In this week’s parsha, we come across the Mitzvah of Bikkurim. Chazal comment in Breishis Rabbah on the pasuk of “Breishis Bara Elokim”that the world was created solely for the Mitzvah of Bikkurim. The question is, why? What ‘s so special about the Mitzvah of bikkurim? And furthermore, nowadays we don’t have the Bikkurim of the Beis Hamikdash, so is this saying that we’re currently unable to fulfill the purpose of creation?
Furthermore, it says in Sifri that Klal Yisrael was zocheh to enter Eretz Yisrael because of the Mitzvah of Bikkurim. Again, why was this Mitzvah so special, and what’s the specific connection between this Mitzvah and entering into Eretz Yisrael?
The answer to these questions can be discovered if we investigate the foundation of the Mitzvah of Bikkurim. The Mitzvah wasn’t just to give fruit to the Ribbono Shel Olam, rather the Mitzvah was to give the first fruit. Why? Chazal tell us that a person would spend his whole year working on these fruit, putting so much time and effort into growing them and sustaining them. One morning he would walk past them and finally see the fruits of his labor. The desire to pluck off that fruit and take a bite would be so great. This fruit, its his baby! And yet it’s specifically this fruit which he’s commanded to bring as Bikkurim. We see that the yesod behind Bikkurim isn’t just giving something you own. Rather, it’s giving the thing you cherish most. When a person pours so much effort into something, it becomes a part of him. That desire to then reap the benefits of his labor is so strong and powerful. That desire is all funneled into that first fruit. And it’s specifically this fruit he brings for Hashem.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos says that a goal of a person is to nullify his desires in favor of HaShem’s. We’re here to do HaShem’s will, to become closer to Him through serving Him. That may sometimes mean that we have to do things which we don’t want. But nevertheless, just as a servant would do anything a king would request, so too we do everything HaShem commands us, even if it runs contrary to our desires. This concept is the yesod of the Bikkurim. The Mitzvah was a representation that even though one may have his own desires, at the end of the day he gives up everything to serve HaShem.
Bikkurim aren’t physically around today. We can’t go and offer up our first fruits at the Beis Hamikdash. However, the underlying principle of nullifying our desire to serve Hashem will always exist. The ability to put all our efforts into something, to desire it so much, yet to give it away for Hashem, that does still exist.
That’s the yesod behind Bikkurim and that’s the explanation of Chazal. This world wasn’t just created for the actual giving of the Bikkurim at the Beis Hamikdash; rather it was created for us to funnel all of our desires into serving our Creator. This is also the pshat in the Sifri. Klal Yisrael only entered Eretz Yisrael because of this Mitzvah, for at that time they were about to experience the “eretz zavas chalav u’dvash” and acquire many things of Gashmius and Olam Hazeh. For this Hashem needed to give the mitzvah of Bikkurim, so we would recognize and realize that even amidst the pleasures of this world, we can never lose sight of what’s really important. As a result, we were given the Mitzvah to channel our desire into a gift for Hashem.
Rosh Hashana is nearly here. Chazal say that when klal Yisrael would bring Bikkurim, they would bow in front of HaShem and in that moment there was no separation between HaShem and Yisrael, as it is a time when one would give himself to HaShem in such a way, that he would connect to HaShem on the highest plateau imaginable. Elul and the climax of Rosh Hashana is all about connecting. We want to show HaShem that we deserve another year of life, health and wealth (in every category). But why do we deserve such a thing? Who says we should have these things?
We answer these questions with our actions. By showing HaShem that everything we have is for Him. From our most cherished possessions to what we barely care about, everything we use for a connection. If we really care, and we really work on showing HaShem that we try as hard as we can to grow closer to Him, we can hopefully merit a good judgement and have a successful year.
This week’s parsha deals with the laws of the Ben Sorer u’Moreh which is loosely translated as a wayward and rebellious son. In such a case where the son exhibits certain traits required to be a ben soreh u’moreh, the Torah says that he’s given the death penalty. However, none of his actions warrant such a penalty. Rather, the reason he’s put to death isn’t because of what he has done, but because of what he will do in the future.
