Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Chanukkah and Teshuvah

When speaking about Channukah, people seldom talk about it and its relationship to Teshuvah (repentance) and Kiruv (outreach to bring Jews back to Judaism).  To me, these seem to be central themes.  Think about it his way:  Why do the Jews revolt? Over taxes?  Over land appropriation?  How about over not having self-rule and living in an “occupied territory”?  No- these matters all are insufficient to drive them to rebel and risk their lives.  The Greeks were a vastly superior power- their army was massive, they ruled a huge empire at the time and were THE world power!  What does drive the Jews to finally rebel?  The order to place an idol in the Temple and sacrifice a pig to it.

In itself, this would be bad- but we also know that many Jews had been attracted to the Greek philosophy and its grounding in this world.  It was attractive, logical, and easily studied- it provided concrete benefits in the here and now in that you then fitted into the ruling culture, became one of them and could move freely and enjoy a better lifestyle.  The Chanukkah story is not just about the miltiary victory, but about a spiritual one as well.  An interesting thing to note is that when we say the insert of Al Hanissim in Birkat HaMazon, the miracle of the oil is not mentioned, but it mentions the great military victory.  What does this teach?  That we won the war because Hashem created a miracle for us; the miracle of the oil was to emphasise that and to make sure it would be understood as such and not to see it as a purely physical victory.

But how does this relate to Tesahuvah and Kiruv?  The oil gives us the clue to this:  a small vial of pure oil is found.  This relates to the fact that a small amount of pure Jews remained while the majority had become Hellenised.  It also has a deeper message- it relates to the holy spark, the soul that is always there no matter how deeply buried it is beneath the trapings of having taken on another religion or committing great misdeeds.  With the correct behaviour, that spark can burn far more than its size would indicate.  It can transcend the physical and become something much greater that elevates us into the realm of the holy.  Mystically, the number 7 is seen as representing completeness in this world, a melding of the spiritual and the physical.  The Shabbos completeing the creation and making it whole- but the number 8 is seen as transcending that, bringing this world beyond the mundane, into the wholly spiritual.  Thus the eight candles of the Channukiah are a symbol of this. 

What is that small vial of oil teaching us?  That no matter how far we have fallen, how deeply we have buried our inherent holiness, we can always recover.  We can always repent and then that small element of holiness, that small vial of oil, brings us closer to Hashem- and once we approach Hashem, he takes over, he sustains us and we can reach beyond the limits we perceive to truly elevate ourselves spiritually.

Where do we see a message of Kiruv? The Hasmoneans fought against the Greeks and the Hellenised Jews- but afterwards they reached out, brought those estranged Jews back intot the fold, brought them back into the mainstream of Bnei Yisrael. Some remained Hellenised and lost to Judaism, but the majority of them returned to Judaism. It is seen in another way- we light the Chanukkah candles because of the dictum of the sages that we must publicise the miracle; this, too is a reaching out to the estranged and saying, “Come back, return, realise what it is that Hashem does for his people.” As I have frequently quoted from Pirkei Avot “Kol Yisrael arazim zeh lah zeh, v’yesh l’kol Yisrael chelek b’olam haba” “All of Isreal is responsible one for another, and for all of Israel there is a place in the world to come.” So this Chanukkah, lets watch these candles burning with a guest, with someone who would not light candles for themselves- and hope that this simple action will ignote the pach shemen (small vial of oil) within to a great flame of Teshuvah.

December 15, 2009 Posted by | Chagim, Torah | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Channukah- an ancient story but a modern battle

In just over a week (On Friday night the 11 December corresponding with the 25 Kislev) we start lighting the Channukah candles.  For those unaware of the story it goes as follows:

The Greeks are ruling Israel.  As part of trying to assimilate the Jews into the Greek Empire (well, the Mecedonian Seleucid Empire to be 100% accurate, but for simplicity we will just use the common terminology of the Greeks) the Greek Emperor orders a statue of Zeus placed in the Temple and for a pig to be slaughtered on the Temple alter in his honour.  Matisyahu, the Kohen Gadol, refuses and his children, led by Yehuda haMaccabi (literaly Yehudah the Hammer) lead a revolt against the Greeks- succeeding in expelling them from Israel and retaking the Temple.  The Temple is rededicated and they come to relight the Temple menorah, but there is a problem.  The menorah can only be lit with the specially consecrated oil, stored in flasks bearing the Kohen Gadol’s (High Priests) seal.  The vials have been broken open, smashed or just had their seals broken rendering it unfit for the holy use of lighting the menorah.  Eventually one small jug is found, containing enough oil for one day.  There is a lack of surety over what to do, but after discussion the decision is made in accordance to halachah (Jewish law): you perform a mitzvah that comes to hand and do not postphone it.  Thus the menorah is lit with this one days worth of oil- and miraculously it stays lit for the eight days it takes for new oil to be made.   Why do we celebrate Channukah?  Our sages quote a dictum that we must commemorate a poublic miracle from Hashem for Bnei Yisrael (Talmud masechta Shabbos daf 21) and thus we publicise the miracle of Channukah.

