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12/11/2020 01:49:05 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

For The Commandment Is A Lamp, The Teaching Is A Light. Keeping Faith In The Torah

12/11/2020 11:02:57 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

This week’s Sermon is sponsored by the Levy and Pokroy families in memory of Nat Levy - Natan ben Yechiel Halevi ob”m

Rabbi Solomon Luria (1510 – November 7, 1573)  known as the MaHarSHaL , was one of the great Ashkenazic poskim (decisors of Jewish law) of the 16th century. He wrote important books offering his interpretations of the Talmud and decisions as to which authority we should follow in terms of practical Halacha. 

In his introduction to his book, Yam Shel Shlomo, he tells an amazing story.

He writes that he believes that God sent him a message that he should continue to offer Halchik rulings. “From heaven”, he writes, “I was given a sign that I am worthy of providing rulings on Halachic matters.” Then he proceeds to offer some details. “Via a candle I was given the strength from above, saying, engage in Torah, rules on matters of the permitted and forbidden…?

What happened in that study? What was the sign?

The legend goes like this. One night when Rav Shlomo Luria was writing his Yam Shel Shlomo he only had one small candle that was about to go out. But, nevertheless, it lasted for many hours - longer than three of four whole candles would normally last. This signaled to him that God was with him .

Rabbi Shlomo Luria’s candle lasting longer than it should have has obvious hanukkah connotations. But, there is another element of this story that relates to Chanukah as well. 

The MaHaSHaL’s miracle took place while he was learning Torah.  
Many of us think of Chanukah in terms of the battle against the Syrian - Greeks and in reference to the miracle of the oil.

Looked at carefully, there is a third “front” of the Chanukah story, one that defines the nature of the day in a way that heightens the relevance of Chanukah for all times.

No doubt that God’s salvation of the Jewish people is a timeless message, as we say in the al Hanissim - 

וְאַתָּה בְּרַחֲמֶֽיךָ הָרַבִּים עָמַֽדְתָּ לָהֶם בְּעֵת צָרָתָם רַֽבְתָּ אֶת־רִיבָם דַּֽנְתָּ אֶת־דִּינָם נָקַֽמְתָּ אֶת־נִקְמָתָם מָסַֽרְתָּ גִבּוֹרִים בְּיַד חַלָּשִׁים וְרַבִּים בְּיַד מְעַטִּים וּטְמֵאִים בְּיַד טְהוֹרִים וּרְשָׁעִים בְּיַד צַדִּיקִים וְזֵדִים בְּיַד עוֹסְ֒קֵי תוֹרָתֶֽךָ...

“You, in Your abundant mercy, stood by them in their time of distress, You defended their cause, You judged their grievances, You avenged them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, many into the hands of the few, defiled people into the hands of the undefiled, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent [sinners] into the hands of diligent students of Your Torah…”

We thank God for treating us with abundant mercy and saving us from our foes. 

But, if we pay close attention to the text of Al Hanissim, we notice that there is another element. We state the goal of our enemies was to cause us to forget our Torah - לְהַשְׁכִּיחָם תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ. We also decalre that God handed over  - זֵדִים בְּיַד עוֹסְ֒קֵי תוֹרָתֶֽךָ - insolent [sinners] into the hands of diligent students of Your Torah…”

Why does it matter that the fighters were students of Torah? In a battle, everyone is equal - comrades in arms. 

Of course, we appreciate the idea of religious fighters and the scores of religious young men and women who serve in the IDF. We note the existence of Hesder and Shiluv programs that combine army service and Torah study. These realities represent some of the greatest points of pride for our people. 

In the context of Chanukah and Al Hanissim, there is another element. When the prayer refers to students of Torah, it is not talking about religious warriors, it is talking about the fight for Torah itself - the struggle against those who would wish to have us forget our Torah.

During the time of the chanukah story, not only was there a battle against the Syrian - Greeks, there was an internal struggle going on as well. 

The Jews were experiencing a crisis of faith. They did not believe that the Torah was up to the task of offering relevant and meaningful direction for life.

The book of Maccabees spells it out. (I Maccabees 1: 14-17)

ויהי בעת ההיא ויצאו אנשים בני-בלייעל מקרב ישראל, וידיחו את עם הארץ לאמור.

In those days went there out of Israel wicked men, who persuaded many, saying,

הבה נכרתה ברית את הגויים אשר סביבותינו, כי מאז אשר סרנו מאחריהם מצאונו צרות רבות ורעות.