This is seemingly very difficult to understand. We learn in Sefer Breishis by the Parsha of Yishmael that a person is only judged by his present actions. How is it then justifiable to kill a young teen based on what we perceive he’ll do?
The Ibn Ezra gives an explanation to the ben sorer u’moreh which seemingly answers the question. He says that a ben sorer u’moreh’s biggest problem isn’t the sins he’s committed in the past, rather there’s a much deeper and fundamental issue. All the requirements the Torah gives are just ways to reveal to us the ben sorer u’moreh‘s outlook on life. He doesn’t care at all about good deeds, or service to HaShem; his sole drive and motivation for his actions comes from a belief that the focal point of life is to derive as much enjoyment as possible from Olam Hazeh. A person like this will do whatever he can to give himself just as few more drops of enjoyment. It could be the desire to be licentious, or to experience the thrill of murder. This person doesn’t differentiate between right and wrong, nothing matters besides for his personal pleasure. Such a person, the Torah says to be killed now, because a person with such an outlook has no hope in the future.
I think there’s a very big mussar to be learnt out of this issue. Often times, the worst things about a person aren’t the actual sins he commits, but the deep seeded roots where those actions came from.
We’re now in the month of Elul, a time for some much needed reflection about the past year. I don’t know with a certainty about everyone else, but every year at around this time I try to make a few resolutions to change for the better. And although I almost unilaterally start off strong, over time the “yamim noraim” inspiration fades and the resolutions become more infrequent, until the point where I reflect a year later, wondering “what happened?” What’s pshat? Why is it so hard to keep a simple resolution to be better?
I think the answer is what we learn from the ben sorer u’moreh. When someone does something which isn’t entirely appropriate, it’s normally not an isolated incident. Normally, there’s a deep seeded root inside the person which caused him to act that way. And without ever changing the root, no matter how many resolutions one makes, they’ll never stick.
In order to be able to build on something, it requires a strong foundation. If a person tries to build a house on foundations of playdoh, the house probably won’t last very long. In order to build a building, the foundation needs to be even stronger. The same is true with all of us. In order to really grow and build ourselves, the deep seeded foundation of our Emunah in HaShem needs to be strong. It’s the most important thing to strengthen. When a person sins, it isn’t merely because he felt a desire which he succumbed to, rather because at that precise moment, he forgot HaShem was watching. He forgot he was standing in front of his Father, his King.
We learn from the ben sorer u’moreh how bad it can be when someone’s roots are polluted. The real lesson to us, which is increasingly relevant as we approach Rosh Hashana, is to look deep down and asses what our essence is. What do we attribute importance to? What’s our outlook on life? Only when we’re able to say with confidence that we truly want to get closer to HaShem can we begin to change. Only when we know which way our heart really points can we be confident we’re heading in the right direction.
As we finish up the summer zman, the stark realization begins to sink in that perhaps the most misunderstood and difficult day of Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av) is rapidly approaching. Being the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, Jews around the world will sit on the floor in mourning, crying over the Beis HaMikdash which was destroyed on this day many years ago.
We find an alarming point repeatedly stressed in the texts describing the essence of Tisha B’Av. On the one hand, we have an obligation to mourn. The numerous Halachos which pertain specifically to this day were enacted to appropriate a method to properly grieve. It’s a day of utter grief and despair. However, on the other hand, the Medrash tells us that Tisha B’Av is called a “mo’ed”, a holiday. It seems like the opposite of how we commonly perceive Tisha B’av, perhaps even a contradiction! How can Tisha B’Av be a day whose essence is the expression of anguish while at the same time be a mo’ed which is a day of celebration? It must mean that there is an aspect of Tisha B’Av which is likened to a mo’ed, however this requires further explanation, for at least on the outside there seems to be two completely different areas of our Avodah – the Moadim which are set aside for celebrating, and days like Tisha B’Av which is set aside for mourning.
