Catching our Breath

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I vividly remember playing football as a child and getting hit (accidentally) in the solar plexus.  Gasping for air, it felt like I would never catch my breath or breathe normally again.  I think we all have had this feeling lately; the horrors of October 7 knocked the wind out of all of us and we haven’t really caught our breath since.  Overwhelmed by grief, sadness, worry and concern, we are now two months into this war and neither the situation nor we are getting better anytime soon. 


As the hostages have been released, we have learned of the inhuman, barbaric way they were treated.  One hundred and fifty are still being kept captive.  Our soldiers remain on the front, fighting for their lives and our lives. The enormous spike in antisemitism in this country and around the world is alarming, frightening and deeply concerning.


When we consider the reality right in front of us, it is hard not to despair or grow despondent.  Israel is surrounded by enemies who seek her demise.  Jews globally are the target of increasing antisemitism and disdain.  Watching person after person speak at an Oakland City Council meeting this week, defending, excusing, and glorifying Hamas, accusing Israel of killing its own people, sympathizing with terrorists, can make you feel hopeless and make the situation feel beyond repair.  How can we find hope when so much feels hopeless?  How can we long for or bring redemption when so many seem irredeemable? 


For one thing, we can find strength in the holiday of Chanukah, which couldn’t come at a better time. Chanukah is defined by our sense of sight - Haneiros halalu kodesh heim, v’ein lanu reshus l’hishtameish bahem elah lirosam bilvad.  The candles are sacred; we don’t have permission to benefit from their light but their entire purpose is simply to be looked at. We have a unique Halacha on Chanukah.  The Talmud tells us – and the Shulchan Aruch records – haroeh mevareich, one who can’t light for himself or herself but sees the candles lit by someone else nevertheless makes the second beracha of she’asah nissim la’avosainu.  When I see someone put on Tefillin, take a lulav, or blow shofar, I don’t make a beracha.  Only on Chanukah do I make a beracha when seeing someone else perform the mitzvah.  Why?


The Kedushas Levi, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov, tells us that Chanukah is the holiday of seeing.  The different moadim correspond with our different senses.  On Purim our hearing is heightened as we listen to the Megillah.  On Pesach our sense of taste is sharpened when we eat matzah and marror. On Chanukah, he says, we evaluate our sense of sight, testing how well we see.


The truth is, in a sort of paradoxical way, our eyes are a liability.  We often feel that “seeing is believing.”  If I can perceive and observe it, it is true.  If I can’t, it is not real.   Following this rule, we have dismissed and disregarded the most precious truths and realities in our lives.  There are ideas, feelings, thoughts and dreams that are authentic and genuine, despite the fact that they can’t be seen or observed.


Our Rabbis describe the Greek empire and Hellenist influence as choshech, darkness.  In expounding on the opening verses of the creation story, the Midrash Rabbah says choshech al p’nei sehom – zu galus yavan.  Moreover, our Rabbis taught that darkening our eyes was the goal of our Greek oppressors – shehechshichu einehem shel yisroel.  They wanted to make us believe that something is only true if we can see it.  They worshipped the body, the aesthetic, the visible form.   Our enemies proclaimed that one must look at the facts and face the reality. 


We are only here because throughout our history, we have refused to see only the surface and instead we have employed a vision, a capacity to see beyond, to dream of what could be.  The truth is one can live with their eyes open, have perfect vision, and still be cloaked in darkness.  On the other hand, it can be pitch black all around and yet a person can see absolutely clearly. 


During the story of Chanukah, the Chashmonaim didn’t just see the physical reality – their few numbers, weak army, and impossible task.  They saw the mighty hand of Hashem, they saw the obligation to fight, and they saw Divine protection that would accompany them. We have been charged as a people throughout our history to not simply look at what is in front of us.  If we had, we would have given up long ago.  We have faced impossible odds, we have confronted impossible challenges.  Nevertheless, we have succeeded in retaining our hope and our optimism because we chose to have vision instead of sight, imagination instead of observation.


What if Moshe looked at the might of the Egyptian empire and never challenged Pharoah to let his people go?  What if the Macabbees had only considered the facts and never revolted against the Greek oppressors?  What if Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai simply observed the power of Vespasian and never asked for Yavneh and its sages?  What if in 1948 and 1967 the brave men and women of Israel had conceded the impossible chances of overcoming the many nations, people, and resources that sought to obliterate them?


