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Chayei Sarah, 19th of Kislev, Chanukah: Three Flashes of Light

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Through the Eyes of a Woman
A Chassidic Perspective on Living Torah

Chayei Sarah, 19th of Kislev, Chanukah: Three Flashes of Light

by Nechoma Greisman, Edited by Rabbi Moshe Miller

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  7th of Cheshvan: Brave New WorldThe Ninth of Kislev: On Interconnectedness  

The Rebbe often cites the sefer called Shnei Luchos HaBris (or Shelah for short) regarding the connection between events in the Jewish calendar and the portion of the Torah which is read in the relevant week. Since everything happens by hashgachah peratis, Divine Providence, there is clearly a connection between two events which coincide. Thus, if a certain date always falls in the week of a certain parshah, then there is a connection between them, even though you may not see it at first glance. You just have to know how to look. Anyone who has heard the Rebbe's farbrengens knows well that at least one of the sichos (very often the first one) is dedicated to explaining this connection.

The same principle applies to Shabbos Mevarchim -- the last Shabbos of the month -- on which we bless the coming month. Since Shabbos Mevarchim blesses all of the days of the coming month, it must be connected to each day of the coming month.

This Shabbos we read the weekly portion of the Torah called Chayei Sarah. Since this Shabbos was Shabbos Mevarchim Kislev, when we bless the month of Kislev, it is connected to all of the days of this month, including Yud-Tes Kislev -- the nineteenth of Kislev, when the Alter Rebbe was released from prison where he had been confined on trumped-up charges in 1798 -- and also Chanukah, when we celebrate the victory of the Chashmonaim (Hasmoneans) over the Greeks, and the finding of the jar of undefiled oil which miraculously burned for eight days.

Miracles and Light

What is the connection between the weekly reading of Chayei Sarah, the 19th of Kislev, and Chanukah? One of the major events that is described in the Torah reading is the shidduch and subsequent marriage of Yitzchak and Rivkah, the first marriage mentioned explicitly in the Torah. This in itself is significant, for when something is mentioned in the Torah for the first time, it always has special significance, and we can derive a special lesson from it -- for example, regarding the concept of marriage. However, what we are looking for is a connection between the Torah portion, Yud-Tes Kislev and Chanukah. The Rebbe points out that all three events were miraculous, and all three were connected with light.

Our Sages explain that all of the Avos and Imahos, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish People, observed all of the mitzvos even before the Torah was given at Sinai. Sarah, for example, used to light Shabbos candles. But when she lit her candles they remained lit until the following Friday afternoon. When she passed away, this miracle stopped. When Avraham Avinu lit the candles in her place, they only burned for a few hours, just like the candles we light.

Now when Yitzchak married Rivkah, and brought her back to live in the tent of his mother Sarah, to his amazement and delight the candles which Rivkah lit on Friday prior to Shabbos also stayed lit the entire week. The miracle that had taken place with his mother, now repeated itself with his wife. (When Yitzchak saw this miracle taking place again, he knew that he had married the right lady!)

HaShem instituted the "laws" of nature. He decreed that water will always flow downwards, and fire burn upwards. Once HaShem decided upon what we call these chukei hateva, and set the world into motion according to these natural laws, every time they are defied, we call it a neis -- a miracle. Of course, you can argue that every breath a person breathes is a neis. A newborn baby is a neis. Or the fact that I can drink water and it goes into my pinky is a neis. Of course, that is so. Nature is wondrous. We are not claiming that it is more difficult for G-d to perform a neis than to act according to teva. Rather, as far as we see it, from the human vantage point, the world functions in a certain way. The sun rises; the sun sets. The rain falls. The natural, predictable order that HaShem established in the world is called teva. Any time that an event defies the natural order -- that is a neis.

Several miracles occurred on Chanukah. There was the miracle of the victory of a tiny civilian minority over a well-trained military majority. Then the Chashmonaim found a jar of oil undefiled by the Greeks. But the major miracle of Chanukah was that the jar of oil, which was enough to light the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash for one night only, burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared.