As a preface to understanding the essence of the day, it may be worthwhile to delve into the practical mourning we know we’re supposed to experience on Tisha B’Av. This is one area I always found to be quite difficult. We sit on the floor and we know we’re supposed to feel broken and lost. But at the same time, it’s hard not to feel disingenuous. Are we really so grief-stricken? Even the most sincere looking people may have less than noble intentions. The reason being that it’s hard to feel the pain over losing something we never experienced personally. Sure, we heard about the greatness of the Beis HaMikdash. To a certain extent we’ve even been granted a window by Chazal to observe what Jewish life was like when the Beis HaMikdash stood. However, we never personally experienced it. We have an intellectual knowledge of what life was like. But to know what we lost and to feel what we lost are two completely different things. So how do we mourn sincerely? Having never experienced that type of life, how can we mourn the lack thereof?
The Peleh Yoetz was sensitive to this issue. And in response he gave a point of advice. Instead of trying to picture the Beis HaMikdash burning, one should create a mashal for himself. Perhaps a loved one (for example his mother) sitting on the floor dressed in black rags and weeping loud heartfelt cries. Each individual has to create his own picture for what will work for him, but it should be in the area of one mourning for the loss of another. With this mashal in mind, we can properly cry.
The question I was always bothered by, is why is this itself not the epitome of disingenuity? How is this cry in any way related to the cry of Tisha B’Av? And furthermore, it’s not true! My mother isn’t sitting and weeping on a floor somewhere. She’s sitting at home in America, probably struggling with the same struggles that I myself am dealing with on Tisha B’Av. How then is this cry honest? What does the Peleh Yoetz mean?
The Gemara in Ta’anis (20a) recounts a drasha from R’ Yehuda. We read in the beginning of megillas Eicha that Yerushalayim sits in solitude like a widow. R’ Yehuda would expound that the pasuk doesn’t say that Yerushalayim (and Klal Yisrael) is a widow, rather we’re like a widow. That is, we aren’t like a woman who’s lost her husband completely, rather like a woman whose husband has gone overseas with the intention of returning. We’re like a widow in the sense that we’re presently alone, but not because we lost our partner, but rather because we’re separated from Him.
This Gemara offers a unique insight into the essence of the the cry of Tisha B’Av. It isn’t a cry over what we lost. It’s a cry of longing. It’s a cry of a woman wanting to see her husband. Of a mother separated from her children. This is our cry on Tisha B’Av.
This was the intention of the Peleh Yoetz. The way we get to this cry may not be true. It may be a mashal, a fantasy. But the cry itself is sincere. The cry of longing, of a relationship which wants so badly to achieve its potential, yet can’t. That’s the cry of Tisha B’Av. It’s a cry of recognizing that we should have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with HaShem. That ideally, we should be more connected to him. And we desire this relationship with every fiber of our being. It’s a cry of mourning, for each year we’re reminded that the closeness of this relationship hasn’t come to fruition.
With this understanding, we can explain why Tisha B’Av is called a mo’ed. The Nesivos Shalom used to say a parable. A father has two children. One child grew up, went to medical school and became a successful doctor. He was able to pay back all of his student debts and was able to build himself a nice house with his newfound income. Being the loyal son that he was, every Friday, before Shabbos, he would call his father to see how the week had went and to wish him a gut shabbos. The other son wasn’t as fortunate. After getting into some trouble in high school, he found himself in one difficult situation after another. He grew up, scrimping and saving to pay off his debts, but it never seemed to be enough. He would also call his father every week before Shabbos, but his conversation would be vastly different than that of his brother’s. Instead of calling and saying, “Hi, how are you?… How was your week?… Have a gut Shabbos..”, this brother would call his father and say “Tatte, I’m sorry to ask you again. But I need help. I can’t do it by myself. I feel like I’m drowning… please, Tatte, please help….”
Who does the father feels more love towards? Sure, he’s probably much prouder of the first son. But to which son does he constantly worry about? Which son occupies his thoughts, and gives him a longing to just be with that son, and make everything all right? To Which does he feel closer? To me, it seems obvious that the answer is the second son.
Our relationship with HaShem is oft-times likened to the relationship between a father and a son. On Tisha B’Av, we sit and we cry because we’re so far from HaShem. Because our relationship isn’t what it should be. But that itself is what brings us closer to Him. At the times where we feel like we just can’t do it anymore, like we can’t function by ourselves without Him – those are the times where HaShem feels closest to us. Just like a father, when the son calls out for help, the father is always there.
