The strength and numbers of Orthodox Jews in America has never been greater, and yet any of us concerned with Judaism’s future must admit that we confront a future no less frightening than the future that was evident to Hannah’s noble sons in Modi’in all those centuries ago.
Then, Jewish ritual and belief was crushed by a dominant Greek culture that had been imposed upon but–let’s be honest–a culture gladly borne by the Jewish populace. As much as we might want to argue otherwise, we must wrestle with the understanding that the majority of the Jews of the Hasmonean Era embraced Greek culture.
While in America there is no military or cultural imposition that demands a compromise of Jewish values or practice, there is no less of an embrace of the larger, secular, non-Jewish culture.
The sad fact is, we are losing many of our children.
To believe otherwise is to willfully place blinders upon our eyes and shackles upon our hearts. Anyone who is honest and who works with Orthodox teens, even those who have received a yeshiva (Jewish day school) education, knows that too many do not find meaning, fulfillment or purpose in Judaism. They do not feel the beauty of Judaism, or the power of the halachot (laws). Instead, they chafe against a “lifestyle” they feel is restrictive and complain that being religious simply is not “fun.”
Dr. Simcha Katz, Orthodox Union President, outlines some examples of the malaise affecting our young people in his Jewish Action (Winter 5773/2012) article, noting how they text on Shabbat, and argue that the use of the ubiquitous technology is morally indistinguishable from adults speaking in shul (synagogue). He identifies an “underground” teen Shabbat culture that even allows for Friday night parties in empty houses or basements; parties organized by text or Tweet and always unsupervised; parties that often involve music and, too often, drugs and alcohol.
Was the threat to Judaism any greater during the Hasmonean Era? Was the pain that Judah Maccabee felt when he looked upon his Jewish brethren any more acute than the ache a caring Rosh Yeshiva feels today? Yet, what army do we fight to save Judaism? Where is our enemy?
Our Jewish children seem lost – determinedly so! Rather than the warmth of a small minyan (prayer group), they feel embraced by their hundreds of Facebook “friends”, seemingly unable to appreciate the power of what having a true friend actually means.
Imagine! Hundreds of friends! More than a thousand even! I am nearing retirement age, having lived a good life and yet I only require the fingers of one hand to count the number of my friends–friends I know, cherish, love and respect. Hundreds of friends? Ridiculous! These are not friends. They are faceless faces. Ciphers on an iPad, or a smartphone. The relationship is no deeper than the pixels found on the computer monitor. These “friends” offer but a shallow glimmer of what life and relationships should be.
Those pixels shine only outward, never inward.
Yet, this is what draws our children.
And therein lies the challenge for those of us who, like Judah of old, face if we want to redeem this generation and to bring about a genuine rededication; how do we help our children learn to shine their light inward as well as outward?
Tractate Shabbat teaches that, “It is a mitzvah to place the Chanukah candles outside the door to one’s home, but in times of danger, it is sufficient to place the candles on one’s table (inside).” On its face, this text is a simple directive for a practical matter – where is the proper place for the menorah to be placed.
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – every Jew is responsible for the other. Judaism is, first and foremost, a communal expression. No Jew should live isolated from the rest of his community, nor should he be concerned only with his own existence and survival. Each Jew is obligated to reach out to his fellow Jews. In this regard, placing our menorot on the outside of our houses symbolizes this essential lesson. We bring our light to those who are still in the dark; we seek to enlighten those who have not as yet had the opportunity and privilege to be on the inside. Our light shines outward.
As Jewish parents and teachers of Judaism we set our light to shine as an example of all that is beautiful about Judaism. Still, in order to be a light to others, we must also be a light to ourselves. Being responsible for others is not to be irresponsible to the self. In times of danger, when there is a threat from the outside, we should keep the lights on our own table, surrounded securely by children and family who are willing to share in the light of Judaism.
For so many years, the threat we faced as Jews was clear. Our enemies were on the outside. By kindling the Chanukah lights and placing our menorot on the outside of our homes, we declared a victory over these enemies.
Judah Macabee’s enemy was clear. Can the same be said for our own?
Our modern world threatens us less with annihilation by violence and force than by the simple seductiveness of assimilation. Technology creates the illusion of intimacy while denying the truth of it; creates the illusion of communication while removing the need for personal trust and faith, thereby making a mockery of real communication.
Against such a wily threat, the lights of our menorot must not only shine outward but inward, into our homes and souls. The menorah must stand as a source of light to maintain and reinforce the stability of our greatest source of strength – the Jewish home and its Jewish family.
The mitzvah of lighting Chanukah lights is so important that, like the mitzvah of the four cups of wine at Pesach, halacha teaches that a Jew lacking funds to buy candles for Chanukah or wine, must go out and beg, to literally “stretch out his hand” in order to fulfill these special mitzvot. Why? What is so important that it would make a needy Jew a beggar?
