Chanukah Insights: Light & Holiness

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29 Jun 2006

If you think about Chanukah, new ideas occur. Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, occurs at the darkest time of the year — the time when you would least expect it. And this is an important characteristic of Judaism: that light, and holiness, occur where one would least expect them.

LightRemember the origin of Chanukah: the Greeks were conquering the world, with their ideas as well as their armies, and were bringing a modern, practical, “enlightened” philosophy to the world; and resistance to this came where one would have least expected it: a small group of people, without military power, without weapons, went into the streets against the Greek rule, and were victorious!

There is a story of a man I had the honor of meeting in Jerusalem, Reb Yehuda Holtzman. He was not a Rabbi, not a Dayan, just a humble Jew in Mea Shearim, known as “Yehuda the Blecher”, since he made blechs (Shabbat plates). I was friendly with an American who was in the habit of spending Shabbat with him. How he met him, or got into this habit, I never found out. He told me that Reb Yehuda had the custom of making Kiddush on challah every Friday evening. (Making Kiddush on challah is permitted if you have no wine, but it is unusual.) At first he thought that Reb Yehuda might be allergic to wine, but no, on Saturday morning Reb Yehuda would drink wine at Kiddush. He did not ask him about this, until one Friday evening, after some years of this, he saw Reb Yehuda’s wife bringing him a bottle of wine, which he then used for Kiddush. My friend could not contain his curiosity any longer, and asked him the reason for this. He answered: “I’ll tell you. There’s no deep kabbalistic reason. It’s very simple.” And he told him the following story.

Twenty-five years earlier, during the British Mandate, a friend of Reb Yehuda had a serious illness, for which the only known cure would cost five thousand pounds sterling, a fortune in those days. He had absolutely no idea how he would raise the money, and came to Reb Yehuda for advice. Reb Yehuda said to him: “Go ahead and borrow the money, and I’ll repay it for you.” For he had calculated that if he did without wine at Kiddush on Friday evening for twenty-five years, he would be able, with the money saved, to repay the whole debt. And that is what happened. And on that very Shabbat, the twenty-five years were up, and he could go back to having wine for Kiddush.

Holiness is found in the most unexpected places.

I am involved in fund-raising myself, and I know that the real money comes, not from the big names you find in Fortune magazine, but from quiet, humble people, who have an abiding sense of commitment.

There is a custom, among some people, of turning off the lights when they light the menorah at Chanukah. This emphasizes the idea of light coming forth from darkness, and holiness appearing where it is least expected.

Have a lot of joy this Chanukah.