That’s the reason why the day is considered both a day of mourning, but also a mo’ed. We mourn because the relationship isn’t what it should be. But within our mourning and sadness we come closer to HaShem. Our grief at being apart expresses our unshakable and perpetual desire to be closer.
I think the lesson here goes even a step further. When are the times that HaShem is close to us? When we mourn and cry because we’re so far away from Him. The lesson here isn’t just in a theoretical sense. It’s practical as well. How many of us fail to mourn? How many of us come to a day like Tisha B’Av without being able to cry? HaShem wants to be close to us. But how can it be if we’re not even the son who calls up the father to say “Tatte, I need help.” How can it be if we’re the son who neglects to call the father at all? The lesson here isn’t just that HaShem is closest to us in our times of despair. It’s that we need to look to Him within that sadness and use it to draw closer to Him. It means being the son who calls his father and says, “Please, Tatte, please help me…”
The first step is to know the father. To not be an estranged son who neglects his father’s desire for a relationship. Only after that can we use the tools at our disposal to draw ever closer to Him and his Heavenly presence.
This week’s parsha begins with the words “Zos Chukas HaTorah” in its introduction to the laws of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer. The question bothering many of the commentaries is why the Torah chose to phrase the opening sentence as “Zos Chukas HaTorah” as opposed to “Zos Chukas Haparah Adumah”, which is seemingly more appropriate? The Torah’s peculiar choice of words seems to indicate a connection between the Parah Adumah and the rest of the Torah as a whole. The mystery is to figure out exactly what serves as the point of connection.
In order to understand this relationship, we have to understand that there are different types of Mitzvos in the Torah. Some may seem logical while others run contrary to our natural intuition. Based on this distinction,the motive for performing a specific Mitzvah may differ based on the inherent type of Mitzvah being performed. For example, if a person fulfilled the Mitzvah of honoring his father and mother, his motive may be a desire for a closer connection with his parent. In fact, a person can fulfill many Mitzvos without having any conscious thought as to Who commanded us; rather since it’s completely logical and normal to act this way, we do so because we feel compelled by our own logical compass. The fulfillment of such Mitzvos could be born out of an external motive or simply a societal standard which dictates a pattern of certain behavior.
However, in Jewish consciousness there exists an underlying foundation to the fulfillment of Mitzvos which should always serve as the pure underlying motive for why we do what we do. My old Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tvi Finkel zatz”l, used to be fond of asking the following question. If someone were to come and offer a glass of blood to drink, what would your answer be? From those of us amongst the living, the answer would unequivocally be “no!” However, if you would prod the individual further and ask, “Why will you refuse to drink this glass of blood?”, most would respond “Because it’s disgusting”. Rav Nosson Tzvi used to say that this isn’t the correct answer. It may be disgusting, yet the underlying reason for not drinking it should be because HaShem said that it was forbidden.
The question surfaces with almost every Mitzvah that we do. On the surface, a person may seem to be a devout Jew, fulfilling his heavenly Mitzvos with zest and zeal. Yet, there still may be something missing. Some small part of the Mitzvah which isn’t recognizable to the naked eye. And that is the underlying motivation behind the performance of the Mitzvah. The ‘Why’ which should always precede the ‘what’. Before we know what to do, we have to sincerely define why we do as we do. Most people fall into the routine of life and become so engrossed with the “What” to do, they completely neglect the “Why” we do it. Although living a life in the framework of Halacha, a person can still remain completely oblivious to the true ratzon of HaShem.
Countless Seforim enumerate the purpose to the fulfillment of Mitzvos is “u’vo tidvok“, “and to Him you shall cling”. That is, the Mitzvos are supposed to be used as essential tools in our overall purpose of creating a closer connection with our Creator. They create us as individuals with a higher sense of consciousness, who are more in touch with the deeper realities and meanings of life.