Unlike other mitzvot, if a Jew has positive and proper intentions but lacks the mean, the intention is enough. Not so for these two mitzvot. These two call for pirsumei nisa – public display and declaration. No matter what, action is commanded.
Unlike so many other festivals, when we celebrate the miracles brought about by the grace and mercy of God alone, Chanukah is a celebration of God’s grace and mercy coupled with the courage and bravery of the Hasmoneans.
The Temple was not redeemed by God’s grace. Rather, God graced the determination of those brave men and woman who actively fought the Hellenist desecration of the Temple and Jewish identity. The fight against assimilation, secularization, and ignorance can never be God’s alone. It is a fight that calls for “the work of our hands.”
So too, the work of our own generation. We cannot be satisfied because the enrollment in yeshivot causes classrooms to burst at the seams; we cannot be satisfied when the power of the “Jewish vote” is sought by the powerful; we cannot be satisfied when town councils accede to construction of communal Eruvin.
We cannot be so smug as to think these things alone constitute victory, not when our children are dropping out and falling by the wayside, not when a party on Shabbat is our children’s idea of the appropriate celebration of this glorious day.
There is so much work to be done.
When we succeed, as we did on Chanukah, we not only praise God with brachot, but we also extol “the work of our hands.” All the more difficult, I would add, when the enemy does not amass an army against us.
The Talmud teaches that the proper time for kindling the Chanukah lights is “when the sun begins to set.” The simple reading of this is that we light our Chanukah lights at the end of the Jewish day, at sundown. However, the remez understanding recognizes that it is precisely when the sun sets, and darkness gathers, that fear and trembling set in, that candles need to be lit.
Intermarriage. Teens “falling away.” Internet culture. Diminished Jewish communal involvement and concern.. This is the impending darkness we fear. It is precisely in response to such awesome and dark realities that more and more candles need to be lit. Beit Shamai advised that we begin with a big flame of eight candles so that we may burn through the contemporary scene of decay and Hellenism. But, as usual, Beit Hillel offered the more accepted perspective. We begin with just one, small candle. With a single spark. From the one little spark, we work our way up, slowly and surely, to bigger and stronger lights – mosif veholech.
How important are the Chanukah lights to the challenge of our times? Among the laws of Chanukah, we find that, “wicks and oils which may not be used on the Shabbat may be used for Chanukah.” Reb Mendel of Kotzl claimed that neshamot – souls (ner Hashem nishmat adam) which may resist the beauty and sacredness of Shabbat might be moved by the observance of Chanukah.
Even during the time of the Hasmoneans, when Jews were alienated and removed from Jewish observance, they were moved by Judah Maccabee’s call to join the struggle for Jewish independence, sovereignty and pride.
Another law regarding the lighting of the Chanukah menorah gets closer to the sod of Chanukah observance. If a Jew is unable to light or participate in the lighting of the menorah but merely sees a menorah belonging to someone else, he is permitted to recite two of the blessings recited when kindling the lights – she’asa nisim l’avoteinu (Who performed miracles for our forefathers) and shehecheyanu (the blessing of gratitude for reaching a significant time or season.)
Our gratitude, more than our fear, must define this holiday. Despite the challenges we face, let us take faith from the mighty struggles of our forebears. Let us dedicate the time, resources and energy to bringing our young people back. Let us help them identify with Jewish destiny and history. How? Not by spending all our time in front of computers on the Internet, or texting ourselves! But by teaching and learning from them! By listening to them! By showing by our compassion, sensitivity and care what it means to truly care for another, rather than an avatar.
Our task is overwhelming but, as Rabbi Tarfon taught, ours is not to complete the task… nor is it to turn away from it. With each simple step, with each modest candle, we will go forward.
We celebrate Chanukah because of the purification of a small can of oil; the triumph of light over darkness. Even after full independence was attained, our festival remained a commemoration of the miracle of lights, not of political supremacy. The purpose of the Hasmonean uprising was not military power; it was light of Torah, mitzvot, commitments, authentic Jewish education, vibrant and dynamic Jewish homes, synagogues and schools.
Only children who learn primary Jewish sources, who study Jewish history, tradition and heritage and who appreciate their ancestors and identify with their language and customs, can be expected to be dedicated – even if they merely see the lighted menorah! The Kedushat Levi concludes that the Talmud’s statement regarding the law of Chanukah, hadlakah oseh mitzvah – the actual lighting of the fire is the essence of the mitzvah – has as its ultimate goal to create fire, excitement, enthusiasm and yearning to create light. Jewish education, exciting and creative Jewish education, is the spark to sparking that contagious fire. But study must lead to more than intellectual understanding, or even spiritual insight. Our study must lead to a desire to cleave to our people.
Only light conquers darkness!
It is time that we rededicate ourselves to the real purpose of Chanukah. The lights of Chanukah were meant to banish our inner darkness. It is time that we emerge from the shadows of the virtual world and illuminate our real world. This year, do your share to let the light in.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.