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Like a Candle in the Wind

By: Rav David Milston

Avraham Avinu is often referred to as "Avraham HaIvri" – "the Hebrew". Indeed, the word Hebrew – Ivrit, is clearly a derivative of "Ivri". But the word describes more than just our holy language; it represents the unwavering resilience of Am Yisrael.

Avraham was called "Ivri" because he stood alone on one side of the river, facing the whole world on the other side.[1]

Let us, albeit briefly, share the view from both sides of the river:

1. Avraham’s Perspective

Even though the entire world opposes him on the other side of the river, Avraham stands up for his beliefs, not intimidated by peer pressure. He lives his life steeped in ideology and is prepared to die for his beliefs. He remains aloof from the social norms abounding at that time. The natural human phenomenon that pulls us into assimilating with our surroundings does not affect Avraham. He is relentless in following his self-attained faith in the Almighty. As the Abarbanel says,[2] even though Avraham lived in the land of the Philistines, it did not deter him from calling out in the name of God.

Avraham did not view this isolationism as an ideal, but as a necessity. Indeed, Rashi describes Avraham and Sarah as a couple certainly upholding their own theological beliefs but definitely not estranged from their fellow human beings. They were also idealistic pioneers determined to convince and convert others to monotheism and Divine service.[3] Their aim was to reveal to those "on the other side of the river" that God is One and His name is One.[4] 

With the same theme, the Prophet Yeshayahu speaks of a time when the nations of the world will see Yerushalayim as the epicenter of the world.[5] Hence, our objective is not to remain alone in our faith in God, but if need be we will walk alone, we are not afraid of “what the world says” – we must not be swayed. We will not ‘cross the river’ meekly agreeing to beliefs we do not accept. There is no value in kowtowing to those who mock us. We will patiently wait for the day when the nations of the world will accept the way of Avraham to be the path of Truth.

2. The World’s Perspective     

Once we have established our objective of following in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu, by ideologically remaining "on the other side of the river", we discover a strange historical phenomenon.

Even when we have failed to stand our ground, even when some of us have made metaphorically manufactured boats to cross the river and enthusiastically join the other side, ultimately, the nations of the world send us back. Time and again, Jews of all kinds and in all kinds of situations have attempted to bridge the gap by compromising their fundamental beliefs and rejecting their heritage. They have gone, cap in hand, sometimes enthusiastically, on other occasions less so.

But it doesn’t work.

Sooner or later they are discerned as Jews and often expelled back to the other side of the river - if not physically, then in a more subtle manner. The result is much the same.

Highly assimilated Jews in pre-war Germany are a case in point. So proudly German, so committed to the European culture of the time; Men who had fought on the front line in the First World War for Germany found themselves totally rejected two decades later from the country that they loved.

Strange and illogical as it may sound, it appears that one of the functions of the nations of the world is to remind us of our role as the children of Avraham (see Bet Halevi to Shemot at the very start). If we cannot identify with ourselves others will do it for us.

As a national entity, we cannot, we must not, cross the river. Of course, many individuals have made it over the river and disappeared into the mass of nations, but we are still very much in isolation in national terms.

The world's refusal to accept the Jewish people and their right to peaceful existence in this world as equals is not a new concept. Anti-Semitism has always been present, sometimes under the surface, sometimes exploding into violence and persecution. More recently, comments made by an international committee UNESCO stating that there is definitively no historical connection between the Jewish people and our Holy City Jerusalem, left us rubbing our eyes in disbelief. A new "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is slowly emerging – it targets the State of Israel, denying any anti-Semitic motive, but we are too old and too "street-wise" to accept such arguments.

My personal reaction to these incidents is strangely positive. It does not weaken my resolve nor trigger despair. Quite the contrary; the injustice we suffer serves to strengthen me. Israel is one of the most democratic countries in the world, yet we find ourselves being judged and dictated to by world leaders who have never fairly won a single election in their lives. Our army is one of the most moral armies in the world yet we are told to restrain ourselves by countries whose own morals are somewhat questionable. Double standards and hypocrisy abound.

The hard truth is that we are destined to remain on the other side of the river, just like our founding father. Some of us do this out of despair begrudgingly, while others try to emulate Avraham fulfilling our role with the utmost seriousness and pride.

I believe we should stand up for our beliefs with true pride. After all, we have everything in the world to be proud of. Our stance must not be arrogant nor condescending, but respectful, confident and rooted in our unshakable faith in our destiny that is slowly but surely unfolding before our very eyes. What appeared to be prophecies of no relevance are realizing themselves here and now. We have thousands of years of heritage, like no other nation; we should stand erect looking back to where we have come, and forward to where we are going.

Chanukah epitomizes the Abrahamic trait at its very best – "The few against the many." Even though there was an internal battle between Jews who wished to remain on their side of the river and those who were determined to cross over to the Greek side, ultimately the battle took place between the Maccabim and the Yevanim. In any event, the heroes of our story are the few believers who fought the many and emerged victorious.[6]

Avraham Avinu’s inspiration travels through the generations to Matityahu and his sons. They stood firm, fought and succeeded and with God’s help they managed to rededicate the Beit Mikdash, renewing Jewish independence for the first time since the destruction of the first Beit Mikdash.

On the first night of Chanukah, the light of the Chanukiah stands out in the darkness of the street. It stands as a light at the darkest part of the month (25th of Kislev) at the darkest time of the year (December) and below ten tefachim. The light stands alone, unafraid of the isolation and refusing to be extinguished. That flame will shine bright, despite the overbearing odds and to the astonishment of the objective observer. With each day of Chanukah, the lights grow in number until we have eight beautiful lights illuminating the darkness. We should not be afraid of the dark - on the contrary - we can light it up.

