The Inspirational Essence of Chanukah

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Chanukah provides us with a unique opportunity to make positive changes in our lives and to come closer to Hashem.  There are numerous messages of inspiration that we can and should inculcate over Chanukah and take with us after Chanukah.  To list just a few:

• To love mitzvos and perform them with love and enthusiasm
• To renew our dedication and m’siras nefesh for Torah and avodah
• To strengthen our bitachon
• To recognize that the pursuit of the spiritual provides an everlasting benefit, as opposed to the pursuit of the material, which is temporal, limited, and ultimately empty.

If we had to choose what the “essence” of Chanukah is, there is one that stands out.  It stands out because it is stated for us at the end of Al HaNisim, which we recite both in Shemoneh Esrei and in Birkas HaMazon.  Al HaNisim speaks of the miracles and salvations that Hashem performed for us during the period of the Chanukah event and then concludes with:

וקבעו שמונת ימי חנוכה אלו, להודות ולהלל לשמך הגדול
And they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great Name.

It seems that the Chachamim were telling us that the essence of Chanukah is to recognize all that Hashem did (and does) for us and to praise and thank Him.  We know this is not for His benefit but rather for ours.  Praising and thanking Hashem brings us closer to Him, which is the ultimate purpose of all the mitzvos.  This is why, in halachah, the first brachah of Shemoneh Esrei and Modim are the two most important.  These are the openings to the Praise section and the Thanks section of Shemoneh Esrei.

Praising Hashem, and remembering and contemplating His chasadim of the past and present, on both a communal and personal level, are mitzvos min haTorah.  Hashem allows us this privilege and opportunity at any time.  Additionally, it is built in for us by Chazal each time we recite Shemoneh Esrei, in the brachah of Modim.  With that in mind, we present, below, selected Weekly Tefilah Focus segments from Modim (Shemoneh Esrei 47, 51, 53, 54).

May we all be zocheh to grow closer to Hashem throughout Chanukah and make changes that will be lasting and eternal.

Appreciation: An Exercise in Growth 

מודים אנחנו לך
We gratefully thank You

The word “הודאה” has two distinct meanings.  One meaning is to thank.  The other meaning is to admit.  Rav Hutner zt”l states that in reality these two meanings are very closely connected.  The path to thanking and praising Hashem for of all the goodness and miracles that He performs for us is only through recognizing and admitting that all is given to us by Hashem.  Nothing just “happens” and nothing is the direct result of our efforts.  Yes, we need to put forth our best efforts!  However, it is important for us to admit that it was not our superior intellect or abilities that actually produced the result.  If we cannot fully admit this, we cannot properly thank and praise Hashem.

Rav Dovid Cohen shlita, Rosh HaYeshiva of the Chevron Yeshiva, quotes Rav Hutner and expands on his thought.  Rav Cohen cites the Midrash Rabah on the pasuk “הפעם אודה את ה’Ha’paam odeh es Hashem (This time let me gratefully praise Hashem),” when Leah named her son Yehudah.  This midrash teaches us that because Leah was involved in thanking Hashem, she merited to have offspring who were “baalei hodaah”: Yehudah, who admitted that it was he who had been with Tamar, and David HaMelech who was known for thanking and singing praises to Hashem.  Rav Cohen points out that these two exhibited two seemingly totally different meanings of hodaah.  How is Yehudah’s admission connected to the merit of Leah’s gratitude?  Using Rav Hutner’s connection of admission and thanks, we now understand the midrash.  It is only through the trait of being able to admit that one can truly thank and praise Hashem that these two aspects are ingrained in Leah’s descendants.  (There is much more inspiration in this beautiful essay from Rav Cohen; see pages 220-223 in the sefer Mizmor L’Sodah by Rav Daniel Yaakov Travis).

Rav Cohen then proceeds to discuss the Ramban at the end of Parshas Bo, who states that the purpose of creation is “שידע האדם ויודה לאלקיו שבראוshe’yeida ha’adam v’yodeh leilokav she’bar’o.”  Rav Cohen explains this to mean that the purpose of creation is for man to “know” Hashem and to admit that Hashem created him and is directly involved and responsible (i.e., hashgachah) for all that occurs in his life, thereby resulting in him thanking Hashem for all.

We now provide an excerpt from Shemoneh Esrei 4 to answer the glaring question: Since Hashem does not need anything, let alone my thank-you, why is it the “purpose of the world” to recognize that all is in His power, that all comes from Him, and to thank Him?