Based on all of this, we have to clarify which type of Mitzvos best represent this undying and eternal desire to connect with our Creator? If a mother asks a son to take out the garbage and he obeys without delay, it may very well be because he doesn’t want his living space to begin to smell. Even though the reality is that he has heeded his mother’s request, however because there may be an additional personal motive for his action, it won’t serve as the paramount action to further the relationship between mother and son. However, if the mother asks the son to do something which is beyond reason (as many mothers are often wont to do), and the son still gladly obeys, then it must be that the son only acted in such a way solely because the mother asked him to do it.
Actions such as these, which lack any exterior motivation, reasoning or logic, are the optimum actions we can do to create a deeper relationship. If a husband would come home with flowers on an anniversary, it would be a nice thing and wouldn’t go unnoticed, however it can’t be compared to someone who goes and buys his wife flowers “just because.” In the first instance, there’s a reason for it; it may even be expected. However in the second instance the action is born solely out of love. and a desire for a closer connection.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz says, this is the meaning of the pasuk when it says “Zos Chukas HaTorah”. When a person fulfills a mitzvah with a known reason and logic, it doesn’t properly represent the person’s true internal desire to forge a connection with HaShem. However, when one does a Mitzvah without a given reason, it reveals his actions are solely because he was commanded to do so. In this sense, it serves as the prime type of Mitzvah to connect with Hashem. Therefore, it doesn’t say “Zos Chukas Haparah Adumah”, rather “Zos Chukas HaTorah”, because included in this Mitzvah is the core message of the Torah, to use the Mitzvos solely as a means to connect with HaShem.
All of us have periods where we become confused and lose track of the “Why” in our lives. We fall into the routines, allowing the pervasive societal and communal standards to preoccupy the causation for our actions. As Jews, our obligation is to always look deeper, not just into the external reality, but into ourselves. To break down our own motivation for our actions and search within the fabric of our being for the true reason behind why we act the way we do. Only with a true sense of self-consciousness and inner intuition can we make it possible to realize the need for change. And only with such a self realization can we break free from the constraints of acting in a sense of self satisfaction. Only then can we channel ourselves and the way we act to a greater purpose and to connect with something much higher than ourselves.
In this week’s parsha, we finish reading about the makkos which were inflicted on the Egyptians. The Meforshim explain that in general, when we learn about the Makkos we have to realize not just the physical manifestation of the Makka itself, rather why HaShem chose this specific way to afflict the Egyptians. With this in mind, each Makka has to be learnt fully to reveal its true depth and purpose. We have to consistently be asking ourselves, what was HaShem trying to reveal to the Jewish people through each Makka? So when the Torah tells us of each makka, and describes the situation surrounding the plague, that too needs to be understood to provide a proper context for what the Torah is trying to express.
There’s one part of makkas bechoros which I always found puzzling. It says that when Pharaoh learned that every first born in Egypt was either dead or dying, he got up in the middle of the night to seek out Moshe Rabbeinu. Rashi says on the words “and Pharaoh got up” that Pharaoh got up “from his bed”. The question I’m bothered by every year is what’s Rashi coming to add here? As a general rule, Rashi doesn’t go out of his way to explain things which are obvious and can easily be understood by themselves. So whats this chiddush of Rashi? Of course Pharaoh got out of his bed, where else could he be “getting up” from?!
At face value, it certainly does seem that Rashi really isn’t coming to add anything here. However, if we stop for one second and ponder the circumstances, it seems that Rashi is indeed adding a very potent chiddush. Think about it. Moshe Rabbeinu had come to Pharaoh nine consecutive times and foretold him of terrible plagues which would afflict the Egyptians. And nine times his prediction came true. Now Moshe comes to Pharaoh and says “tonight, every firstborn in your country will die…” Would you be able to sleep? Would you be able to go to bed as if nothing was wrong? Rashi is in fact adding a huge chiddush! Moshe had told him that every bechor in Egypt would die, and Pharaoh was still able to go to sleep in his bed, as if everything was completely normal! How could this be?!
I think we see from here a very big yesod. Even when emes is right in front of a person’s face, he has the ability to completely ignore it. Rav Yisroel Salanter said that this is one of the wonders of creation. How a person can realize and know something with pristine clarity, yet completely turn his back on it and act as if it weren’t there.
