Thursday, December 1, 2016

See The Light

Rav Lipman Podolsky z"l

Chanuka is less than a month away, and as such, it behooves us to prepare ourselves so that we may derive the maximum from this special time. We do not just commemorate the events of our past; history is cyclical. The same special light that shone two and a half thousand years ago reappears, comet-like, each year at this time. With the proper preparation and contemplation, we can maximize our experience, transforming Chanuka into an Avoda, and not just a "holiday".

The Greeks occupied Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim for three years. They enacted cruel, anti-semitic laws: "To cause them to forget Your Torah, and to cause them to transgress the statues of Your will (Al HaNissim)."

Matisyahu and his sons were painfully aware how urgent it was to rescue the Torah from extinction. But what could they do? They were only thirteen men against the combined might and advanced weaponry of the Greek Army (Rashi, Devarim 33:11).

Nevertheless, they sparked a revolt; Boruch Hashem, they won. The question is, why did they rebel at all? How could they have depended upon a miracle to achieve victory? They clearly knew that without Divine assistance their rebellion would be instantly quashed. What were they thinking?

"Yitzchok's servants dug in the valley and found there a well of fresh water (Be'er Mayim Chayim). The shepherds of G'rar quarreled with Yitzchok's shepherds saying, 'The water is ours,' so he called the name of that well Esek because they involved themselves with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that also; so he called its name Sitnah. He relocated from there and dug another well; they did not quarrel over it, so he called its name Rechovos, and said, 'For now Hashem has granted us ample space, and we can be fruitful in the land (Breishis 26:19-22)."

This whole story demands explanation. What is this episode of the wells? And of what significance are their names?

Klal Yisrael received two Torahs from Hashem at Mount Sinai: The Written Torah, and the Oral Torah (Shmos Rabba 47:3). What is the difference between them? With the Written Torah, what you see is what you get. It is forbidden to add or detract, even a single letter. There is nothing to "read between the lines." No effort required.

The Oral Torah is constantly renewed and developed. Every year more and more sefarim are published to "make the Torah great and glorious." And of course, all is dependent solely upon the effort. No pain, no gain.

A well (Be'er) is a spring of running groundwater (Mayim Chayim -- living waters). After one digs the well, the waters continue to be renewed and replenished. This is true life. And this is the Oral Torah. Thus, our primary effort in yeshiva is directed specifically to the Oral Torah, for it is from there that we drink the living waters of Torah. Only the Oral Torah affords us the opportunity to truly grow and develop in spirituality. Only via the Oral Torah can one find within oneself the living waters that flow forth from the Source of living waters -- HaKadosh Boruch Hu.

This, Chazal call, Yagati u'matzasi (Megilla 6b). "Should one tell you, 'I struggled but I did not find,' do not believe him; 'I did not struggle, yet I found,' do not believe him; 'I struggled and I found,' believe him." Only by truly exerting oneself in the Oral Torah is it possible to discover the flowing, living waters concealed within.

A careful reading of the Gemara, however, reveals an additional secret. To 'struggle' implies that one works hard for what one earns. To 'find' however connotes unwittingly stumbling across a lost object. What Chazal are revealing is that a prerequisite to success in Torah is the struggle, the utmost effort that a person can invest. "You've got to be in it to win it." Nevertheless, the Torah that we attain is ultimately a metziah, a windfall, graciously granted to us by the ultimate Teacher of Torah, Hashem (Bircas HaTorah).

This is analogous to a well. The digging, the shvitzing in the hot summer sun, does not produce the water. By digging we cause the waters -- which were present all along -- to become revealed. Such is the learning of Torah.

And this is the symbolism of Yitzchok's digging of the wells. "The actions of the patriarchs serve as signposts for their descendants (Ramban, Breishis 12:6)." Yitzchok dug a well to unearth the living waters -- the waters of Torah (Yalkut Shimoni 111). But the forces of evil began to quarrel with Yitzchok. The first well he labeled Esek -- for they provoked him. At first a person invents excuses and rationalizations as to why he hasn't succeeded in learning. This is stage one.

Still, he persists and digs another well. "And they quarreled over that also." He has endeavored to learn the Oral Law, and once again the Yetzer Hara opposes him. "And he called its name Sitnah," -- hatred. This time there are no excuses, just pure hatred for the sought-after goal.

Most people would despair at this point. "I can't do it!" they would exclaim. "After all, I struggled, yet I did not find!" Mission Impossible!