“Let us go and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us: for since we departed from them we have had much sorrow.”

וייטב הדבר בעיני העם, וישלחו מלאכים אל המלך, ויצווה המלך בידם ללכת בדרכי הגויים ובחוקותיהם.

So this device pleased them well. Then certain of the people were so forward herein, that they went to the king, who gave them a license to do after the ordinances of the heathen,

ויקימו בית משחק בירושלים במשפט הגויים, ולא מלו עוד את בניהם, ויעזבו את ברית הקודש ללכת בחקותם, ויתמכרו לעשות הרע בעיני ה'.

whereupon they built a place of exercise at Jerusalem according to the customs of the heathen and made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen, and were sold to do evil in the eyes of God.

Rabbi Asaph Bednarsh notes that “The war was fought not only on the military battlefield, but on the intellectual battlefield as well. Could Judaism withstand the onslaught of Greek philosophy? Could the mitzvot of the Torah compete with the advanced Greek culture, art and entertainment? If the heroes of Chanukah did not have answers to these questions, they would have lost the war even before the fighting began."

Of course, we believe that the Torah does contain the answers to the challenges posed at that time by the Hellenists. Throughout Jewish history our Torah has shown its resilience, applicability and the ability to withstand challenges for all ideologies.

The question is, where does that strength come from? Where did it come from in the times of the Maccabees and where does it come from now? What makes the Torah compelling?
To answer this question, Rabbi Bednarsh references the beautiful words of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glassner in his introduction to his commentary on Tractate Chullin.

Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (1856–1924) was chief rabbi of Klausenburg from 1877 to 1923. In 1923 he left Klausenburg for Jerusalem where he resided until his death in 1924. He was a supporter of Zionism and a founder of Mizrachi.

He writes as follows:

Thus, whoever has due regard for the truth will conclude that the reason the (proper) interpretation of the Torah was transmitted orally and forbidden to be written down was not to make (the Torah) unchanging and not to tie the hands of the sages of every generation from interpreting Scripture according to their understanding. Only in this way can the eternity of Torah be understood (properly), for the changes in the generations and their opinions, situation and material and moral condition requires changes in their laws, decrees and improvements.”
What Rabbi Glassner writes about is why Hellenism was defeated.  An Oral code can be applied, molded and forged to apply to the issue if the day.THe written law has no such malleability.
This power of the Oral Law - the Torah She B’al Peh - was what was able to convince the Jews of that time of the relevance of the Torah.
It is that same ability that allows us, living in a very different time and place, to continue to derive inspiration and guidance from the Torah. 
We read in Mishlei (6:23)

כִּ֤י נֵ֣ר מִ֭צְוָה וְת֣וֹרָה א֑וֹר... 

For the commandment is a lamp, The teaching is a light...

Torah lights the way for us at all times. The light of Torah illuminates our lives and gives us the ability to respond to the challenges of our time. 
Chanukah is a time for us to reflect on this.
The Oral Law answered the call during the time of the Maccabees and, as Rav Glassner so beautifully stated, it can continue to serve as our guide, at all times and in all places.
What is unique about Torah She B’al Peh is that it requires our input. The written law is sealed. The Oral Law, on the other hand, continues to develop and continues to be applied. It is up to us to study it and apply it.

It is the Oral law that has provided guidance for us in the realm of medical ethics, technological advances and social unrest. 
It is the Oral law that has given synagogues and communities direction (to open, to close, how to abridge services, the split seder for Pesach, all of the adjustments made for the the High Holidays)  as to how to respond to the unprecedented challenges posed by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Chanukah is the time to redouble our commitment to the study of Torah - specifically Torah She B’al Peh.  
Rabbi Soloveitchik once wrote that perhaps we should add a fourteenth declaration of faith (ani Maamin).
“What does this Ani Maamin say?  By straightforward declaration it states: “I believe with perfect heart that this Torah is given to be observed, realized, and fully carried out in every place and at all times, within every social, economic, and cultural framework; in every technological circumstance and every political condition.”

Chanukah represents belief in this statement of faith. 

How fitting that the miracle performed for Rabbi Shlomo Luria, as he was adding his contribution to Torah She B’al Peh, echoed the Chanukah miracle. He believed in the Oral Law

Chanukah is about faith in God and it is also about faith in the Torah.
The Maccabees had faith in the Torah. So must we. 
This is the essence of what we celebrate on Chanukah. 

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781