One of the two main miracles celebrated on Chanukah, is the discovery of the jug of oil that burned for eight days instead of just one (the other being the victory of the few over the many).
Like every aspect of Torah and our sacred tradition, this is not just a historic tale from the Temple era, but something that should inspire us even today, more than 2100 years after these events.
So I want to share something meaningful I learned that you may enjoy as well.
It starts with the Greeks. Their fight against the Jews wasn’t primarily one of military conquest. Nor was it only the attempt to stop the Jews from practicing their traditions. In fact, the Greeks were even fine if we studied Torah. But they wanted us to treat it as any human wisdom. Not G-d’s wisdom. They could even accept Jews lighting the Menorah. After all, every culture has its own unique practices. What they would not accept however, was our insistence that these were G-d given and sacred acts, and that the Menorah needed to be kindled with a special "holy" oil.
So the Greeks “defiled” the oil supplies in the Temple, and when the Jews returned to Jerusalem they couldn’t find any pure oil left. Finally after an exhaustive search, we uncovered one jug of oil that remained untouched, holy and pure. This was used to begin rekindling the Menorah.
In our personal lives too, we each have that one jug of oil that remains constantly pure. Despite the ups and downs of life, the spiritual, emotional and material challenges we face, and no matter how distant and despondent we may feel at times - we will always have that jug of oil, the essence of our soul, which remains holy, connected and sacred.
It's always there. Sometimes we just need to find it and ignite it. As soon as we do, we can rekindle our menorah, and begin shining brightly again.
Two of the most heartwarming letters I got for Chanukah really drove home this message for me, so I'll share some of them here: "...I also wanted to thank you for the Menorah. We lit it tonight. I haven't practiced in more than 30 years..." and "...this Hanukkah is very special, it’s the first one that my husband has ever observed. I can never get through the blessings without tears for speaking Hebrew moves me in a way that I can’t explain. Thank you Rabbi Alperowitz for helping us observe Hanukkah this year. You have blessed us in a way I can’t express."
One of my highlights from the Chabad leadership conference that I recently attended in NY, was gathering with some 6500 colleagues and friends, and hearing the announcement that Chabad was opening a new country; Zambia.
Many have never heard of Zambia, and most can’t place it on the map. But Zambia is now the 109th country with a Chabad. There is a tiny Jewish population there, and it has been over 75 years since a rabbi has lived there.
The young couple who chose to dedicate their life to the Jewish community there, are Rivky and Mendy Hertzel. Rivky was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and Mendy is from Rosh Pinah, Israel. Together, they made a decision to leave their families, friends and comfort zone, to move to a place where they could be in service of the Jewish community. A place where they feel they could do their part to strengthen our people with love, and ensure Jewish continuity, vibrancey and warmth.
They are a gifted young couple that could have chosen comfortable careers in this country where they currently live. Instead they chose the path of service to others. To live life a little higher.
Many are amazed by this. But Rivky and Mendy don't feel amazing at all. They feel they are living a life of meaning and purpose.
It’s not every day that you meet a couple like this. Where, may I ask, does their attitude come from?
As they were preparing to leave, an elderly Sephardic man from Brooklyn named Yerachmiel Glazer contacted them. He had a story to share with them. He told them that he was born and raised in Zambia, and lived there through his young adult life.
But there was more. As a teenager, he went to study in Israel, and while there met Chabad and decided to travel to New York to meet theRebbe. When he visited the Rebbe in 1969, the Rebbe encouraged him to go back to Zambia and share with the local Jews the newly acquired Torah knowledge he had learned in Israel. Although he was not a rabbi, and still only had minimal education, the Rebbe urged him to send letters to the people living there, with relevant information for the Shabbat and holidays, and travel back to bring them a shofar, megillah, tefillin and shabbat candles, and show them how to use them.
Glazer was so moved that this young couple would now be settling there permanently, that he gifted them all the correspondence he had from the Rebbe.
