Recently, I recalled part of a shiur that a friend of mine, Rabbi Yosef Greenwald, taught over 20 years ago at a Chanukah Mesibah (party). I really wanted to remember the details, since it linked to the parsha that week. It was Friday, two hours before Shabbos – a hectic time – but I called him anyway. I apologized for the hour, reminded him about the long-ago shiur and just like that, he said, “Sure, I remember that piece!” He then spent the next fifteen minutes telling over the entire shiur from 20 years ago with perfect clarity. How could he remember it so well?
I started thinking about what is key to memory. I recalled the first Dvar Torah I gave publicly in yeshiva. I remember it well! I came to the realization that good memory is all about time, energy and focus – and connecting the item to yourself! Rabbi Greenwald remembered what he spoke about because he made it personal.
Making Torah personal is the core concept of Chanukah. The tefillah of Al Hanisim, added to Shemoneh Esrei and Birkas Hamazon during Chanukah, states that the Greeks attempted to make the Jewish nation forget the Torah and to violate the laws of Hashem. This seems puzzling. It’s one thing to make laws that persecute Jews or forbid Torah study. But how could they make us forget what we already learned?
The Greeks were attempting to assimilate the Jewish nation with exposure to Greek culture and ideology, which they made look very alluring. But they knew that as long as the Jewish nation was attached to the Torah they studied, they would resist any and all infiltration of outside values. The Greeks’ only road to success was to disconnect Klal Yisrael from their Torah study and their passion for mitzvos. To this end, they outlawed teaching Torah, keeping Shabbos, Bris Milah and observing Rosh Chodesh. The objective was to turn Judaism into a set of customs and practices, but not a way of life. Customs and practices do not have long term sustainability.
In the last two centuries, we’ve seen strong evidence of this phenomenon of casualization. Many Jews decided to only keep certain Jewish “traditions”, choosing which mitzvos to observe and which not. Each subsequent generation became more estranged and disconnected, leading to millions of intermarriages!
The Bach points out that the Greeks almost accomplished their mission, since the Jews became more casual in their study of Torah. The key to the victory of the Chashmonaim was that they made Torah life and study very “personal,” by defending it with their very lives. They launched a fierce battle against the massive Greek army – impossible odds. But the alternative of assimilation was not an option! When Hashem saw the commitment and passion of the Chashmonaim, He performed a miracle of epic proportions in which a few hundred Chashmonaim defeated the well-trained, skilled and heavily armed Greek soldiers.
Rav Chaim Friedlander notes how the words of Al Hanisim confirm this point. “Hashem took up their quarrels, judged their claims, and avenged their vengeance.” Although the future of Torah and mitzvos had been on the line, Hashem only stepped in when the Chashmonaim made defense of the Torah their personal vendetta. Indeed, their being saved – along with the whole Jewish nation – came from their taking this struggle with the Greeks very personally.
In the Mafia, before they eliminate an opponent who is a friend of theirs, they tell them, “It’s nothing personal, just business.” Judaism has just the opposite approach. Torah and mitzvos are personal! It’s not just about customs and casual practices.
Al Hanisim concludes by stating that Hashem handed the Zeidim (the Greeks) into the hands of those who toiled in Torah (the Chashmonaim). A zeid is a scoffer, someone who scorns and derides a person by stripping him of his value and importance. The toiling in Torah of the Chashmonaim demonstrated the immense value they assigned to Torah learning, which the Greek scoffers tried to devalue.
The war of “casual” Judaism versus “passionate” Judaism wages on in our generation. Chanukah is the time to assess whether we treat our performance of mitzvos and our approach to Torah study casually or personally. Chanukah is an opportunity to select one area of Torah and make it personal. Choose an area of Torah study or a specific mitzvah and really invest yourself in it. Some goals may seem too lofty or out-of-reach, but Chanukah is a time when Hashem gives extraordinary success to those who make Torah personal.
Covid-19 continues to impact us in many ways. One of these is the financial strain that it has had on our province and indeed the world. This has resulted in a focus on cost saving measures as individuals, communities and governments brace themselves for immediate and long-term difficulty. It has also given rise to a new term- ‘pandemic penny pinchers,’ as across the globe people are challenging each other how to make the most of their leftovers or extend the life of their clothing.
