Be a Proud, Practicing, Unapologetic Jew

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* Derasha delivered at Boca Raton Synagogue on December 9, 2023

The Beis Yosef asks a well-known question to which hundreds of answers have been suggested.  If a flask of oil was found that had enough for one night and it lasted seven extra nights for a total of eight, why is Chanuka, which seemingly commemorates a seven-day miracle, celebrated for eight days? 


The Meiri writes: ולילה הראשון שלא היה שם נס השמן מברכין על הגאולה ועל הודאת מציאת הפך ושאר הלילות על נס השמן. The answer is simple.  We do only mark the seven nights that were miraculous with seven days of lighting.  The first night, however, we are marking and celebrating a different miracle, the miraculous military victory and redemption.  The Pri Chadash, in his commentary on Shulchan Aruch, gives a similar answer and writes if there were no miracle of the flask of oil, there still would have been a holiday established filled with Hallel and hoda’ah for the military victory. 


Our eight-day holiday of Chanuka is a celebration of two reasons to celebrate, two miracles that we mark in one blended holiday.  Is there a connection between the two or did they both happen to overlap on the same days of the calendar, so we combine them into one holiday? Which is the main driver of this holiday and which is secondary?


This week, my fellow BRS rabbis and I visited Shura once again.  It is the base of the Rabbinate of the IDF, the place all fallen soldiers (and on October 7, civilians) are taken to be identified and prepared for burial.  On our visit, the body of 22-year-old Ben Zussman, the second member of the greater Bendheim family (who have a remarkable 46 cousins currently serving) to be killed in battle, was being taken from the building into the car that would carry him to Har Hertzl for his funeral and burial.  We were present for the first Kaddish being said on his behalf. 


Last month when we returned from our first visit, I told you about the literature, posters and tefilla cards for soldiers produced at Shura, how this is the only army in the world with a division for spirituality and faith. This time I saw Chanukah booklets published for soldiers, including addressing questions like how to light in Gaza in a tank, if you don’t have a home and  Divrei Torah and motivational messages connected to Chanukah.  In it, the following explanation of the duality of the Chanukah miracles is offered: The menorah of the Beis HaMikdash was lit in the Heichal and illuminated it all night.  The Kohanim didn’t serve at night, there was no avodah so why did it need to be lit up?  The type of person who regularly turns the lights off when nobody is in the room would go crazy seeing the Beis HaMikdash lights on with nobody in it all night, every night.  What was the point?


The Gemara in Shabbos (22b) explains that this was an unusual light; it wasn’t for illumination or to be able to see more clearly.  וְכִי לְאוֹרָהּ הוּא צָרִיךְ? וַהֲלֹא כׇּל אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה שֶׁהָלְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר לָא הָלְכוּ אֶלָּא לְאוֹרוֹ! אֶלָּא עֵדוּת הִיא לְבָאֵי עוֹלָם שֶׁהַשְּׁכִינָה שׁוֹרָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. מַאי עֵדוּת? אָמַר רַב: זוֹ נֵר מַעֲרָבִי שֶׁנּוֹתֵן בָּהּ שֶׁמֶן כְּמִדַּת חַבְרוֹתֶיהָ, וּמִמֶּנָּה הָיָה מַדְלִיק וּבָהּ הָיָה מְסַיֵּים.

The light was a signal, a symbol that Hashem’s presence was dwelling among the Jewish people, that we have a special relationship and an exceptional mission.  


The Shem MiShmuel writes that the miracle happened specifically through the Menorah because the Menorah is the symbol of chochma, Jewish wisdom, values, culture, and knowledge.  The Gemara in Bava Basra (25b) says הרוצה להחכים ידרים,  if you want truth and wisdom turn south to the Menorah.  The Syrian Greeks wanted to eliminate our unique Torah vision and values, to have us abandon our wisdom and culture and subscribe to theirs. They wanted to erase Judaism and its influence and impact on the world. The military victory enabled the rededication of the Beis HaMikdash and allowed us to light the Menorah once again.  It was really a victory of our chochma, shinning our light over their darkness. 


