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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Miketz - Chanukah 5776 "Rock of Israel"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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The following is part of the text of the Oxford Chabad Society Joseph Graham Memorial Lecture, given by Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau[1], at St Annes College, on 7 May, 2006:

“I was privileged once to meet David Ben Gurion, the architect of the State of Israel. On April 13, 1972, I received a telephone call from Ben Gurion. At the time, he was living in S’de Boker, the desert kibbutz. He was a great admirer of the Tanach, and he called to ask some questions regarding two passages in the Torah which he did not understand. He asked if we could meet to discuss these issues at S’de Boker, as rheumatism had made it difficult for Ben Gurion to walk. I considered this a great honour indeed. When we met up, we discussed his questions for several hours, but I had one question of my own.

““David”, I asked, “For years I have been telling a story that I had heard about you during the Period of the British Mandate of Palestine. I would like to confirm if this story is true or not”.

““What is the story in question?” asked Ben Gurion.

“I proceeded to tell him what I had heard. It happened in 1937, at the time that the Peel Commission was presiding over the British mandate of Palestine, as Israel was then known, trying to decide what to do about the Arab-Jewish conflict. The Peel Committee was the only committee to suggest cancelling the British mandate, the same decision that the UN came to in 1947. At the time of the Peel Commission, Ben Gurion was the head of the Jewish Agency, and was the last witness to appear before the Peel Committee to appeal in favour of a Jewish state. Ben Gurion spent over three hours explaining the linkage between the Jews and the Land of Israel, stating, “This is our home”.

“Everybody was impressed by Ben Gurion’s testimony. Everyone, that is, except for Lord Peel. [By the way, “Peel” means “Elephant” in Hebrew.]

““Mr. Ben Gurion, may I ask you a question?” said Lord Peel.

““Of course you can; that is why I am here”, replied Ben Gurion.

““Where were you born?”

““Plonsk,” came the reply.

““Where is Plonsk?”


“A large period of silence came after the reply. Finally, Lord Peel said in the barest whisper, “Very strange indeed. All of the Arab leaders who have appeared before me were born in Palestine. Most of the Jewish leaders who have appeared before me were born in Eastern Europe.”

“Lord Peel spoke up, saying “Mr. Ben Gurion, the Arab people have a Kushan entitling them to this land.” A Kushan was an Ottoman land deed. “Do you have a document saying that Palestine belongs to you?”

“At that point, Ben Gurion became aware of the Tanach in his hand that he swore upon whilst taking the oath to be witness to the commission. He held it up triumphantly exclaiming “Here is your Kushan; here is your document! It is the world’s most highly respected book, and I believe that you British regard it with much respect too. We must have this land.”

“Back in 1973, I asked Ben Gurion in his desert home “Is this story really true? Did you hold up a Tanach and say ‘Here is your document?”

“Ben Gurion smiled and said “Emet Veyatziv”, it is true and it is certain.

“I had another question to ask Ben Gurion. I asked, “Imagine you have a document that entitles you to a land. Then you destroy it. You crumple it up, shred it, and tear it. Try and present this document to a committee as proof of entitlement for a piece of land. The committee will not accept it in its torn and tattered condition. But look at the Jewish people. We pick and choose certain laws. We consider some laws archaic. In effect, we are destroying our own document. How can we therefore use it as entitlement to the Land of Israel?”

“David Ben Gurion was a very smart man. So smart, in fact, that he refused to answer the question!”

מעוז צור ישועתי לך נאה לשבח" - My fortress! The Rock of my salvation, to You praise is fitting”. The opening words of the beloved hymn sung after lighting the Chanukah candles are well known. We commence by emphatically stating that G-d is our Rock, the symbol of consistency and strength, and it is only through Him that the Maacabees were able to rout the Syrian-Greek forces.

Tragically, Chanukah has become a grossly misunderstood and politicized holiday. It has become the symbol of the weak striking back against its captors and oppressors. Chanukah has become the symbol of the triumph of the underdog who seeks to stand up for himself, despite the odds. In a sense, Chanukah has become a celebration analogous to the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series[2]. It’s the loveable losers finally triumphing.

Truthfully however, Chanukah has nothing to do with political or economic democracy. It was simply a battle for the right to serve G-d and keep His Torah. The scholarly Maacabees felt that if they were unable to keep the Torah life was not worth living. That (and that alone) was the impetus for their mission.

In our culture fighting for religion is certainly not in vogue. Movies and media promote stories of those who give up everything, even religion, in the name of “love”[3]. Thus has the message of Chanukah been distorted and misunderstood. The holiday which symbolizes our desire for pristine untainted Torah living, and observing the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu, has virtually come to represent the opposite idea.

Chanukah is not the only time that the idea of “Tzur Yeshuasi – The Rock of my salvation” was distorted. The term was also used in 1948 in the Israeli Declaration of Independence as a compromise between religious and secular Jews.

In Tehillim (19:14) Hashem is referred to as "צורי וגואלי – My Rock and my Redeemer."[4] The commentators explain that the "Rock" refers to G-d, who protects the Jewish people and is the center of our faith, which defines our identity and consciousness. The term indicates the trust and faith of our people in an Immutable, Unfaltering, Omnipresent G-d. However, secular Zionists have interpreted this term in a non-religious way to refer to the cultural and historical heritage that has preserved Jewish community and identity over the centuries.

The term "Rock of Israel" became a virulent subject of controversy just before the promulgation of the Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. The leaders present at the ceremony who were to be signatories of the declaration believed that the declaration should express the fundamental values and principles that would define the new state, which would give the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine after 2,000 years.