The Gemara asks why there was any need for the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash in the first place? G-d certainly did not need its light! The Gemara answers that one of the candles (the ner maaravi, or western light) continued burning throughout the day, long after all the other candles had burned out, even though there was the same amount of oil in all of them. The candle continued burning until it was time to light candles again, the following afternoon. The Gemara then explains that this miracle was a testimony to the entire world that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, always rested upon the Jewish People.

The miracles that took place on Yud-Tes Kislev also involved light, but in a more spiritual sense. The Torah is referred to as light, as the verse states, ner mitzvah veTorah or -- "a mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is a light." The teachings of Chassidus are not only called "light," but a "luminary" -- the source of light (as the Rebbe always writes in his letter of blessing to a chassan and kallah). This is because the teachings of Chassidus are the very essence of the Torah, the essence of "light." We can explain this according to the comparison our Sages make between seven types of liquid mentioned in the Torah (water, wine, oil, milk, honey, dew, blood) and the various aspects of Torah. Torah in general is compared to water, without which we cannot live. Milk is compared to those aspects of Torah which make us grow and mature, just as milk is what makes a baby grow into a child. Wine is a symbol of the secrets of Torah, as Rashi explains in his commentary to the first verses of Shir HaShirim. And oil is a symbol of the very deepest secrets of the Torah -- referred to in the Zohar as "the secrets of the secrets" of Torah. In the chassidic discourse entitled Inyanah shel Toras HaChassidus, the Rebbe explains that whereas wine is a symbol of the teachings of Kabbalah, oil is a symbol of the teachings of Chassidus, which illuminate the soul and the world with a bright, steady flame. Thus Chassidus is also connected to light, the source of light.

Transcending Nature

The thrust of Chabad Chassidus is to teach us a practical lesson in our service of HaShem, not just an ingenious pilpul or an interesting insight. We have to go home with something. From the common denominator of all three events mentioned above, the Rebbe learns that we have to serve HaShem in a manner that transcends nature. Moreover, this has to be "in the manner of light," as we will explain.

Everybody comes into this world with a certain inborn nature. This nature may be defined by our natural tendencies and our instincts. There are a lot of factors that influence who we are, and how we act and react. There are factors that are beyond our control, such as the type of physical bodies we were born with -- some people are stronger than others, some have better eyesight, some are physically handicapped. Then there is the parental influence, the person's family situation, his financial status, etc.

If we serve HaShem according to our teva, according to the nature with which we were born, this is not really serving. I'll give you an example of what I mean. Some people are naturally kind. It's typical of them to share their last bit of food. They have a lot of sympathy for others. So if a person is naturally kind and spends his life being kind, you might say, what a nice person; he's kind. But that's not really called serving HaShem, because it comes naturally. There are gentiles who are kind, and even animals with a naturally kind nature. There is a type of bird from the stork family that is called a chassidah because it has a naturally kind disposition. But being kind because it comes naturally is not really serving HaShem. It's just doing what comes naturally.

Avraham Avinu was a very kind and loving person, the epitome of chessed. But HaShem put him to the test to prove that his kindness was not simply natural or habitual -- it was an expression of his service of G-d. After the test of the binding of Yitzchak, where Avraham was asked to slaughter his own son, the angel says to him, "Now I know that you fear G-d..." We see that Avraham was able to transcend his kind and loving nature in the service of G-d; and this proves that his kindness was not merely the result of his personality. Because he was able to do exactly the opposite of kindness, we learn that his kindness also transcended nature.

The Torah expects opposites from you. In one place it tells you that you must love every Jew as yourself. But elsewhere, when a person commits a serious sin, you have the obligation imposed upon you by the Torah to take the sinner to court and bring witnesses against him. That doesn't sound like the kind thing to do -- the person might get lashes, or worse. But this is what the Torah demands of you. You have to transcend your own definition of kindness in order to do what is right. There are times when the Torah says that a parent has to punish a child. But what if you just read a book and it says if you hit a child you might traumatize him for life? You must be kind! But the Torah says you have to sometimes hit. Right? You say, "But I can't do it because I'm so kind; I can't hurt anybody!" If you could never go against your kindness, then you're serving HaShem al pi teva -- only according to your nature. There are times when Torah demands that you do something which is not natural to you. By transcending your natural inclination when the Torah demands it, you are serving HaShem al pi neis -- in a miraculous way. If you can do things that you don't necessarily agree with, that defy what you feel is right, and you do it anyway because the Torah demands it, this is called mesirus nefesh, true self-sacrifice. Mesirus nefesh doesn't mean that you necessarily have to burn at the stake. That's not what mesirus nefesh means in our generation. Rather, since nefesh also means will or desire, it means that you give up your will in order to fulfill G-d's will, doing something that may be contrary to what you would like to do.