The book of Chashmonaim describes that our enemies didn’t only eliminate the oil, they took away our Menorah.  When we reconquered our Beis HaMikdash, they weren’t just missing pure oil, they were missing the Menorah itself.  What did they do?  Megillas Taanis (Perek 9) describes that the Chashmonaim took sheva shipudim shel barzel, seven iron rods that were used as weapons against the Yevanim and turned them into the Menorah. 


When they lit that original first flame, they weren’t just marking the miracle of the oil, but they looked at that Menorah made from their weapons and they were celebrating the miracle of the victory of the few against the many, the weak against the mighty, the holy and pure against the evil and wicked. 


The Menorah being crafted from the weapons of war was not a mere coincidence or necessary solution to having no candelabra to light in.  It was an expression of how the light of the Menorah, the presence of Hashem, the drive to spread His light in the world, is what drove that small group of Jews to fight against all odds, to be tenacious, resilient, brave, courageous, and unstoppable.  The two miracles are intertwined, they are indeed one and the same.  The light of the Menorah fueled the army and victory, and the victory enabled us to keep the light going. 


The Sfas Emes asks, how did lighting the Menorah and having it be illuminated at night express the presence of the Shechina in Klal Yisroel? After all it was the Kohen who struck the match, set up the Menorah, lit the wick?  Anyone who passed by wouldn’t be thinking of the Shechina but of the Kohen who lit it. Says the Sfas Emes, this is exactly the point. The evidence of the presence of Hashem doesn’t come from a revealed supernatural miracle but from our own hands, our own effort, our own initiative.  The same was true with the military victory. With a moral clarity, a sense of purpose and resolve, a vision for representing Hashem, we fought, we battled, we had the courage to confront the enemy and take him head on.  The successful result of that sacred mission was the evidence of Hashem’s presence among us, that His light shone through us.


The miracle of Chanukah, what we truly celebrate, is the resilience and the drive of the עם הנצח, that when we come together, when we stand up with pride, when we fight, when we refuse to assimilate, blend in, or lay down, the result is we are the miracle, we are the manifestation and expression of Hashem, we are the light that illuminates the world.  We aren’t a secular, political state, we are dedicated to the wisdom of the Menorah and we will forever fight to rededicate it over and over again. 


We met with retired Brigadier General Amir Avivi who gave great insight on what has happened, what is happening, and what he thinks will happen next.  At the end we thanked him and he said I want to tell you one more thing. He doesn’t wear a kippa and isn’t observant but he told us he wants to end with a Dvar Torah: 


People often think of Chanuka as a small war with the Greeks and we won.  They may picture a big battle, but most people don’t know we fought for 30 years, endless amounts of wars.  Yehuda Macabee fought the first five big wars, he was killed and Yonatan took over and kept fighting.  Yes, we celebrate that they liberated Beis HaMikdash.  But the Greeks threw them out again and they fled to the desert and only then did they fight back and in the days of Shimon did we secure all the borders. 


What is amazing that in the history of warriors and leaders, in Jewish wars we never once hired mercenary armies.  We have always been a people imbued with leadership and vision.  We get our people again and again, we call them and they come, led into combat, without getting paid, just to save the Jewish nation, that is our DNA, that is who we are. 


That is why Al HaNissim focuses mostly on the military victory and only briefly references the miracle of the oil.  The victory was the result of the endless drive, determination, will, positivity, faith, of a people who were fueled by the values, wisdom, and truth of the Menorah.  It was their initiative, their efforts that reflected the presence of Hashem.


On the border of Gaza, at a barbecue we made for 700 soldiers, we met a 51-year-old sleeping on the floor, eating army food, going in to fight.  We asked him, how are you still in the active army? He told us he was released 11 years ago but refused to be finished. He negotiated with the army until they agreed that if he passes a physical each year he can continue to serve.  We said, “what do you do, make the food, clean the guns?” He said, “No I drive a hummer into Gaza to our missions.” 


