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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayeshev/Chanukah 5776 "Still Fighting"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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12/4/15

STAM TORAH

PARSHAS VAYESHEV 5776

STILL FIGHTING

In 1944, as the Nazi’s realized that their defeat was imminent, they escalated their barbaric efforts to eradicate as many Jews as they could. It was during that time that Hungarian Jewry was systematically transported to the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for destruction.

One of those Hungarian prisoners was a sixty-year-old scholar named Rabbi Shraga Shmuel Schnitzler zt’l[1]. Reb Shmelke, as he was affectionately called, was an extremely pious man with a fiery and zealous love for G-d. He was exceptionally friendly and offered encouragement to everyone in the camps, especially the dispirited souls, inspiring them not to lose faith.

Even in the Nazi inferno, Reb Shmelke retained his faith and dignity. On Shabbos he would sit with the other inmates and create some semblance of Shabbosby regaling them with words of Torah and recounting stories of the Baal Shem Tov, as well as of his great-grandfather, Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg zt’l. For those few moments each week, the physically and spiritually starved inmates would be uplifted from their despondency.

His amiable ways garnered Reb Shmelke ‘special privileges’ from the ruthless Nazi commanders. Reb Shmelke used this rare privilege to ensure the proper burial of his fallen comrades. He also kept a record of the names of the deceased by scribbling them on small scraps of paper, using the charred tips of discarded matches that he collected for this purpose. In so doing he hoped to avert disastrous consequences to war widows who would be spared the agony of having to endure an agunah status[2].

With the advent of Chanukah, Reb Shmelke was determined to light a Menorah. However, he could not imagine how he would be able to gather the necessary materials.

The dilemma weighed heavily on him, even as he was in the process of burying a recently deceased inmate during the day before Chanukah. Reb Shmelke found himself short a couple of stones to complete the partitioning of the gravesite and scoured his immediate surroundings, to no avail. But from a distance a pile of rocks caught his eye. As he removed some of them, he was shocked to uncover a small bottle of oil. Shoving aside some more of the stones, he discovered cups - and soon he unearthed a pack of wicks.

A stunned Reb Shmelke could hardly believe his eyes. He recited a silent prayer of gratitude and quickly hid his newfound treasure. Later that evening, after the guards had left, a crowd of inmates stealthily gathered around as Reb Shmelke fervently and lovingly recited the blessings and lit the candles. Needless to say that moment infused the battered inmates with tremendous encouragement.

When the war ended, Reb Shmelke returned to Hungary where he would become widely known as the Tchaber Rav. He eventually immigrated to Israel and moved to Jerusalem.

Upon a subsequent visit to America, the Tchaber Rav looked up an old acquaintance, the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum zt’l. At some point during their emotional reunion, the Satmar Rebbe remarked, "You know that I too was in Bergen-Belsen but was rescued on the twenty-first of Kislev, four days before Chanukah[3]. Obviously I was unaware that I was to be saved and during my final weeks in the camp I expended tremendous effort, including bribing, to gather together oil, cups, and wicks to use for the mitzvah of Menorah. When I was saved I buried my Menorah materials in the ground. But I always felt badly that those materials were never used.

Words failed the Tchaber Rav as tears flooded his eyes. After a few moments he softly replied, “I assure you Rebbe, those materials were put to very good use.”

The ‘Al Hanisim’ prayer inserted into our prayers on Chanukah (and Purim) is our declaration of gratitude to G-d for all the miracles our ancestors were privy to at the time of their salvation. The introductory stanza is the same for Chanukah and Purim: “For the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers, in those days at this time.”

In addition, the universally recited text after kindling the Chanukah candles begins, “These lights we kindle upon the miracles, the wonders, the salvations, and the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days at this season through Your holy priests…”

The commentators question why we thank G-d for the battles. Why should we express our gratitude for the source of our grief and distress? Furthermore, why are the battles the final point that we mention; didn’t the battles occur before the miracles[4]?

The Ponovezher Rav, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kaheneman zt’l offered a novel and poignant explanation. The Hasmonean battles were all wars between the forces of holiness and impurity. The Hasmoneans went to battle the forces which sought to inhibit their Service to G-d and their ability to study Torah. They were unwilling to surrender their souls to an implacable foe who promised them untold glory and wealth if they would succumb to their indulging physical lifestyles.

The Hasmoneans obviously possessed indomitable will and an inextinguishable love for G-d and His Torah, and it was that passion that drove them to a war in which they merited many uncanny miracles. In other words, it was their obdurate determination and refusal to surrender that was at the foundation of the formation of the holiday of Chanukah.