As generations of Jews come and go, our light becomes stronger. The single candle that struggled to remain alight in the first half of the twentieth century as stormy and relentless winds tried to extinguish it, is now growing stronger by the year. We are honored to live in a generation of new Maccabim standing proudly and firmly in defense of their nation, despite the threats and screams of those on the other side of the river.     

We must learn from Avraham and lead by example. Let us concentrate on our side of the river, because the grass is simply not greener on the other side. We need to build such a utopian reality that not one of us will want to leave it. A green and fruitful river bank that will attract those on the other side; they will even ultimately flock here with their sacrifices to our third Beit Mikdash![7]

However, as we write this after a decade and a half of the 21st century, assimilation figures are running higher than ever. Tragically, even with so much depth, relevance and wisdom in Judaism, many of our youngsters are intent on crossing to the other side.

In a story attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, Reb Isaac of Krakow had a dream in which he was told, "Isaac, travel to Prague, look under the bridge and you will find a great treasure."

The first time he had this dream, he ignored it. Reb Isaac was a practical man. He sought not to appear foolish. But the dream recurred time and again. No longer able to contain his curiosity, he donned his cloak and set off for Prague in search of gold.

After a long and arduous journey, he arrived and found the bridge. But there was a slight problem. Soldiers were guarding it day and night. Reb Isaac waited for an opportunity but the changing of the guards was too regular. He gave up, cursing himself for his naivety.

As he turned to leave, one of the soldiers approached him, "Hey, old man, you've been hanging around here for a long time. Why are you leaving now?" Reb Isaac sighed and told him the story. "I had a trivial dream. I thought God was talking to me in my sleep. He told me to come here. All the way from Krakow. In retrospect I shouldn't have listened to the dream."

"Foolish man," the soldier replied. "I had a dream like that once, a meaningless dream. God told me to go to Krakow and look up an old Jew called Reb Isaac. He said I would discover a great treasure buried beneath his stove. Can you believe such a thing?"

Reb Isaac tipped his cap to the soldier, returned to Krakow and of course found a great treasure buried beneath his own stove.

Our assimilated brothers and sisters travel all the way to ‘Prague’ without realizing that the real treasure is lying in their own back yard.

Yes, the other side of the river is tempting and alluring, stronger and richer. Western civilization has much to offer the world but it can never replace Torah and Mitzvot. Neon lights and passing fads, iphones and instagrams, will never replace eternal values and God-given ethics.

Yes, to stand alone is extremely hard, especially in a high-pressured, materialistic society. But when things get tough and we feel alone and isolated, we must remind ourselves that we actually don't stand alone at all.

We are not just one candle in the wind!

We are joining three and a half thousand years of Jewish courage and leadership on our side of the river. Giants and everyday folk who never swayed from their beliefs despite the enormous price they paid - from Avraham Avinu in the fires of Ur Casdim to Adam Cziernakow in the Warsaw Ghetto;[8] from Moshe Rabbeinu, who gave up a life of comfort and riches in the house of Pharaoh to fight for his people and bring them out of Egypt; to Ro’i Klein, the IDF officer who fell on a grenade crying “Shema Yisrael” as he gave his life to save his soldiers’. There are enough Jewish candles to light up millions of Chanukiot – lighting the darkness throughout history.

They and many others stand with us on our side of the river and we stand with them. Past, present and future locked in embrace with the Almighty Himself.

Am Yisrael is a solid, sturdy tree, over three millennia old. Roots deep in the ground, and thousands of branches – each a different shape – reaching out in every direction. This is a tree that will not be uprooted by any wind and will continue to blossom upwards to the heavens, b’ezrat Hashem. It’s the very same tree planted and nurtured by Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu all those years ago.

These are my thoughts as we approach Chanukah. As we light our Chanukiah, as we bring light to the darkness, we remind ourselves that the key to our survival is separation – isolation if need be – and not assimilation. We are proud to be members of a nation standing out in the cold of winter yet lighting up the darkness together. If we truly believe in who we are and what we represent then ultimately that truth will spread throughout the world.

It is my hope and prayer that the nations of the world will soon cross over the river to sit in the shade of that wonderful tree and bask in the light of our golden Menorah. The few will still be the few and the many will still be the many, but all of humanity will be united in the belief in one Almighty God![9] 

Chanukah Sameach, David Milston

 

[1] See Bereishit Rabbah, Parashat Lech Lecha, Parasha 41 – “Veyaged leAvraham Haivri.”

[2] Bereishit, 21:33-34.

[3] Bereishit 12:5.

[4] It seems they were at least partially successful in their mission. In Bereishit, 14, Lot is taken captive and Avraham successfully pursues the enemy with 318 supporters (see verse 14.) However, it is worth noting that the community they created is conspicuously absent during the second half of Sefer Bereishit. Indeed, when Avraham’s descendants are listed at the end of the sefer, only the family are mentioned. Where are the masses converted by Avraham and Sarah?

[5] Chapter 2.

[6] In the Al Hanissim prayer said during Tefillah and Birkat HaMazon during the eight days of Chanukah, we note that 'zeidim' were overcome by Torah scholars. These 'zeidim' were those Jews who favored heresy over religious observance.

[7] Yeshayahu 56:7

[8] The head of the Judenrat in Warsaw. In July 1942, he committed suicide rather than play a part in the deportation of his brothers and sisters to the Treblinka Death Camp.

[9]  As we conclude all our prayers with the verse at the end of Aleinu, “Bayom hahu yihiye Hashem echad uShmo echad.” –  Zecharia 14:9

 

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