On the surface it appears to be a simple story, the attempted integration of a conquered people into the conqueror’s way of life- a common and oft repeated tactic in the ancient era.  On a deeper level we see another battle- that of the hellenised Jews, the ones that admired Greek culture and attempted to combine it with Judaism, and those like the Maccabees who fought to keep Judaism pure and free of foreign influences.  This has always been the battle in judaism- the prophets and judges continuously had to call the Jews back from idol worship and foreign practices; the lure of being just like everyone else, of being accepted is amazingly strong.  It is not  a single sided battle though, while people within Judaism may be attracted to the foreign and different, there are those in those foreign religions that call out to the Jews, that seek to entice them into idoltary and foreign religions and ways.

Today, the most stark examples of this are those Christian missionary sects that pretend to be Jewish in order to convert the uneducated.  “mesisanic judaism”, “jews for jesus”, “completed jews” etc- all Christian missionary sects, all with but a minute number of Jews in them, all propounding a religion with no resemblance to Judaism- yet all promoting themselves as Judaism.  Like the Hellenised Jews in the time of the Greeks, the “messianic jews” and others seek to incorporate foreign practices into Judaism.  They wish to insert Pagan beliefs and ideas into Judaism, making it no longer Judaism but yet another Christian sect.  Like the Greeks, the aim is the eventual destruction of the Jews- destroy their spirituality and convert them ito something they are not.

This year, as we light the Menorah, let us remember the miracle of Channukah the miracle of Jews keeping the light of the Torah through 2000 years of oppression.  As we watch the lights of  the candles, let us think of the light of the Torah, how it illuminates life and elevates us from the mundane to the holy- and how we need to continuously work against those who would seek to dim and hide that light behind a Pagan message while pretending it is Judaism!

November 30, 2009 Posted by | Chagim, Messianic, Torah | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Yom Kippur 5770- as the time approaches

So, its erev Yom Kippur, I’ve come back from Mikveh and I’m sweating over the drosha’s I will have to give, all three of them!  so, while organising my thoughts I will put at leats one of those droshas down here.

In sefer Darchei Mussar Rabbi Neeman brings the following idea” al cheit shechatanu lefenechah – for the sins we sinned before you.  Where does he place the emphasis?  For the sins we sinned before YOU.  The first step to being able to repent is a realisation that we are standing before G-d.  If we do not have this realisation, if we cannot understand the import of needing to put ourselves before G-d, that everything is found before G-d, then we are guilty of one sin- fleeing from G-d.  He compares this to a soldier- he gets minor punihsments for small things- for untied shoes, for his uniform being messy, for not marching properly.  However, if he flees from the army he recieves a major punishment- if it is in battle, there are many time sin history when desertion in the face of the enemy was punihsable by death! 

Similarly for us;  if we realise we stand before G-d, that we are in his presence, their is space for us to be forgiven for our sins, we can get all the inor punishments many of which will be overlooked since, just as the hero of a battle will often be excused for minor infractions- so G-d can forgive us when we lose minor skirishes with the yetzer hara if we make sure that over all we are winning the battle.  However, if we flee from the presence of G-d, if we cannot understand and acknowledge that he is the king of kings and that we stand before him, then like the soldier going awol or deserting, we will receive a major punishment – an dall the minor infractions we have will be added on top of that.

This idea raises the centrality of what Teshuvah is about.  Primarily, teshuvah is about taking responsibility- realising that we have damaged the relationship between ourselves and G-d through our actions and thus have to repair that relationship.  Part of the taking of responsibility is realising that we are not beholden only to ourselves, but that we have a master, G-d, the King of kings, who has a right to demand certain behaviour from us.  Just as the solider has his masters in the army that can dictate how he dresses, how he sleeps, where he sleeps, what he eats etc- so is G-d our master who has the right to tell us how to behave.  Thus, we have to take the responsibility to recognise that his rules are just, that hjis ways are jsut, and that his judgements are just- and that if we have failed to live up to them, he has the right to enact the consequences of those actions on us!

However, as it is brought in Midrash Bereshis Rabbah, the world wasfirst to be  created with the strict divine attribute of Malkhut, justice.  However, G-d realised that the world could not survive if the attirbute of Malkhut was strictly applied, and thus the attribute of Rachamim, mercy, was applied to the creation of the world.  It is for this reason we rejoice when it comes to Yom Kippur- for though it is solemn and we are having our fates sealed, we have are being judged in this world with the attribute of Rachami.  We have an oppotunity to do Teshuvah, and to be forgiven with ease since rachamim rules over the strictness of malkhut in this world.  However, when we die and our neshamah stands before the Kisei HaKavod and is judged for all those things we did not do teshuvah shleimah for in this world- the strict attribute of Malkhut is used!  Thus, Yom Kippur is a day showing the love of Hashem, a day in which hashen gives us an opportunity to repent in this world and to achieve teshuvah without strict justice being applied!


A g’mar chatimah tovah l’kol


Note:  As always, comments, discussions and corrections are welcomed.

September 27, 2009 Posted by | Chagim, Other Torah, Torah | , , , | 1 Comment