Some may think that this idea is something which is below us and irrelevant. “If WE were in Pharoah’s shoes, surely we wouldn’t have gone to sleep, surely we would have spent the night worrying for our children and the children of our country”. I once told this idea over to a friend who claimed that this was why Pharaoh was a rasha. Because he didn’t associate himself with what he knew to be true. I told him that this idea isn’t just by Pharaoh, it exists by every one of us. Rav Shach says that every letter of the Torah is coming to teach us an idea which is relevant to us. Literally everything in the Torah has something to be learned from it. The limud from here is as we’ve said. How many times do we know with a clarity what we should or shouldn’t do, yet we fail to act accordingly?
Rav Itzele Peterburger, also known as Rav Yitzchak Blazer, writes in his introduction to Kochvei Ohr that the intellect of man differs in regards to physical matters and spiritual matters. In regards to physical matters, if someone understands something intellectually, it oft times makes a serious impact on his body. For example, if someone perceives a danger to himself, he may begin to sweat and tremble with fear. However, by ruchniyus, its different. The way HaShem created the world was in a way that a person has the ability to choose whether or not to follow the ideas he knows to be true. That is, a person can understand the concept of an all seeing G-d so clearly, yet still choose to act as if there was no one watching him.
The limud from Pharaoh is that we have to act with emes that we know. We need our actions to be synonymous with our ideas and ideologies. To internalize all of what we know about HaShem. We know HaShem created the world, we know He was, is and always will be. We know He plays an active role in our lives. Our job is not just to have these ideas; its to not ignore them. The only way to change and better ourselves is to tap into what we already know and connect ourselves to it. We learn from Pharaoh the terrible and unfortunate nature of man. We learn from Pharoah what not to do. We learn the dangers of not listening to that inner voice which screams to seek truth and act in accordance with it. We learn what each one of us has the ability to do- to take a pure, unadulterated knowledge, pure Emes and listen to it. Our job is simply to not ignore it.
I saw a thought on this week’s parsha which I wanted to share. Although it’s definitely drush, the idea is surely emes.
In this week’s parsha, we find Yosef Hatzaddik taken out from the depths of his prison cell and promoted to second in command of the most powerful society of its time. People undoubtedly worked for years to obtain what Yosef achieved in a relatively short period.
None of the other brothers of Yosef merited to be this close to Kingship in their lives. It was only Yosef who merited attaining such a position of malchus. The question is, why did Yosef deserve malchus more than the other brothers? What made him different from everyone else which warranted him obtaining malchus?
Rav Eliezer Geldzahler answers this question b’derech drush. He says that the difference between Yosef and the brothers is that Yosef had dreams. When he brought his dreams to the brothers, they discredited his dreams and said they meant nothing. But deep down, Yosef believed in his dreams. He dared to dream.
If a person wants to merit seeing greatness, he needs to be able to dream. He has to be able to see himself as who he wants to be. That way, it’s not just a fantasy, but a possible reality.
Yet there’s another nuance included in the dream of Yosef. The Gemara in Gittin tells us that most dreams don’t contain any notion of legitimate value. So what made Yosef’s dreams different? Or even furthermore, what made Pharaoh’s dreams different that they eventually became reality?
The answer is that it wasn’t a dream which happened just once. It recurred. Pharaoh had the dream twice before summoning Yosef. If a person wants his dreams to become a reality, he needs the dreams to be constant, always on his mind. It can’t just be a passing desire which one experiences one morning when he wakes up. If a person really wants to be something, the dream needs to recur, day after day.
I know someone who constantly fluctuates in his career plan. One year, he set his sights on being a dentist. The next year, he changed his mind and decided he wanted to be a full blown doctor. The next year he decided he wanted to give up his medical aspirations and become a lawyer. Finally, he decided that all he really wanted to do was real estate. It may sound funny, but since his dreams fluctuated, he was never able to really achieve anything. Everything becomes a passing desire, but there can never be a constant effort for something if the goal isn’t set and perceived in advance. The same thing is with us. A person can’t expect to become a big talmid chacham if he dreams of becoming a talmid chacham one day and a wealthy businessman the next day. It needs to recur, over and over again. It needs to be entrenched into his psyche, that the person walks around saying “this is my dream, this is my goal.”
