By Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss
As we enjoy the very sweet festival of Chanukah, it behooves us to brush-up on its spiritual messages. In this way, we can ensure that it doesn’t become a mere season of gastronomic delight such as latkas and sufgoniot (jelly doughnuts) nor will we fall into the trap of allowing Chanukah to become, chas v’shalom, an Xmas look-alike.
A common thread that runs through most of the amazing events of Chanukah is the element of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, of the valorous Jews during the memorable era of the Chashmanoim. Whether it was the rabim b’yad m’atim, the many in the hands of the few, giborim b’yad chaloshim, the mighty in the hands of the weak, the heroic self-sacrifice of the brave Macabees to defend the Holy Temple and the lives of their brethren from the wicked Syrian-Greeks, whether it was the legendary Chanah and her seven sons who, with amazing courage, chose death rather than bow down to Antiochus haRasha’s idol, or the zealous search of the Kohanim to find a single jar of oil with the seal of the Kohein Gadol, a search that can be compared to looking for a needle in a haystack when they could have allowed themselves the Talmudic heter, allowance, of tumah hutra b’tzibor, that when the entire congregation is contaminated, one can use even defiled oil, but they demonstrated amazing mesiras nefesh in passionately wanting to fulfill the mitzvah in its best possible way. Or, the amazing valor of the daughter of the Kohein Gadol who, instead of succumbing to the wickedness of the Syrian-Greek governor, protected her Jewish modesty with an incredible act of bravery, killing the wicked official and jump-starting the Jewish conquest.
Chanukah therefore is a time to take stock in whether we have this element of mesiras nefesh in our spiritual lives. When we are tired, do we still push ourselves to get up early to make minyan – or do we succumb to temptation and say our prayers quickly at home before dashing off to work? Do we exercise self-sacrifice in pushing ourselves to attend a shiur after a hard days work – or do we cave in to our physical laziness and just go home and read the paper?
In this area, Chanukah should jog us to make a reality check. Is there an element of mesiras nefesh in our relationships with our children? Do we find the time – although there is never enough time – to take interest in our children’s learning, in their character development, in their personal happiness? All of these objectives are mitzvahs of the highest priority, since if we, their parents don’t attend to these needs, who will?
Do we have the spiritual bounce in our steps to use a Sunday or any day off to provide pleasure for our spouse – thereby ensuring the Shechina will permeate our homes? Mesiras nefesh doesn’t only mean putting your life on the line for your spiritual beliefs. Rather, anytime we push ourselves beyond our natural physical tendencies in order to fulfill the will of Hashem, we are following in the footsteps of the great Macabees, the heroes of Chanukah.
The Aleinu Leshabei-ach, on Parshas Vayishlach, tells a fascinating story about the venerable Rav Shach, Zt”l, Zy”a. Rav Shach, already a very old man, had to spend some time at the hospital. One day, he informed his family that he desired to go one floor down to visit a man who was also staying at the hospital. Rav Shach knew had known that this man was treating his wife poorly. He wanted to talk to him once again about adopting better marital behavior. The family was aghast as Rav Shach was ill and very aged, yet he wanted to get up from his sick bed and go down a flight of stairs all for a shalom bais discussion. Despite their pleas, Rav Shach was adamant. They then suggested that instead of Rav Shach going downstairs, they would ask the man to come up to Rav Shach’s room. This too, he vehemently vetoed.
At this point, when reading this story, I thought to myself that Rav Shach’s reason probably was that he was banking on the impression he would make on the man by leaving his sickbed and trekking downstairs. Perhaps this act would impress him to realize the severity and importance of the issue! This just shows how little I understand the minds of our gedolim. Rav Shach went on to explain why he insisted on going down to the room himself. He elaborated that he had worked on this couple’s marriage many times to no avail and therefore he felts that perhaps if he took heroic measures to be moser nefesh – to get out of his sick bed to help save a marriage, Hashem would see his self-sacrifice and perhaps, in that merit, bless his efforts with success.
This vignette introduces an entirely new angle to mesiras nefesh. Sometimes a spouse says, ‘Why should I go through so much trouble? My mate won’t appreciate it anyway?’ or a parent thinks, ‘Why am I investing so much energy in this child. S/he just takes it for granted?’ Even if these conjectures are true, the superhuman effort might still be effective for Hashem might take note of this additional exertion and in that merit might bless us with Divine assistance at succeeding in our marriage or in the chinuch of our child.
In the merit of our mesiras nefesh – both small and large examples, may Hashem bless us with long life good health and everything wonderful.
Here are some tips for the days ahead.
• Chazal teach us that the last day of Chanukah is the final “gmar din.” Since this is so, the month before it is like an Elul and can be used wisely for a final chance at teshuvah and making peace with people.
• Chazal teach us “Gedola mitzvah b’shaata – Great is a mitzvah in its proper time.” As this is the case, we should make every effort, when possible, to light the Chanukah candles in the proper time; forty-five minutes after sunset (according to most opinions). At the very least, we should try hard to do this on Motzei Shabbos and Sunday!
• Although family gatherings are a delicious part of Chanukah, they should be planned around the lighting of the neiros in the proper tine – and not the other way around! It is okay to blow out the candles after they have remained lit for the shiur – and then one can go to join family, parents, children, friends and neighbors.
• Great care should be exercised with the hadlaka on Erev Shabbos. The lighting should be done leaving ample time for the women to make their eighteen minutes before shkia hadlaka. It is preferable to daven Mincha after the hadlaka if that will help ensure that everyone will light on time! Remember chilul Shabbos takes priority over any aspect of lighting the candles!
• When children are around, never to leave the candles unattended – especially on Friday night! Also remember to keep the neiros away from the drapes.
• The Gemora in Shabbos informs us, “Kol haragil b’neir havyan lo banim talmidei chachomim – Whoever is careful with candles will have children who are Torah sages.” In part, this refers to the mitzvah of Chanukah candles. Thus, the stakes are high to do this lofty mitzvah in the most beautiful way possible. Having a nice menorah, keeping it clean, putting it in the right location, saying the blessing with proper kavanah (concentration), and gazing at the candles and wicks, contemplating the great miracles of the Chashmanaim era, are all part of the meaningful fulfillment of this mitzvah.
• According to many Chassidic masters, the custom of Chanukah gelt is an opportunity to teach children to give tzedaka from their own money.
• Latkes and sufgoniot are the standard scrumptious Chanukah fare. This is because they are prepared with oil and therefore help to commemorate the great miracle of oil on Chanukah. In addition, it is an excellent idea to introduce cheese platters at a Chanukah banquet. This commemorates the miracle that occurred with the daughter of Mattisyahu, Kohen Gadol (Medrash Maseh Chanukah). When the Syrian Greek governor abducted her, she got him thirsty using salty cheese. She then plied the thirsty rasha with strong wine, which lulled him to sleep. Subsequently, she killed him, which was one of the miracles that led to the Jewish conquest of the Yevonim.
• The fast of Asara B’Teves commemorates the terrible event of the wicked Nevuchadnetzar setting siege to Yerushalayim. In a way, in our time the Arabs are also setting siege to Eretz Yisroel – and we should use this fast as a catalyst to pray for our brethren there, and for the speedy coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu!
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