There is a message plastered all over Israel right now, hanging on billboards, posted on buses, displayed on bumper stickers.  It has become our motto of this war – עם הנצח ינצח, the people of eternity will be victorious.  We don’t look at odds, numbers and likelihoods; we aren’t intimidated or scared by predictions of pundits or plans of pernicious actors.  We are the people of eternity, we see differently than others, we believe in what will be, not what is. 


Residents of cities from the south who were first decimated and then displaced have not given up, given in, they are not abandoning their posts or moving to a more comfortable or safer environment.  They have vowed to return, to expand, to build and to further settle.  They are members of the Am HaNetzach, the eternal people who don’t accept what is but define what could be, who don’t just see what is on the surface but who have a vision for lives of virtue and the triumph of Jewish values. 


In her “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust,” Professor Yaffa Eliach shared the incredible story of Chanukah in Bergen-Belsen:

Chanukah came to Bergen-Belsen. It was time to kindle the Chanukah lights. A jug of oil was not to be found, no candle was in sight, and a menorah belonged to the distant past. Instead, a wooden clog, the shoe of one of the inmates, became a menorah, strings pulled from a concentration camp uniform, a wick, and the black camp shoe polish, pure oil.


Not far from the heaps of bodies, the living skeletons assembled to participate in the kindling of the Chanukah lights.  The Rabbi of Bluzhov lit the first light and chanted the first two blessings in his pleasant voice, and the festive melody was filled with sorrow and pain. When he was about to recite the third blessing, he stopped, turned his head, and looked around as if he were searching for something.


But immediately, he turned his face back to the quivering small lights and in a strong, reassuring, comforting voice, chanted the third blessing: “Blessed are Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.”


Among the people present at the kindling of the light was a Mr. Zamietchkowski, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Bund. He was a clever, sincere person with a passion for discussing matters of religion, faith and truth. As soon as the Rabbi of Bluzhov had finished the ceremony of kindling the lights, Zamiechkowski elbowed his way to the Rabbi and said, “Spira, you are a clever and honest person. I can understand your need to light Chanukah candles in these wretched times. I can even understand the historical note of the second blessing, “Who wrought miracles for our Fathers in days of old, at this season.” But the fact that you recited the third blessing is beyond me. How could you thank G-d and say “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season”? How could you say it when hundreds of dead Jewish bodies are literally lying within the shadows of the Chanukah lights, when thousands of living Jewish skeletons are walking around in camp, and millions more are being massacred? For this you are thankful to God? For this you praise the Lord? This you call “keeping us alive?”


“Zamietchkowski, you are a hundred percent right,” answered the Rabbi. “When I reached the third blessing, I also hesitated and asked myself, what should I do with this blessing? I turned my head in order to ask the Rabbi of Zaner and other distinguished Rabbis who were standing near me if indeed I might recite the blessing. But just as I was turning my head, I noticed that behind me a throng was standing, a large crowd of living Jews, their faces expressing faith, devotion, and deliberation as they were listening to the rite of the kindling of the Chanukah lights.


I said to myself, if God has such a nation that at times like these, when during the lighting of the Chanukah lights they see in front of them the heaps of bodies of their beloved fathers, brothers, and sons, and death is looking from every corner, if despite all that, they stand in throngs and with devotion listening to the Chanukah blessing “Who performed miracles for our Fathers in days of old, at this season”; indeed I was blessed to see such a people with so much faith and fervor, then I am under a special obligation to recite the third blessing.”


That night in Bergen-Belsen, Mr. Zamietchkowski only saw what lay before him, dead bodies and terrible suffering.  The Rebbe also looked, but he saw another layer of truth that was equally accurate – that there was a gathering of people who maintained incredible faith despite the most horrific circumstances.


If you look on the surface, there is so much to fear right now.  But over the last nearly eight weeks, if you look a little closer, if you wear your “Chanukah glasses” you will recognize that we have merited to view things that our people have never seen before.  Our vision to be a united people is becoming fulfilled, the dream of a spiritual awakening is taking place, the hope for a resurgence of a connection to our homeland from Jews around the world is happening. 


When Chanukah comes next week, take the time to not only light the candles but to look and gaze at them.  Use the light to dispel all the darkness.  Allow it to illuminate your life, see with 20/20 vision, feel at the core of your being that the עם הנצח ינצח, our people of eternity will prevail.


May our people experience the miracles and the wonder of yesteryear today, may we merit to see the hand of Hashem bayamim ha’heim bizman ha’zeh