Who else would be looking out for the Jews of Zambia in the1960s and 70s if not the Rebbe, and who else would be moving to live there now in 2022, if not the Rebbe's students. Mendy and Rivky are young. They never met the Rebbe, but they did learn his teachings and were inspired by his revolutionary vision of Ahavat Yisrael. They watched the videos of him passionately talking about the need for a unified Jewish people, and a unified humankind, and they want to do their part in making it happen sooner.
This week I was able to give a warm Sioux Falls welcome to NBA G League player Ryan Turell. Ryan is here to play in the Sioux Falls Skyforce vs. Motor City Cruise game. He is not only a skilled player with great moves, but also the first kippah-yarmulke wearing player.
In the recent Torah portions we have been reading about our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the founders of the Jewish people. Each of them had pivotal moments at which point they demonstrated who they were and what they were about. About Abraham, for example, we are told he was called "Avraham Ha-Ivri," also because "the whole world stood on one side, and he stood on the other other."
Being a Jew, sometimes we are called upon to take a stand, even when it may not be so popular. To stand up for who we are, for what we believe, and for what is right for others.
In his own way, and in his career, this is what Ryan Turell is doing. Very publicly and very proudly displaying his Judaism. When someone is that well-known, it may be easier or simpler to remove the kippah while playing. His fans would love him and he would be able to advance in his career easily. Does he really need to make such a fuss of the fact he is Jewish?
But if there is anything that history has shown us, it is that the best way of ensuring that our children and theirs continue to be Jewish, is if we are knowledgeable and proud of who we are.
As Ryan will be enjoying challah, wine and Shabbos dinner this evening, before playing tomorrow with his yarmulke, I'll be thinking what I could learn from him so that I too can be a prouder Jew.
This might also just be our best answer to the Kanye’s of the world. Put on that Kippah!
As we prepare to celebrate our seventh Chanukah in South Dakota, I’m thinking about the significance of “seven.” In Judaism, the number seven symbolizes a complete cycle; there are seven days in a week, and the Biblical Sabbatical year is observed every seventh year. Immediately after the seventh comes the eighth, which must always spur us to increased activity and vibrancy.
This just gives us all more to be thankful for as we celebrate Chanukah this year, and look to an even brighter future of increased Jewish knowledge and pride in our beautiful state.
When we look at the story of Chanukah, we realize that the main thrust of Chanukah was not about the physical persecution of the Jews, but of the banning of our faith observances.
The Greeks were puzzled by the Jews insistence that the Torah was given by G-d, and that therefore its instructions are holy and eternal. If you want to live with cultural traditions that your ancestors brought along from a desert, the Greeks reasoned, wonderful, but please don’t attribute all this holiness, spirituality and G-dliness to it.
Had the Jews simply agreed to forgo the Shabbat, Brit, Kosher, Family Purity, and modify some of the temple observances to include aspects foreign to the tradition, the Greeks would have left us alone, and everyone would have lived happily ever after.
But that would not have been Judaism.
So thankfully, the Macabbees stood up and proudly said no. Although they were initially a small minority, as even many Jews succumbed to the Hellenistic ways, this small group prevailed.
They showed that to be victorious, you don’t need many, you don’t need might. You need to be right, and eventually you will prevail and others will join you. It was a victory of right over wrong, of light over the dark. And thanks to those brave people, we have Judaism today as we did back then, and we have Chanukah to celebrate.
Just like the Maccabees of old, the best way we can ensure our children and grandchildren will be Jewish, the way our ancestors were, is for us to be educated about who we are. When we know who we are, we are also more likely to be proud of who we are.
This year, the Menorah lights will shine extra brightly across South Dakota, with increased Jewish pride and celebration, as we have provided a menorah and candles to every Jewish home in need of one around the state. This of course is in addition to the many, many homes who light the candles each night, and the beautiful public displays of menorahs in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City.
Numerous people have told me how meaningful it is for them when they see the large public menorahs on display. For Jewish people it is a symbol of our faith and tradition, for the broader community it is a universal symbol of American freedom, and an expression of the beautiful diversity and how welcome we are in our beloved city and state.
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz Blog
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.