Parshat Vayeshev – Chanukah 2003 Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum December 20, 2003
Whenever I think about the first day of Chanukah, I recall the Chanukah of 1988 when I went together with a friend to Paris to visit another two friends. We all went to a kosher restaurant for dinner. On the menu they listed a special dish called Chanukah Fish. Two of us asked for this special Chanukah Fish, while the other two people ordered from the regular menu. My friends who ordered from the regular menu received their meal in about 10 minutes. However, we had to wait almost an hour for the special Chanukah Fish. When my friends were already finishing the French wine and were almost done with the meal, the waiter brought me my dinner. On the one hand, it was difficult because I had waited a long time, and it was an expensive meal. Yet, when they finally brought it, I noticed that it was a very large fish. On this fish there were decorations of dreidels, Chanukah gelt, menorahs and other Jewish symbols. The "menorah" had eight sparkling lights. The fish was a work of art. When he brought it to me, the waiter said,"Si’l vous plait" (please). While I stared at this fish in amazement, my friend said to me, "Now you have to eat it." I will never forget this experience. It was not just that it was a long wait for a very special dinner.
The idea of being in a kosher restaurant in Paris, the capital city of a country which is not very friendly to Jews, being able to order a special kosher dinner with a Chanukah theme was a very unique experience which I will always remember.
There are three blessings which we say when we light the Chanukah menorah. The first one is Lehadlik Ner Shel Chanukah, the second one is Sheaasaah Neeseem Laavotenu, and the third one is Shehecheyanu Vekeymanu. In the Shecheyanu, we recognize that G-d gives us life, sustains us and brings us to this special moment. Usually, we make this blessing for something new and exciting and when we reach a special time of the year. I considered my fish dinner in Paris to be worthy of this blessing because I had never seen such a fish before. To make this blessing in France, where it’s not easy to live as a Jew, was a big deal for me.
Today I want to share with you some ideas about the history of Chanukah. Chanukah happened at the time of the Second Temple. There is a big difference between the miracles of Chanukah and Purim. It’s not only the different time periods in history. The story of Purim happened at the time between the First and the Second Temples, many years before the story of Chanukah. Purim represents the idea that Haman wanted to physically annihilate the Jewish people. Chanukah represents the idea that the Greeks wanted the Jews to be part of their culture. Chanukah was mainly a spiritual war, a test of our strength and ability to stand up for our religious beliefs.
Let me share with you a story that I heard every year on Chanukah from one of my congregants who was part of my synagogue in New Jersey. This man was a Holocaust survivor. He said that he remembers the first day of Chanukah in the Maidenek Concentration Camp, as one of the most horrible days of Nazi terror and persecution. The Nazis went around the camp and just randomly killed people for their own sadistic pleasure. The survivors were not allowed to touch the dead bodies, which were lying around everywhere. Among the group was a Hassidic rebbe who had lost most of his family in the Holocaust. On that night, a group of 26 Jews surreptitiously gathered in a hidden place, to light the Chanukah candles. They greatly improvised to put together a Chanukah menorah by gathering scraps of materials from the labor camp. For example, a heel of a shoe was used to make a candleholder and oil from the machines was used to light our makeshift menorah. The rebbe quickly made the first and second blessings on the Chanukah candles. When he reached the third blessing, the Shehecheyanu, where we thank G-d for keeping us alive and healthy to reach this special day, the rebbe paused for a few moments and he looked like he couldn’t say it. He was standing there, holding the candle, in the middle of the blessing, and he couldn’t continue. He saw all the faces of the Jews gathered together to light Chanukah candles, taking a tremendous risk for their lives. After a few moments of silence, he recited the third blessing Shehecheyanu. My congregant , David, came to him, and said, "Rebbe, I don’t understand. You make a blessing for the menorah. But how can you say Shehechyanu in these circumstances? This bracha is for something new and exciting. How can you say it on such a terrible night?" The rebbe looked at him and said, "I was thinking about it the same way as you are. But when I look around and see all of you 26 people, despite all the hardships, difficulties and intolerable living conditions here, making the effort to have this ceremony and lighting candles in the face of tremendous darkness and terror, I say for all of us Shehecheyanu. If we have people like this, we have hope for a brighter future."
You know, friends, nothing comes cheap. The Maccabees were 28 families who were fighting against a large Greek army. There was one brave Jewish woman who killed the head of the Greek rulers. We got back our temple with a great pain. When we light the candles we have to remember that each small candle that we are lighting is a candle of light. Rabbi Kook teaches us that a small light can remove a lot of darkness. When we are lighting these candles together with our family and friends, we should always remember that we are a link to an important tradition and we have the obligation to perpetuate it. At this time, when the world still is in turmoil, and we feel so much darkness, it is the time for us to light the candles in our hearts and in our minds.
As we observe our traditions and give Chanukah gelt and gifts to our children and grandchildren, we should be very careful to give each and every one of them equally and not to show favoritism to any child or any person. We see from this week’s parsha, Vayeshev, the pain and suffering that Yaakov and his family endured. A great deal of their difficulties and problems came from Yaakov’s favoritism to Yosef and the jealousy of the brothers of Yosef.
May G-d shine His Ray of Light upon us and bring us great light, peace and good health. Happy Chanukah!