For example, if you would really like to say things which are not complimentary to others, lashon hara, and you bite your tongue and you don't say it -- that's mesirus nefesh, because you just now overpowered an urge that was natural and didn't fulfill it -- for the sake of HaShem. Any time you do something with kabbalas ol, accepting the yoke of HaShem, you have done an act of mesirus nefesh. You don't say, "My intellect will guide me and direct my life" -- that is the Greek way of thinking. We had to fight against that way of thinking -- ending in the miraculous victory of the Chashmonaim over the Greek army. Rather, HaShem's intellect, as enclothed in the Torah -- this is what must guide me. So even though Reform Jews feel that they have the right to determine intellectually what is kind and what is cruel and what makes sense, the observant Jew will say, "Even though, to me, it also looks like a very cruel thing to do, if the Torah says it must be done, it must be done, even though I don't understand why." That's kabbalas ol.

Another example: A woman is pregnant, and the doctors have determined that the baby will be born deformed. All the "normal" people say, "Of course you should have an abortion. That's the kind thing to do. Spare yourself the delivery, spare the child misery. Why go through the pregnancy, why go through the birth?" But the Torah says you're not allowed to. Of course there are certain cases where the Torah may permit abortion. If the Torah tells you to go ahead with the birth, that this is the Halachah, even though you cannot see the kindness in this, and you follow the Torah's ruling, even if it is very painful and very difficult -- that's serving HaShem al pi neis.

There was a time when things were much more peaceful and tranquil. There weren't so many of these times in Jewish history, but once upon a time there was a period when Yiddishkeit flourished and where there weren't very many obstacles to the Jew maintaining his Yiddishkeit. But when the powers of impurity and evil are active, and are trying in every way to put out the light of Yiddishkeit, and the darkness is very, very dark, then you have to respond by lighting up the darkness with the Chanukah candles, by bringing the mesirus nefesh out of the closet and being ready at every moment to fight. And you have to be very active. You cannot be passive. In everything you do, you have to be a Jew and make sure that Yiddishkeit is seen and felt, and make sure that everybody around you is aware of the light that you are radiating -- "outside the door of your house," as the Halachah states regarding the lighting of Chanukah candles.

This kind of miraculous behavior is demanded in a time of spiritual war. And the Rebbe says, now at the end of the exile, the war is starting to become much fiercer, because the evil forces of the world sense that Mashiach is on the way. Nowhere do you see this more clearly than in the opposition to Toras HaChassidus, which is the Torah teachings of Mashiach.

Perhaps this needs some explanation: In a letter to his brother-in-law, who was living in Eretz Yisrael, the Baal Shem Tov once wrote of the aliyas ha-neshamah (elevation of the soul) which he experienced on Rosh HaShanah in the year 5507 (1746). He had ascended to the very highest spiritual levels, until he stood before Mashiach. The Baal Shem Tov asked him when he would come, and Mashiach told him that when the Baal Shem Tov's wellsprings -- his teachings -- were spread far afield, then Mashiach would come.

For this reason there is a tremendous hisnagdus -- opposition -- to Chassidus, the teachings which the Baal Shem Tov received from Mashiach. Our response must be not to minimize our learning of Torah, nor of Chassidus, but to study more and do more and to influence another Jew, and another Jew, and another Jew, as the Rebbe is constantly calling upon us to do. What if you stay in your house and you pray three times a day and you learn constantly? Who heard about it? It's a big secret. But if you make a chassidic farbrengen in your house, you are defying the laws of nature. Everybody else in the world is telling you that you're crazy, but this is the lesson we must learn in our service of G-d. This is the greatest miracle, the neis that we should bring into our daily lives -- especially now, at the end of the overly-extended exile.

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