By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Formed in a cauldron of pain and suffering, a special relationship developed between the Amshinover Rebbe, Rav Shima’le Kalish, and the talmidim of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Europe. Joined together by Hashgachah as they escaped from war-torn Poland, the relationship was reinforced by shared struggles, challenges and remarkable salvation.
On Motzoei Simchas Torah in Shanghai, with the echoes of the spirited Hakafah niggunim still ringing in the ears of the Mirrer talmidim, the Rebbe studied the faces of the Litvishe bochurim. He sensed their unspoken anxiety about the long, cold winter ahead, stretching before them like the train tracks they’d traveled on through the frozen Russian landscape.
The Rebbe saw the winter months as an opportunity, not an obstacle, and searched for a way to convey that point. “Mir hubben yetzt ge’endikt mit di groisse teg, we have concluded the great days,” remarked the Rebbe. “Yetzt kummen di groisse necht, now come the ‘great nights.'”
The Rebbe was referring to the words of the Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:13), who says that even though there is a mitzvah to learn Torah day and night, a person acquires the majority of his wisdom at night. Therefore, one who wishes to obtain the crown of Torah should be zealous about his nights and not forfeit even one of them.
The Maharal in his sefer Ner Mitzvah on Chanukah addresses the significance of the 25th of Kislev, the date upon which Chanukah begins. From Tishrei until this date, the days grow shorter and the amount of darkness increases nightly. On the 25th of Kislev, the amount of daily light increases, and the length of daily darkness decreases. Therefore, it is fitting, explains the Maharal, that the Mishkon, which signifies light, was completed on this day.
It is therefore that the miracle of Chanukah was performed with light; with the Menorah remaining lit for eight days, since the day on which the Chashmonaim lit the Menorah following their war against the Yevonim, was the day on which light begins to evidence its strength.
We see physical light and study the spiritual qualities of light. As the physical light of the sun increases, so does the potential for the spiritual light we can create through increasing our Torah learning and kedushah.
The Maccabi victory over Yavan was celebrated and consecrated with the miracle of the eight days of light in the Bais Hamikdosh. Metaphors for the eternal battle between good and evil; Yavan resembled darkness and the Maccabis light.
The Maccabi leaders rallied the Jewish people who had become gray from compromise and caused them to see the black and the white. They roused them from their fear of Yavan and what it represented. They motivated them to overcome the meekness in their souls. By example, they showed the few and the weak that if they would expend effort, Hashem would help them prove that even modest light defeats substantial darkness.
Their message remains illustrative until this day. Maintaining crucibles of light and oases of goodness is possible if we remain loyal to the objective and infused with proper faith.
The darkness is complete and total, it seems. The world is darkening and there is danger lurking everywhere. It would seem that we have nowhere to hide and nowhere to turn.
Even after the last dancing light has disappeared and the last night of Chanukah is over, as we face a dark and lonely road, we have the tools to brighten the night.
We can go into a world where everything is warm, bright and happy, singing the song of the night. The flames of the Menorah will light up the way, the fires of the Chashmonaim will burn in our souls, and the darkness of despair will be banished.
The words of the Maharal will provide succor for us as we recognize that the darkness has begun to recede and yield to the light. There is hope if there is faith. The light will gain and so will we, if we follow the words the Amshinover Rebbe uttered during one of the darkest periods in Jewish history. We can cause ourselves to be blessed with a beacon that illuminates the path before us. It worked for him and the survivors in Shanghai, and it can work for us as well.
We possess the ability to live on a higher, elevated plane that is afforded to us every time we sit down by a shtender with a Gemara opened before us.
There is a scene that plays itself out all over. In Yerushalayim, New York, Lakewood or London, it is a timeless image as likely in the shtetlach of old as it is now. It’s nighttime. Rush-hour is over and traffic has eased up. Families all over are sitting and lingering after supper. Hardworking breadwinners relax in their easy chairs, perhaps with a newspaper in hand and slippers on their feet.
In botei medrash across the globe, night seder is beginning. The committed Jew, just like his father and grandfather before him, sighs contentedly as he opens his Gemara, humming the eternal tune of limud haTorah. “Amar Abaye…” A fruitful night is about to begin. A night which stretches back to the day when light was first created; the Mishkon was assembled, and the Chashmonaim emerged victorious. A night connecting to the awful darkness of the Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust – which were followed by rebirth and rejuvenation. A night which presents an opportunity to climb the ladder back into the presence of holiness and G-dliness. A night which defeats depression and yei’ush, depravity and mortality, is about to begin. Eternal light, energy, immortality and joy are about to descend into the heart of the Jew as he opens a Gemara and connects with the source of light.
No matter how cold it is outside and how fierce the awful winds are blowing, he remains anchored to a force stronger than any other. Ki ner mitzvah veTorah ohr. The mitzvos are compared to a candle and the Torah to light, for they light up our paths, brightening the pervading darkness. They ground us and provide depth and internal fortitude in a world mired in superficiality.
Last week, I had the occasion to be in the Palisades Mall on Thursday night. There was a line of hundreds of people leading to a store. We went to check it out. Perhaps there was something exciting going on there. The store at which the people were lined up was Foot Locker. We looked inside, trying to get a clue of what the commotion was all about. There were a couple of policemen at the door and security people milling about with the crowd. The store itself was basically empty, with a few salesmen helping customers with purchases. Something was strange, so we asked one of the policemen what was going on. He explained that the people were waiting to be the first to purchase a new sneaker that would be put on sale at midnight.
I later read that the scene replayed itself all across the country. Thousands of people lined up to buy the new sneaker. There were reports of violence, beatings, shootings and the like as people in line grew impatient.
I told my children that this was a lesson in real life for them regarding the emptiness of the life of a person who doesn’t have the blessings of Torah and mitzvos. It is doubtful if any of them needed new sneakers, as they surely could have managed with what they were wearing without standing on line for hours to pay $180 for a pair boasting a coveted designer name. Through the power of advertising and peer pressure, thousands of people across this great country felt that their lives would not be complete if they could not be among the first to possess a certain sneaker.
“You see right in front of your eyes the truth of the shmuessen of the mashgichim, that life without Torah is empty,” I said to my children. “It is not an exaggeration.”
Indeed, these peoples’ days are dark, consumed by choshech. We pity them and the blank looks in their eyes as they stand there seeking to fill the hollowness of their lives.
As we approach the cold, dark days of winter, without the benefit of any Yomim Tovim to intervene, we can keep ourselves warm, blessed, and neither lacking anything nor wanting superfluous superficiality if we hew to the path of Torah. It’s not a cliché. It’s the truth. If you don’t believe me, just ask those thousands of people who waited hours on line for a pair of Air Jordan sneakers, how happy they are. Then go ask the people humming to themselves as they work their way through a shvere sugya.
Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu. Winter, spring, summer and fall.