A good friend told me today a vort from the Ponovenzher Rav on Chanuka. He asked, when we sing Hallel and Hoda’ah to HaShem for the wars in “Al HaNissim,” what’s the intention? The simple explanation is that we’re thanking HaShem for being victorious in the battle between the Greeks and the Jews. The Ponovezher Rav says that there’s a deeper Kavanah. He says that the wars of the Jews never stop. For such a small people, we’re constantly in the limelight, fighting against all those who wish to destroy us. When was the last time we weren’t defending ourselves? After all this fighting, what gives us the strength to go on? This is the intention, says the Ponovezher Rav. Not that we were victorious. We thank HaShem for the strength to continue to fight. To be able to constantly persist and fight back against those who wish to destroy us.
A person needs to dare to dream. If he wants to become great, he needs to dream about becoming great. And there will always be people and circumstances which try to tell him to give up those dreams. It may happen once, it may happen again and again. One of the focal points of Chanuka is thanking HaShem for giving us the koach to always fight. To stand up for what we believe in. To not just dream, but to fight for our dreams. Even when people tell us we’re being delusional, and the dream is too far out of reach, our power is to fight, to cling to what we believe in and strive to become better, to overcome our obstacles and successfully fulfill our dreams.
In the mizmor of Maoz Tzur which we traditionally sing after lighting the menorah, we sing about the greatness of Hashem who has been with us through all of our hardships. When we relate the pain which we experienced in the times of the Greeks, one excerpt requires explanation. It says that one of the things that the Greeks did to us was that they were “timu kol hashmanim,” that is, they defiled all of the pure oil that was to be used for the Menorah. The question is, why did they choose to defile it? If they wanted us not to perform the avodah of the Beis Hamikdash, wouldn’t just pouring it out have been a more successful way of getting rid of it?
The answer is a very deep yesod which is fundamental to the understanding of Chanukah and the effect which Chanukah is supposed to leave us with. The Gemara in Bava Metzia says over a story of R’ Chiya. R’ Chiya saw that Torah was being forgotten in his generation, so he sought to restore it to the masses. The Gemara relates how R’ Chiya planted seeds, from which he reaped the wheat, from which he made nets, from which he caught deer, from which he made a klaf, from which he wrote down Torah, from which he distributed to children and told them to go and tell all their friends about the Torah. The obvious question is: Why did R’ Chiya needed to go through every step himself? That’s not a proper way to do kiruv! To push off the spreading of Torah because you need to plant some seeds!? What’s going on here? Why didn’t he just print out some Lubavitch-styled pamphlets and distribute them to the masses?
The ba’alei Mussar answer than in order for there to be a Mesorah of Torah in Judaism, it needs to be done with complete purity. Every step which goes into the spreading of the Torah, even the roots which seemingly don’t make a difference at all need to be l’sheim shomayim. This is what R’ Chiya was teaching us: That in order for there to be a continuation of Torah throughout the generations, it needs to be pure.
In Al hanissim, we relate how the Greeks’ deepest desire was to make klal Yisrael forget the Torah. How would they do it? Through defiling our purity! Being metamei kol hashmanim! The Greeks knew this yesod which R’ Chiya taught us. They understood that in order for the Torah to become a part of us, it needs to be with tahara. And if it lacked this tahara, it would be just like any other intellectual venture, like math or science. To say that math or science defines a person’s essence doesn’t really make sense. The reason is because it’s just a yediah b’alma, a knowledge which exists outside of the person but doesn’t necessarily become a part of the person himself.
That’s why the Greeks wanted to defile the pure oil. They wanted to show that they’re completely ok with us having oil, we can have our Torah, but they wanted to mix something else in with it. They wanted to infuse our Torah with a sense of secularism; to mix our purity with a foreign agent. For they knew that if they did this, we would be able to know our Torah, but it wouldn’t become a part of us. And if the Torah wouldn’t become a part of us, then it would eventually become forgotten forever.