Many centuries have passed since the Chanukah miracles occurred. The ancient Greeks are nothing more than an ancient dynasty relegated to the annals of history. But their nefarious legacy vis-à-vis the Jewish people lives on. We are still battered and plagued by external forces and a glitzy ostentatious culture which stands antithetical to Torah values. We are still challenged by the luring temptations of lifestyles which possess an exciting and inviting veneer. But the fact that we have not yet succumbed is the greatest testament to our strength and will. We may lose many a battle but we have not yet raised the white flag of surrender. Our ability to sustain the perpetual battle is the legacy which we have inherited from the Hasmoneans.

It is in that sense that we thank G-d “for the battles”, because we continue to fight those battles until this very day. We thank G-d for granting the Hasmoneans the ability to fight those wars, in spite of the odds, and never lose hope and courage, and simultaneously we thank G-d for giving us the fortitude and inner conviction to stay the course and not capitulate despite having been tripped up so many times.

There was perhaps no greater symbol of this idea than Yosef hatzaddik. Yosef was a seventeen year old handsome adolescent, abandoned by his family and sold into slavery, who ended up in the home of a woman who badgered him constantly to perform a sin with her. In fact, she was inhumanely relentless.

Truth be told, Yosef could have performed the sin and no one would have been any the wiser. But Yosef refused to succumb. As a reward for his incredible restraint he landed in an Egyptian prison, with the crassest criminals of Egypt. Yet even there Yosef did not surrender to his grief. He won the favor of the prison wardens and earned himself some level of distinction until he was finally hauled from prison, en route to becoming the viceroy of Egypt.

The Torah’s narrative of the saga of Yosef is always read prior to, and during Chanukah. One of the many correlations between the two events is the uncanny devotion to G-d and the ability to never lose sight of the cause. Yosef eventually prevailed and his dreams came to fruition because he never gave up. The Hasmoneans too, adapted that same mantra. Like Yosef they were plunged into incredible darkness and bleakness, but they battled through the darkness and their efforts bore fruit.

With this in mind we can offer a novel interpretation of a passage we recite towards the conclusion of Al Hanisim: “ולעמך ישראל עשית תשועה גדולה ופורקן כהיום הזה- And to Your nation Yisroel, You made a great salvation and redemption as this day.” What do we mean “as this day”?

The Master Ethicists explain that throughout life a person is engaged in an internal battle that rages within. It is the epic struggle between following one’s base desires or exercising his moral conscience to overcome his whims and inclinations. The most important component of that struggle is the courage, patience, and conviction to stay the course and not give up… on oneself

The verse in Proverbs (24:16) states, “The righteous falls seven times, and he gets up.” The commentators note that the difference between the righteous and the wicked is not in how often they fall, but in how quickly and resiliently they get up. We must believe in ourselves and not allow ourselves to fall into the morass of despair which our Evil Inclination lures us into so adeptly.

The key to our success lies in our courage to never surrender. The Hasmoneans eventually triumphed because they had the courage to fight on, even when things seemed hopeless. The Chanukah candles symbolize that sense of will and courage and their light reflects that sense of mission and ambition.

Thus we pray that the salvation and redemption that G-d wrought in those days should be “like this day”; that in our time too we too should merit salvation that results from perseverance and resolve. We pray that G-d help us find the inner conviction to never give up on ourselves, so that we can follow in the footsteps of Yosef and the holy Priests who were the catalysts of the Chanukah miracles.

The holiday of Chanukah personifies the prophet’s beautiful words:

כי אשב בחושך ה' אור לי אל תשמחי איבתי לי כי נפלתי קמתי - Let my enemies not rejoice over me, for when I fall I will arise. When I sit in darkness, G-d is my light[5]” As long as we never allow ourselves to surrender on the epic battle of life, we will find the eternal light of G-d, reflected in the ethereal glow of the Chanukah candles.

“And for the battles”

“A great salvation and redemption as this day”

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[1] The Nikolsberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Lebovits shlita, is a grandson of R’ Shmelke. The Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Baruch Yehuda Lebovits zt’l, was R’ Shmelke’s son-in-law.

[2] R’ Shmelke's selfless acts indeed proved invaluable after the war, when many widows were enabled to substantiate claim of their husbands' demise to the Jewish courts.

[3] The Satmar Rebbe was saved as part of the famous “Kastner deal”. The Kastner train was a trainload of almost 1,700 Jews who, in the second half of 1944, escaped from Nazi-controlled Hungary to safety in Switzerland, while some 450,000 members of the Hungarian Jewish community were deported to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

The train was named after Rudolf Kastner, one of the leaders of the Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee, who negotiated with senior SS officer Adolf Eichmann to allow a number of Jews to escape in exchange for money, gold, and diamonds. The train included passengers from all social classes and from all over Hungary. Despite Eichmann's promise that the train would go directly to a neutral country, the Jews were held in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in a special section for some months There were 40 rabbis, including the Satmar rebbe.

[4] Even if we are referring to the miracles that transpired during the battles we should not mention the battles last on our list?

[5] Michah 7:6-7



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