The Chovos HaL’vavos similarly explains that the humility of recognizing that we are totally dependent on Hashem leads to closeness with Him and elevates our nefesh to our Creator.  This closeness results from the shevach (the first three brachos) and hodaah (the last three brachos) sections of our Shemoneh Esrei.  The Chovos HaL’vavos is teaching us that we are the ones who benefit from these two sections of Shemoneh Esrei.  Praising Hashem and thanking Him leads us to humility, which leads to dveikus (closeness to Hashem), which results in the elevation of our nefesh.  This is the very essence of tefilah.  Based on the Chovos HaL’vavos, we can see that the first three brachos are not simply an introduction to our requests, but are in reality an integral part of the essence of tefilah.

The same is true for the last three brachos.  We thank Hashem not for fulfilling our needs, but for granting us once again this recognition that we are completely dependent on Him, thereby getting closer to Him, which is the purpose of tefilah.

Perhaps we are starting to gain a deeper appreciation of why we should aim to enthusiastically look forward to our next tefilah, instead of viewing it as a mandatory action we must perform.

V’Al Nisecha: Miracles – Large and Small

ועל נסיך שבכל יום עמנו, ועל נפלאותיך וטובותיך שבכל עת
for Your miracles that are with us every day, and for Your wonders and favors in every season

Throughout our history, Hashem has performed many open miracles and even many more hidden miracles for klal Yisrael.  Some of these open and initially hidden miracles are celebrated and “re-experienced” by us as we travel through time during the yearly cycle of yamim tovim.

HaRav Avigdor Miller zt”l, in his siddur Tefilos Avigdor, points out that we, in our generation, experience nisim each and every day, as we say in Modim: “ועל נסיך שבכל יום עמנו–for Your miracles that are with us every day.”  The difference between the past open miracles, such as Y’tzias Mitzrayim, and the miracles of today are that, in the past, these miracles were open and revealed to all, whereas today miracles are hidden, due to “הסתר פניםhester Panim.”

נסיךnisecha” includes both miracles that occur to the klal and miracles that occur to us as individuals.  These are less frequent miracles.

Perhaps we are less cognizant of the miracles that occur to us at all times – “נפלאותיך וטובותיך שבכל עת–Your wonders and favors in every season” – because they can be attributed to “nature.”  These miracles are more frequent and are disguised as “teva (nature).”

Each of us, in our own personal lives, experiences hidden miracles all the time.  Many times, these are “small” everyday miracles, like finding a parking spot in an “impossible” area.

Often we don’t recognize these more frequent miracles.  The following story comes from “Emunah Daily,” produced by Rabbi David Ashear:

“Rabbi Paysach Krohn told a story about Rav Shach, in his old age, attending the funeral of a woman in Haifa who had very few relatives.  Upon inquiry, Rav Shach explained who the woman was.  He said that when he was younger, learning in yeshivah, the conditions were almost intolerable.  As one of the younger boys in a yeshivah that was filled to capacity, he had to sleep on a cold, hard floor.  In the frigid winter with no heat and no blankets, he was suffering.

“One Wednesday, he received a letter from his uncle inviting him to come join him in his business.  He was a successful blacksmith with no children, and he assured his nephew that he would teach him the trade, and the business would eventually become his.  His uncle asked him, “Why stay where you are in poverty and hunger?  Work for me and your life will be set.”  The young Rav Shach thought about it for a day, and by Thursday night, he decided his uncle was right.  He was going to leave.

“The next morning, a woman came to the yeshivah, saying that her husband, a blanket salesman, recently passed away.  She was in town sitting shiv’ah with his family, and she had a few extra blankets that she wanted to donate to that yeshivah.  They were heavy Russian blankets, filled with goose down.  One of them was given to the young Rav Shach.  That Friday night, he was warmer than he had been all winter, and he decided to stay in yeshivah.

“He eventually grew up to become the Gadol HaDor, a rav who impacted generations of people to live Torah lives.  That woman never remarried.  She lived a quiet and seemingly uneventful life.  Little did she know that her small act of kindness changed the world.  She will reap the rewards for eternity.”

Many of us ignore the blankets sent to us by Hashem, not recognizing the miracles in our lives.  Let us learn from the way a gadol ha’dor recognized the miracles in his life, and the hakaras ha’tov he displayed for Hashem’s worthy messenger.  Let us seek Hashem out and contemplate Hashem in our own lives more deeply, as we say in Hodu: “בקשו פניו תמידbakshu fanav tamid (seek His Presence always).”

More Than Meets the Eye

ועל כלם יתברך ויתרומם שמך מלכנו תמיד לעולם ועד
For all these, may Your Name be blessed and exalted, our King, continually forever and ever.

Rav Yisrael Salanter once left his family and students to go to Paris to try to influence the assimilated Jews there to return to Torah Judaism.  One day, he entered an elegant hotel to meet some wealthy Jews who frequented that hotel.  He sat down and ordered water.  When the waiter brought him the bill, it was an astronomic sum.  He asked the waiter why the bill was so high.  The waiter responded that Rav Yisrael was not paying merely for a glass of water.  The charge included the surroundings and ambience in which he drank the water.  He was paying for the exquisite furniture, lighting, carpeting, and stunning view, as well as the water.