While saving money is always a good idea, especially during tough economic times, this trend has highlighted for me something much more solemn and serious.
The Talmud makes the following observation:
The exactions of poverty,
מעבירין את האדם על דעתו ועל דעת קונו
cause a person to go against his own view, and that of his Creator.
In other words, the confining need to save money when there is not enough to go around, can cause us to do things that are frowned upon, both by Heaven and by our inner selves.
Poverty creates a new mindset; one that is all-encompassing. It presents itself in our everyday questions. Should I treat myself or my family to a special outing? Should I support a local establishment, institution, or tzedaka (charity)? Do I have time today to volunteer? These are now viewed through the unfortunate lens of dikdukei aniyut, the exactions of poverty. We simply don’t have the time or the resources, or physical ability to contribute as we once did so freely. We tighten our belts for we must, but inevitably, the danger is that the purse strings of our hearts become tighter along the way.
Chanuka is upon us, a time when traditionally we are extra generous. There is a time-honored Chanuka tradition of showing our appreciation to those who we benefit from day in and day out, and to cheer on the schoolchildren and schoolteachers, who continue with great dedication to teach and learn the very Torah that the Maccabees fought and sacrificed for. It is a time when we are used to opening up our homes and Jewish institutions with Chanukah parties to share with each other Hashem’s gifts to us.
What will Chanuka look like this year?
My point is not to bemoan yet again what we are missing. Rather, it is that we should not allow ourselves to get used to this.
A long time ago there was a scholar named Rabi Elazar. It so happened that one day Rabi Elazar could not attend the yeshiva. It happens to the best of us, and that could have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. It really bothered Rabi Elazar that he had missed out. So much so that later, when he met his friend Rabi Asi, he said to him “You know, I wasn’t able to attend today’s learning, but you were there. So please tell me, what did I miss??”
This is the challenge for us all. True we are not living times where it is easy or even realistic to give and share the way we did. Still, we must not forget the truth and the feeling that giving more is still the ideal.
I hope and pray that the time comes very soon that we will have again the resources, financial and otherwise, that will allow us to be generous in the ways that we want to be, and sorely miss.
Rabbi Halpern studied at WITS Yeshiva High School in Milwaukee, just a few blocks from his home, where his father, Rabbi Eliezer Halpern, is a Judaic studies teacher.
After four years of Beit Midrash, post High School Talmudic Study, Rabbi Halpern continued on to New York’s Rabbinical Seminary of America (Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim), to pursue a Rabbinic career. Upon his marriage to his amazing wife Malka, Rabbi Halpern joined the Yeshiva’s Kollel (fellowship) program for six years. Upon receiving his Rabbinic ordination, (semicha) from R.S.A. Rabbi Halpern went on to become a founding member of the Kollel at Yeshiva Madreigas Ha’adam, (Hillcrest, NY) and began teaching Jewish studies at Yeshiva Tiferet Moshe.
“Seeing the path that my parents took in pursuing careers of Jewish leadership and the fulfillment that they received from those decisions, inspired me to want the same for myself” says Rabbi Halpern.
Over the years, Rabbi Halpern has served as a hospital volunteer for the Wisconsin Jewish Chaplaincy, tutored Jewish public school students through the Jewish Education Program, and has lectured and taught at synagogues and schools whenever possible. He is the author of several books on Halacha including Hilchot Sta”m and Kashrut.
In 2017 the Halperns moved to Calgary, where Rabbi Halpern served as Associate Rabbi, at House of Jacob until Rabbi Yisroel Miller’s retirement in 2019. Both Rabbi and Rebbetzin Halpern teach Judaics at Halpern Akiva Academy as well.
Rabbi Halpern is certified by the London School of Circumcision, as a mohel and by the Va’ad Mishmereth Stam, as a sofer (scribe).
The Halperns are the proud parents of Sarah, (age 7) Ahuva (age 6) and Shneur (age 3).