Monday, December 5, 2016

The Light of Life

Rav Lipman Podolsky z"l 

"Vayetze Yaakov" -- Yaakov departed (Breishis 29:10). What could have driven Yaakov to abandon the cherished land of Israel? His brother Esav had threatened to murder him in retaliation for the so-called stealing of the blessings (ibid. 27:41), and so, wisely, he fled.

If there was a contract out on my head, I know that I would flee with the utmost alacrity. Hence, we look with wonder upon Yaakov's incongruous behavior. For instead of running away, Yaakov took a slight detour within Eretz Yisrael -- a short, fourteen-year stint in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever (Rashi, ibid. 28:11)! But why? His life was in peril!

Moreover, Yaakov was at this point sixty-three years old (ibid. 28:9). He was getting on in years. His father had commanded him to travel to his uncle's house for the purpose of getting married. How could he disobey a direct order? And what about establishing a family, the all-important mitzva of procreation!

To further exacerbate the problem, where had Yaakov been for the better part of his sixty-three years? He had wholly devoted himself to the study of Torah (ibid. 25:27). By this point, Yaakov was most certainly preeminent in his Torah scholarship. Why was it so imperative to dedicate an additional fourteen years for that very task?

The solution to our confusion lay in Yaakov's destination. Yaakov was heading for the house of his uncle Lavan, and he was scared stiff (Rashi v. 15 and v. 21). For Lavan was the exact antithesis of Yaakov. Yaakov was righteous; Lavan was evil. Yaakov was a man of truth (Micha 7:20); Lavan, a paradigm of deceit (Breishis Rabba 63:4). Yaakov was governed by his Yetzer Tov; Lavan by his Yetzer Hara. Yaakov was light; Lavan, darkness.

Not only was Lavan corrupt, he disguised himself in the veneer of a tzaddik. His name was Lavan, implying white, pure, clean. Switch around the letters and you have Navval, a vile and despicable human being. Lavan was the most menacing of criminals, for his true intent was camouflaged. He appeared as a friend, a relative, while in reality he was none other than the most perilous foe.

To look upon Lavan was to see unclearly. He blinded one's eyes from seeing the truth (See Rashi 29:13). Lavan, in this manner, acted as a devoted emissary of the Yetzer Hara. Our evil inclination virtually blinds us. He positions spiritual landmines in our path while placing his conniving hands over our eyes so that we stumble, never aware of any danger.

" 'You make darkness and it is night (Tehillim 104:20),' -- this is Olam Hazeh [the physical world] which is similar to night (Bava Metzia 83b)." What is the meaning of this enigmatic Gemara?

The darkness of night engenders two kinds of blindness to obscure our vision (See Mesillas Yesharim chap. 3). The first type completely obstructs our vision so that we cannot see at all. Thus, a person would boldly walk ahead, never cognizant of the bottomless pits directly ahead of him.

The second type is even more dangerous. It distorts our vision so that we misconstrue that which we see. A man may look like a post, while a post takes on the appearance of a man (shades of Mr. Magoo!).

So too, the darkness of the materialism and physical nature of this world -- the tools of the Yetzer Hara -- blinds our mind's eye. First it impairs our spiritual vision so that we are thoroughly oblivious to the hazards surrounding us. Thus one is caught unawares in the snares of existence, dive-bombing into spiritual bankruptcy without so much as a hint of imminent peril.

But a second, more frightening effect is the misinterpretation of that which we behold. We see good as evil, and evil as good. "Woe to those who speak of evil as good and of good as evil; who make darkness into light and light into darkness; they make bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter (Yeshaya 5:20)!" Because of this distortion, people don't even begin to consider improving their ways; their iniquitous behavior becomes reinforced, while they continue to skate carefree across the thin ice of life.

This is what scared Yaakov Avinu. He was worried lest Lavan succeed in blinding his razor sharp spiritual vision, causing him to veer from the path of Truth. For Lavan was the agent of the Yetzer Hara, and he propagated a dreadful darkness.

Now we can understand why Yaakov deemed it so vital to spend another fourteen years in yeshiva, at the risk of jeopardizing his physical safety. "For a mitzva is a candle, and Torah is light (Mishlei 6:23)." Only with the light of Torah would Yaakov be capable of dispersing the darkness of Lavan. "Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your Torah is truth (Tehillim 119:142)." Only with the Truth of Torah could Yaakov expose the deception of Lavan. "I created the Yetzer Hara, and I created Torah as its antidote (Kiddushin 30b)." Only by arming himself with the ammunition of Torah would Yaakov succeed in overcoming the relentless onslaught of the Yetzer Hara.

Yaakov knew clearly where he was bound, and he therefore insisted upon "charging his batteries" in advance. Thus, in defiance of Esav's death threat, Yaakov did not flee directly to the house of Lavan. For had Yaakov been delinquent in laying the proper groundwork for his upcoming challenge, he would have been inviting calamity; his entire spiritual inventory could easily have evaporated. Had he run to Lavan before the solidification of his spiritual foundation, there would have been nothing upon which to construct the edifice of his life. There likely would have been no Klal Yisrael, no future.

Thus, despite his firm grounding in Torah knowledge, Yaakov consecrated an additional fourteen years for the battle for Torah Truth. When playing with fire, one takes no chances.

* * * * *

Chanuka. Unique in all of our long, often stormy history, it was particularly at the time of Chanuka that we first encountered the scourge of assimilation. Vast numbers of our brothers and sisters forsook all that we had forever held as sacred in exchange for the sham of the permissive and hedonistic philosophies of the Greeks. What happened? How could so many otherwise cunning businessmen have been so easily swindled to abandon the fine gold of Torah Truth for the chrome-plated tinsel of Greece? Furthermore, what distinguished the Greeks from our other numerous enemies? Why was it specifically during their rule that we first succumbed to the inveiglement of assimilation?

The Medrash explains: "Darkness -- this is the kingdom of Greece who blinded the eyes of Yisrael... (Breishis Rabba 2:4). Just like Lavan and the Yetzer Hara, Greece caused a cataract in the eyes of our nation. The Jews simply couldn't see straight. Not only was their vision blocked, it became distorted, causing them to perceive good as evil and vice versa. They rejected the all-encompassing, life-imbuing Torah as inferior, while ascribing great importance to the finite philosophies and "new age" morality of Greece. The Torah became "old fashioned" and "out-dated", while the current fads became enamored as truth. This blindness caused the Hellenistic Jews to spiral ever-downward, eventually becoming consumed by the gentile host.

Consequently, in recognition of the immense self-sacrifice of those Jews who had remained loyal to the Torah at all costs, Hashem performed the miracle of the oil, a miracle of light. On Chanuka, we restore light to a world dimmed by deception. The Greeks have faded into ancient history; the Torah lives on. The secret to Jewish survival, to curbing the problem of assimilation, to bringing an end to the "Silent Holocaust": Turn on the Light of Torah, the Light of Life, the Light of Chanuka.