Dvar Torah Chanukah 5778

Even as Chanukah celebrates the impressive Hasmonean victory over the Greek armies, we more prominently commemorate the miracle of the hidden flask of Menorah oil.  And while the battlefield conjures up images of strength and bluster, Chanukah is the celebration of the power of the weak and pure over the strong and impure, of the few and righteous over the many and evil.  As such, its real strength is seen not in the battlefield victory, but in the resultant opportunity to bring out the modest remnant of purity and righteousness that would ultimately produce the eternal light of Chanukah.

Indeed, early sources relate the small flask of oil – the pach hashemen – to the small jars – the pachim ketanim – that Yaakov returned to retrieve when preparing to confront Eisav.  Yaakov had just sent a huge gift of flocks of animals to Eisav, yet he himself returned to retrieve small jars, and in the process had a fateful and successful confrontation with the angel of Eisav.  This enigmatic encounter was the paradigm of the spiritual struggles the Jewish people would face over time, what our Sages referred to as Shas HaShmad, and the power we would draw upon to succeed in those struggles would derive not from the noisy and the many, but rather from the small, hidden reservoirs of purity and holiness.

Chanukah was launched for us this year by an announcement that was heard around the world, the powerful statement of our president that America would henceforth recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there.  This is a dramatic and positive development, dismissing both the false historic narrative of the past and the unrealistic hopes for the future of the Palestinians.  Yes, Jerusalem has been the Jewish capital for millennia, since King David made it so, and it has been the capital of the renewed Jewish state, our divinely blessed return to Zion.  This simple truth has now been affirmed by our country, the world’s superpower, and by doing so it has made clear the starting point for peace and reconciliation.   We hope and pray that the announcement will lead to peace and not, Heaven forbid, to further bloodshed.

Yet, during these days when we are overwhelmed by daily revelations of the corruption and immorality of the powerful, and as we celebrate Chanukah’s contrasting focus on the modest and the holy, we would do well to look beyond the bold, public declaration and focus on the still, small voice; on the forces of modest purity that ultimately fuel our current and future strength.

Another recent announcement fits that bill.  It did not come from Washington, and it was not covered by a single news outlet.  It was a brief statement shared one month ago at a small cemetery in Baltimore, at the funeral for Harriet Rivkin.  Harriet was a member of our community, a warm, kind and caring person.  Harriet had no husband or children of her own, but had generations of close and loving nephews and nieces, hundreds of students she had impacted over her decades as a teacher in the city schools, and many close and dear friends.  And as those family members, students and friends gathered sadly at her graveside, they were told that there would be no eulogy, just as there had been no chapel service, as that was Harriet’s wish.

A similar announcement was made earlier this week, on the eve of Chanukah, when the great Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman of Bnei Brak passed away. In his last will, he requested that his funeral be immediate, modest and without eulogies either then or later.

These are hard wishes to honor, as there is so much we would wish to say.  But the silence of the modest is their greatest message.  Theirs is the still small voice, of caring, of warmth, of modesty and of purity.  And the preservation of those sterling values is today’s flask of pure oil that will carry us to the ultimate victory and restoration of contemporary Jerusalem.

In this spirit, it is worth recalling the beautiful words of Rav A.Y. HaKohein Kook, who explained why in times of danger we move the Menorah from outside our doorways to the table inside.

During normal times, we feel within us the urge to publicly declare – such that all the inhabitants of the world would know – that with us lies the light of the world, and from us shall emanate the rays that will illuminate the world.  Thus, the mitzvah of Chanukah lights, as the symbol of this holy wish, is to place those lights outside the doors of our homes.  And when the light of holiness shines outside, we need not worry, as we can be confident and secure that the inside is undoubtedly filled with light.   

In times of danger, however, when harmful winds blow, antagonism and hatred against Israel and its holy offspring, ridicule and resentment towards all of its holy treasures … at times like these the rays outside are unable to pierce the dark clouds that prevail there.  The Jew must then turn inward to his home and to his table; to his internal values and culture; to the purity of his spirit and the cleanliness of his hands; to his Torah, the Torah of truth that is his alone; to the Mitzvos, that are his eternal path of life; to the creation of his home on holy soil with the full strength of his pursuit of holiness, according to his design and spirit.  At such times he places his candle – the symbol of his triumph – on his table, to illuminate the path of his life and the radiance of his soul.  And with this candle that he stores safely inside he knows confidently that he will lack nothing of his spiritual wealth and his true honor, the honor of justice and truth, and that ultimately others will come forth with the recognition that the ultimate hope of the world for truth, justice and peace to prevail, and to set the path of humanity on firm footing, will come only from the light that shines forth from the Jewish home.

Amen, v’chein yehi ratzon.