making the world worthy of the geulah, Moshiach will reveal himself shortly and return the Bais Hamikdosh, its kedushah, its avodah and the menorah. Amein.