How many times nowadays do we see the secular community’s effect on our society? Even with the recent Pew research report which indicates that the majority of Judaism will cease to exist within the next decade, many people still attempt to force a connection to secularism and non-Jewish philosophy/ideology. But what has to be realized and actualized is the yesod of Chanukah. That for there to be a continuation of Torah throughout the generations, it needs to be with a purity. It can’t have other ideals mixed into it. That’s the yesod of Chanuka and the foundation to keep the Mesorah of Torah alive even amidst our darkest galus.
This week’s parsha begins with Ya’akov Avinu leaving Be’er Sheva and traveling to Charana. The Gemara in Berachos says that when Ya’akov Avinu was amidst his journey, he stopped and instituted the tefilla of Ma’ariv.
The Meforshim ask, why did Ya’akov find it necessary to wait to institute the tefilla of Ma’ariv? Why not do it when he was still living with Yitzchak, or while learning in Yeshivas Shem v’Ever?
The ba’alei Mussar point to this episode as a defining point in Ya’akov Avinu’s life, as well as an event which reveals the innermost dimensions of who Ya’akov was.
The Meshech Chochma has an interesting observation about the tefilla of Ma’ariv. The Gemara in Brachos says that each tefilla represents a korban which was brought in the Beis Hamikdash. Shacharis represents the korban brought in the morning, Mincha represents the korban brought in the afternoon, and Ma’ariv represents the avodah which took place at night. However, there was no real korban which was brought at night. Instead, certain parts of the afternoon korban were burned at night. The Ma’ariv Tefilla represents this burning.
The Meshech Chochma says that this isn’t a mere coincidence; rather it reveals the essence of Ma’ariv. The foundation of Ma’ariv is “Emunascha baleilos.” It’s when we call out to HaShem from darkness. The yesod of Ma’ariv is that even when we’re surrounded by darkness and there seems to be no hope, we still infuse our lives with kedusha by calling out to HaShem.
This is what the Gemara means. The purpose of Ma’ariv isn’t the same as Mincha. By Mincha, it’s still daytime and there’s still light. But when night falls and the world becomes shrouded in darkness, the avodah is to take light from the daytime and infuse the night with life. Just like by the korbanos, where at night they would burn what was already brought during the day, so too the essence of Ma’ariv is to infuse the darkness of night with the light of the day. It’s “Emunascha baleilos,” to believe in HaShem even in the darkness.
This is why Ya’akov Avinu didn’t institute Ma’ariv while he was still with Yitzchak or in Yeshiva. During those times, he was completely immersed in Avodas HaShem. There was so much light and there wasn’t any darkness. Only when he left Yitzchak’s house, left the Yeshiva and entered the outside world, did he feel the need to say Ma’ariv. Only when he first entered darkness of the outside world did he feel the need to infuse it with light.
This isn’t just the foundation of Ma’ariv, it’s also the essence of Ya’akov Avinu. Avraham and Yitzchak were people who were completely immersed in Avodas HaShem. The Seforim say that when the Torah emphasizes the Avos digging wells, they weren’t merely searching for water, rather they were spending their time digging deep beneath the crust of physicality to find the spiritual springs hidden underneath. The yesod of Ya’akov Avinu was using this world for Kedusha. His lesson was that even when a person is out in the world, even when he finds himself in darkness, he still has to infuse his life with kedusha. He still needs to elevate himself so his existence isn’t merely tied to this world, rather he exists on a higher plane with a higher consciousness.
Out of all the Avos, our likeness as a Jewish people most directly resembles Ya’akov Avinu. We’re called “Yisrael” because of him. The reason being that the essence of Ya’akov is the most everlasting out of the three. Avraham resembled Chessed. Yitzchak was Gevurah, but Ya’akov was Emes. He represented being strong in ideals and faith, even amidst our struggles. He remained steadfast, even when he ventured out into darkness.
Each person experiences dark periods in life. Each person knows what it is to be uninspired, to struggle with the knowledge of knowing that they aren’t being the person that they know they could be. The avodah is to dig deep down inside, to get in touch with our core which we inherited from Ya’akov Avinu; that even when we find ourselves in darkness, we still look for the light, that even when things aren’t going well, we turn our hearts to the right place, to truly have “emunascha baleilos.”