The Jewish religious leaders, led by Rabbi Fishman-Maimon wanted a clear reference to G-d with the words " צור ישראל וגואלו The Rock of Israel and its Redeemer." However, a large segment of the leadership who had secular and socialist convictions sought a clear separation of ‘church and state’. Aharon Zisling, the left-wing leader of Mapam refused to sign the declaration of independence if it contained references to "a G-d in whom he did not believe." The disagreement threatened to derail the actual and ceremonial proclamation of the establishment of a Jewish state.

David Ben-Gurion, who would become the country's first Prime Minister, spent the morning of May fourteenth mediating the dispute between Rabbi Maimon and Zisling. After hours of talks, Rabbi Maimon agreed to leave out the term "Redeemer" from the text of the declaration and leave it “with faith in the Rock of Israel”. The compromise allowed each side to define that term as they saw fit and it was included without a final vote.

Later in his life Ben-Gurion is said to have explained that to him, "Rock of Israel" referred to "the Old Testament with its history and traditions", or the "Tzahal[5].

Despite Ben-Gurion's conviction that "Rock of Israel" was not necessarily a religious term, the official English translation composed by Moshe Sharet, and cited in official documents, rendered it as "Al-mighty G-d." It was not until 1962 that the Israeli government changed it to the more literal "Rock of Israel".

This tragic encounter is at the root of the distortion of the message and symbolism of Chanukah. Chanukah celebrates the eternal protection and connection that we have with the ‘Rock of Israel’. But those who define the ‘Rock of Israel’ in ulterior manners undermine the basis of our traditions and faith.

In the Chanukah prayers we state that the Syrian-Greeks wanted, להשכיחם תורתך" – To make them forget Your Torah.” How is it possible to force someone to forget something, especially something so deeply-rooted as the Torah is to the Jewish people?

At the conclusion of Parshas Vayeshev, the Torah relates the saga of Yosef in prision with Pharoah’s Chief Baker and Chief Wine-Maker. They both had disturbing dreams and could not understand their meanings. Yosef was able to explain to both of them that each dream held an integral message about their fate; the Chief-Baker would be hung while the Chief Wine-Maker would return to his post. After interpreting the dreams Yosef requested that the Chief Wine-Maker remember him and intercede on his behalf before Pharoh.

The verse at the end of Vayeshev concludes, “And the Chief Wine-maker did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him.” It would be another two years before the Wine-Maker ‘remembered’ Yosef and mentioned him before Phroah, after Pharoah had two disturbing dreams that his ministers and astrologers could not interpret. Clearly then, the Wine-maker did not totally forget about Yosef because he ultimately did mention him to Pharoah. If so, what does it mean that he forgot him?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l explained that a person remembers something when it makes an impression on him. When one is emotionally moved he does not quickly forget the impetus for that impression.

There was no question that when Yosef interpreted the dreams correctly, the Chief Wine-Maker was completely overwhelmed by Yosef, his charisma, and his ability to forsee the truth. But the Chief Wine-Maker did not want to be impressed by a Jew. Therefore, in his mind he belittled the events, rationalizing that Yosef had just ‘gotten lucky’.[6]

That is what the verse means that the Chief Wine-Maker ‘forgot Yosef’. He rationalized what happened and attributed it to natural forces, causing him to ‘forget’ how amazed he was and therefore forgetting about Yosef’s supernatural ability.

This is also the meaning of our Chanukah prayer that the Syrian-Greeks sought to compel us ‘to forget Your Torah’. The Syrian-Greeks tried to ‘chill’ our passion and utter devotion to Torah. They reasoned that Jew and Greek could live side by side and enjoy each other’s wisdom and insight. By subtly decreasing our commitment to Torah and its supremacy over every facet of our lives, the Syrian-Greeks were successful in luring the masses towards their lifestyle and culture. Without passion and devotion, our Torah observance inevitably becomes deficient. That was the starting point which led to the perilous spiritual devastation of that time.

How did the Maccabbes vanquish the enemy’s spiritual attack? In the Al Hanisim prayer we state that G-d delivered “וזדים ביד עוסקי תורתך – the malevolent ones in the hands of those who engage in Your Torah”. The Maccabean victory was bound to the fact that the revolters were those who immersed themselves in Torah study. One only engages in meticulous in-depth study of something if it is extremely valuable to him. Otherwise he would not have the patience to painstakingly decipher every dimunitive nuance.

The exile of Greece was rooted in the dousing of passion, which caused us to ‘forget’ the cebtrality of Torah in our lives. The victory came about because of those who renewed their passion and were ready to die for their cause.

The holiday of Chanukah celebrates our belief in the Rock of Israel. We await the day when all of our bretheren will realize that the Rock of Israel refers to G-d, and He Alone.

“My fortress! The Rock of my salvation”

“In the hands of those who engage in Your Torah”

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[1]former Chief Rabbi of Israel and the youngest survivor of Buchenwald [the famous picture displayed at Yad Vashem of a young child with his hands up is of Rabbi Lau as a seven year old child]

[2] Which may require a greater miracle than that of Chanukah...

[3] My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, relates that the first nationally distributed feature film that included dialogue sequences as well as music and sound effects talking movie produced was ‘The Jazz Singer’ starring Al Jolson (1927). The protagonist of the movie, who is a cantor, falls for an Italian gentile girl. At first he is banned from the Temple. But the story ends with the protagonist leading the Kol Nidrei services with his mother and gentile wife looking on approvingly. That message of Jewish-dominated Hollywood has not changed in the decades since.

[4] The phrase beginning "Tzur Yisrael - Rock of Israel" is recited immediately prior to the commencement of the Shemoneh Esrei prayer.

[5] The Israeli army

[6] Truthfully, this is something many people do on a constant basis. We become impressed or emotionally moved by an unusual event, but after a few days we ‘get used to it’ and it loses its wonder and novelty, and we go on with life, leaving behind a message.

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