But Yitzchok perseveres. "He relocated from there and dug another well." This time, "they did not quarrel over it, so he called its name Rechovos, and said, 'For now Hashem has granted us ample space." "I struggled, and I found!" Finally, Hashem has revealed the hidden treasure, broadening the mind's capabilities with the light of Torah. "And we can be fruitful in the land," now he can reap the fruits of life, the fruits of the Oral Torah, the waters of Life.

How many young men traverse this path during their climb up the mountain of the Oral Torah! It begins with Esek -- rationalizations. "I'm tired, I don't feel so good, I'm dumb, etc." Later, after the second failed attempt, he no longer needs excuses. "I don't like to learn, I hate Gemara, I tried hard, but did not find, etc." Often, at this point, people raise their hands in despair. But the wise person will walk in the footsteps of our Zayde Yitzchok -- It is forbidden to despair! "No one can 'stand' on the words of Torah unless he first stumbles over them (Gittin 43a)." "I struggled yet I did not find, do not believe him." Such a person exerts himself, fortified with the Divine promise that he will succeed. In the end, Hashem will illuminate his darkness. Suddenly, he sees a terrific flash. Lightning! And the waters begin to flow.

But, why must one struggle so? Is it worth all the effort? Then again, why did Yitzchok work so hard to dig the wells? The explanation is obvious. When one lives in a desert, water is not only important, it is vital. Without it, a person would very quickly exit the world of the living. When there is no choice, one does not despair. It simply must work; I must succeed.

So is it concerning Torah. "For they [the words of Torah] are our life, and the length of our days (Maariv)." Torah is not just an important aspect of our lives, it is life itself. Without Torah we are like fish out of water (Brachos 61b). There is no choice; we must succeed. "I struggled but I did not find, do not believe him."

We asked above, how could the Maccabees have launched their revolt with only thirteen men? Were they suicidal? In light of the above, the answer is self-evident. Chanuka, more than any other Jewish Holiday, symbolizes the Oral Torah. Historically, Chanuka took place after the canonization of the Written Torah. And it is the last of the miracles -- a final Divine message to provide succor throughout our long, painful exile (Yuma 29a). No longer will we be privy to prophets and direct communication with Hashem; never again will we receive the clarity of the Written Torah. From now on we must dive into the tempestuous sea of the Oral Torah, to struggle and work and shvitz, to dig the wells of living waters.

The Greeks would not and could not tolerate this concept -- how could Torah flow through the hearts and minds of men? A Written Torah made some sense to them. Thus, they translated the Septuagint (Megilla 9a). But an Oral Torah, a Torah dependent upon the effort and self-sacrifice of the learner, that they could not stomach. And so they decreed edicts, "to cause them to forget Your Torah," -- the Oral Torah.

Matisyahu and his sons had to do something to reverse this malignant campaign against their very souls. To one another they encouraged, "I struggled but I did not find, do not believe him! The Torah is in danger; life is in danger. There is no other option; we must succeed!" "I struggled and I found, believe him!"

For that reason, they rebelled. It was not easy. They dug wells which were subsequently filled in cruelly by the enemy. They quarreled over them, bitterly. Nonetheless, they tenaciously persevered. They didn't rationalize, they did not succumb to laziness and the human craving not "to rock the boat." Steadfastly, they pushed on, in the face of death, until they finally merited to receive their "find" from Hashem. It is no coincidence that the miracle depended upon a true find, the discovery of a lone flask of pure oil, a treasure of miraculous proportions. "I struggled, and I found..."

But there was enough oil to burn for only one day. To procure new, pure oil would take a good eight days! What should they do? They did not become bogged down with logic; ours is but to strive. They lit the Menorah and were presented with yet another, unexpected treasure -- the candles burned for a full eight days. Miracle of miracles!

One last fascinating point. Why was the miracle one of oil? Hashem could have performed any number of wonders! I heard from Rav Mordechai Dolinsky the following analogy. Someone gives you some olive oil and suggests that you heat it up, promising that eventually it will burn. You are incredulous; after all, does orange juice burn? Why should olive juice burn? Still, he is your friend. You begin infusing the oil with energy, yet nothing happens. You turn up the heat, and still there is no change. You are ready to give up, but then decide to try one last time. You crank up the temperature just one more degree and BOOM! The entire container bursts into a ball of flame. Your friend was right all along.

Such is the Oral Torah. We struggle, we push, we stumble and become frustrated. Is it really worth all the effort? Some give up sooner, some later. But a few, hardy souls will heed the words of their wise friend, and will continue to invest their maximum. It may take months, and it may take years, but at some point the intense heat will ignite the Jewish neshama. He will merit "to see the light."

This is Chanuka, the Festival of Light -- the Festival of Torah She'bal Peh.