We met soldiers everywhere, on several bases, in Chevron, at new pop-up locations to feed and care for them.  There is no such thing as a secular soldier. We found angels of Hashem putting on tzitzis, securing a pair of Tefillin, and going to fight for a cause they believe in with every fiber of their soul.  Shem Shamayim Shagur Bfi the IDF, all of them telling us “Elokim Yishmor,” “Hashem Yaazor.” We met injured soldiers at Tel HaShomer hospital who are fighting to heal so they can return to battle. They are positive, upbeat, determined.  We spent time with a father of a fallen soldier. He and his family are Olim and he told us he has no regrets bringing his family to Israel despite paying the highest price because it is what it means to be a Jew, it is why we live and sometimes what we need to die for. 


We toured Be’eri for three hours, walking the site of a pogrom, like visiting Poland the day after the Holocaust. We will never get that smell out of our nose or unsee what we saw. We saw burnt homes, bloody sheets, bullets on the ground, smashed windows.  We heard stories of how two parents and a big brother leaned over three younger siblings to save their lives by paying with theirs, homes people were kidnapped from.  A man named Yarden told us the story of his heroic brother, a medic who tried to save the injured and ultimately, Hamas terrorist shot him at blank range first saying out loud, a witness later shared, רק בשביל הכיף, “just for the fun,” before pulling the trigger. 


Naor, whose father-in-law was murdered, shared with us: “A strong message I remind myself, is when the same thing happened in Europe, we didn’t go back to Poland and Germany, but this is our house, our land, our country our people.  We are going to come back.  It doesn’t matter what you did to us, you cannot stop us.  Buildings you can burn, but you can’t break our spirit.  We will rebuild.”


I think this is our part of the war from America.  Yes, donate, support, visit, check in. But ultimately, the enemy around Israel is the same enemy sitting in the administration at Harvard, MIT and Penn, the same enemy in the offices of the New York Times, in some Congressional offices, and on streets of major cities.  They all want the same thing – להשכיחם תורתך ולהעבירם מחוקי רצונך, for us to abandon our values, our mission, our way of life, our way of thinking.  They are trying to extinguish our Menorah, our source of wisdom and truth, our Toras Chaim. 


We may be 6,000 miles away from the physical front lines, but make no mistake, if you saw the hearings in Congress in which the leaders of three prestigious schools of so-called higher learning couldn’t say calling for genocide against Jews is hate, we are very much on the battlefront.  They want us to stop learning and living Torah? The response must be to learn and live it more.  They want us to abandon our values? Lean into them, hold on to them stronger, tighter.  They want to dim our candle? Add more fuel, make it burn brighter.  They want you to hide your yarmulka, tuck in your tzizis? Get a bigger yarmulka, longer tzitzis.  Someone asked me, if I had $100 million to fight antisemitism what would I do? I said I wouldn’t buy ads on television or hire lobbyists in Congress.  I would put every penny into reaching out to our Jewish brothers and sisters to stand taller, prouder, to live more Jewishly.  I would send a mezuzah for every Jew and every Jewish student on a college campus to hang on their door. I would send candles for every Jew to light Friday night or for Chanukah.  We cannot win a war if we don’t know what we are fighting for.  We can’t have victory if we are in the dark without the light of the Menorah. 


Don’t just take something upon yourself, become a better, bigger, and more practicing Jew as a merit for the soldiers on their front lines.  Do it because it is how we fight on our battle front in this very same war.  150% of reservists showed up for this war, we have to show up at the same rate, give a 150% effort.  They aren’t afraid, we can’t be afraid, they have courage of their convictions, we must have the courage of ours.  This war has multiple fronts. They are doing their job on theirs, will you show up, will you serve, will you be counted and will you be part of victory in our battle?


We daven for the miracles today that we had yesterday, biggest among them not supernatural oil, but the miracle of believing in ourselves and believing in our cause and therefore having the determination to fight against all odds.