Rav Yisrael then wrote the following letter to his disciples:

“For a long time I have been puzzled by the fact that we recite a very lofty and all-inclusive blessing for a plain glass of water, saying, ‘Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, שהכל נהיה בדברוshe’ha’kol nihyeh bid’varo–through Whose word everything came to be.’  But from the words of a gentile waiter in Paris I learned that we are not merely thanking G-d for the glass of water; we are expressing our appreciation for the magnificent surroundings in which G-d serves the water to us.  We are thanking G-d for the fresh air we breathe as we drink that water and for the sun that gives us light and for the tree that shades us.  In short, whenever we thank G-d for one thing, we should use it as an opportunity to thank G-d for everything.”

[Story and quote from Shemoneh Esrei, ArtScroll, by Rav Avrohom Chaim Feuer]

We praise and thank Hashem for “kulam” – for all of the open and hidden miracles, wonders, and goodness that are constantly present in our lives as part of the klal, and in our personal lives.  We praise and thank Him for His limitless rachamim and chesed, which never cease.

We then ask that the entire world recognize that all of the blessings in their lives emanate from You, Hashem.  Rav Avigdor Miller points out the future tense in the words starting with “יתברךyisbarach.”  We must strive to do all we can so that our future generations will continue to recognize all that we have just acknowledged.

The following are the words of the Sefer HaChinuch in Mitzvah 130, explaining the meaning of “yisbarach”:

וזהו פירוש “יתברך” – כלומר: יהי רצון מלפניך שכל בני העולם יהיו מיחסים הברכה אליך, ומודים כי ממך תתפשט בכל.

“And this is the definition of the word ‘Yisbarach’ – as if to say: May it be Your will that everyone throughout the world will associate the blessing with You, and will acknowledge that everything emanates from You.”

The Chinuch goes on to explain that when the world recognizes that all blessing comes from Hashem, more blessing will flow to the world, which will “enable” Hashem to fulfill His “desire” to give us all goodness.  In effect, as mentioned in previous segments, Hashem gives us this responsibility to “cause” Him to bring more and more blessing to the world.

May we merit to soon see that day when all the world will recognize Hashem.

It’s Our Choice

וכל החיים יודוך סלה
Everything alive will gratefully acknowledge you, Selah!

HaRav Yehoshua Leib Diskin would periodically visit sick people in the hospital.  One day, he visited an elderly woman who was suffering greatly.  He asked her what brachah he could give her, and she responded with “אריכת ימיםarichas yamim” – to live a long life.  Given her obvious suffering, he asked her if she was certain that this is what she wanted.  She explained to him that all week long she could not daven or make brachos since she could not control her bodily functions.  But once a week, a nurse came around to clean her up, and for a few hours she was able to daven and make brachos.  She then said, “Isn’t it worth living a long life for those few weekly hours?”

Here was a woman who was so happy to be alive despite her pain and suffering.  She looked forward to those few hours a week and was so appreciative to Hashem that she was alive and could still daven and make brachos once a week.

How we look at life is very telling and often affects our disposition and perspective.  This woman chose not to view her life in a way that would cause unnecessary additional suffering, distress, and misery.  She chose instead to see the gift and opportunity of every breath and moment of life.

V’chol ha’chayim yoducha, Selah” – All who are alive will thank and praise Hashem.  Even if we feel we are lacking so much of what we would like to have in life, we should express our gratitude just for being alive.  Every moment that we are alive and able to serve Hashem in some capacity is a great opportunity that vanishes when we are no longer breathing.  [based on the Siach Yitzchak]

It could be that a person with a terminal illness and excruciating pain, chas v’shalom, is not able to daven or perform any mitzvos.  We may naturally wonder what the point is of this person continuing to live.  But if the person is “only” able to maintain his or her emunah in the face of the severe illness and pain, who can fathom what the cosmic implications and reward for emunah are in such a situation?  We certainly don’t know what the cheshbonos of Hashem are.  However, we can assume that if one is still breathing, there is still opportunity and benefit in living.

HaRav Noach Weinberg, in discussing joy and happiness, suggests that we make a list of all the things for which we are thankful to Hashem.  This list will include items that all human beings are thankful for, like air, the light and warmth of the sun, etc.  It will also include items specific to us.  He suggests reviewing this list nightly and contemplating which two items on the list for which we are more appreciative (e.g., ears or eyes).  The purpose is not to decide which are more important to us.  Rather, the idea is to think deeply about how fortunate we are for body parts that work “normally” and other items we generally take for granted.  For those who are really serious about being joyful, he suggests adding one item each night.