Travel Candles

15 12 2015

It was Zot Chanukah, the zenith of the holiday when all eight flames are kindled to affirm the wonder of Jewish endurance. Judah and Regina Geier, along with their two children Arnold and Ruth, sat silently on a train traveling from Berlin to Holland. They were one of the lucky few who had managed to get American visas and now they were finally on their way to what they hoped was freedom. The Geiers knew they were not entirely out of danger. The German officials at the German-Dutch borders would still need to inspect their passports and travel documents. Under these precarious circumstances, how could they possibly light the Chanukah candles? Regina attempted to comfort her husband. G‑d, who sees and knows all, would surely forgive them and give them many more Chanukahs to celebrate properly.

Judah refused to be consoled. Amid such spiritual blackness, the light of the Chanukah candles seemed more vital than ever. Suddenly, the train stopped at the German-Dutch border. The Germans approached to check travel identities. The Geier family sat frozen in fear. Then without warning the entire train plunged into darkness. Immediately, Judah sprang up and pulled nine candles out of his coat pocket. He lined them up on the windowsill in their train compartment, whispered the blessings, and kindled the lights. In the otherworldly glow of the menorah, his face shone with happiness.

The German officers discerning the light came running in. The Geiers seemed doomed. But the Germans were only focused on checking passports and papers. The flickering candles gave them the light to do that. As soon as they finished, the chief officer of the border police gratefully thanked Judah for prudently bringing “travel candles” on his journey.

The Geier family sat speechless, unable to take their gaze off the menorah. Judah, still under the spell of what had just taken place beckoned his son closer. “Remember this moment,” he said. “As in the days of the Maccabees, a great miracle happened here.”

The Jewish mystical writings teach us that Zot Chanukah is the culmination of the Days of Awe. It is a day to contemplate the supernatural in nature, the miracles clothed in mundanity. For what is a miracle but a revelation of the manifestation of God? And what are the Days of Awe but a period when He is close to us, when God-consciousness is at the forefront?

And so, perhaps Zot Chanukah is our wake up call to ponder how, just as the routine of nature can delude us, making us forget that it is all God’s will, so too can the weeks following the Days of Awe bring us to a state of indifference regarding our deeds. If so, the last night of Chanukah is a particularly fitting time to take an accounting of our lives. As we gird ourselves to face the long dark winter, which many would call, “God-forsaken,” we can take strength knowing that in fact, “His glory fills the universe.”


Adapted from “Small Miracles of the Holocaust” by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal As told by Arnold Geier (Judah’s son) to Pesi Dinnerstein

The Nature of Nature by Rabbi A. Shafran

The Hidden Menorah

14 12 2015

Kislev, 1944 – Hunger, suffering, and unspeakable atrocities were the daily fare in the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. Rav Shmelke Shnitzler, later to become the Tachaber Rebbe, tried valiantly to keep up the spirits of his fellow inmates. The day before Chanukah, as Rav Shmelke was on his way to a barrack to remove the bodies of several people who had died in the night, his foot got caught in a hole in the frozen ground. As he bent down to see what had happened, his eye caught the shape of a small jar. He quickly pulled it out and his eyes grew wide in wonder, Oil for Chanukah!

Rav Shmelke inspected the hole further. There was a small bundle hiding there. In his hands he soon held a carefully bound package. Inside were eight small cups along with eight thin cotton wicks. Evidently a Jew had hid it. But who was this mysterious person? And what had happened to him?

The next night, after the evening roll call, Rav Shmelke set up the makeshift menorah. He recited the blessings with heartfelt emotion and then lit the first wick. The group who had gathered in the barracks observed the wondrous scene in silence as the small, flickering, flame pierced the thick darkness. A radiant spark of hope lit up their battered hearts. Each night of the holiday, as the scene was repeated their faith grew stronger.

In April 1945, Germany capitulated. Bergen Belsen was liberated. Rav Shmelke returned to Hungary and was asked to serve as spiritual leader of a small group of survivors. Several years later he traveled to the United States where he visited Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe. While they sat together and recalled old times, the Satmar Rebbe talked about his internment in Bergen Belsen.

“I was rescued on the 21st of Kislev, four days before Chanukah,” said the Satmar Rebbe. “I did not know that my salvation would come so I bribed several camp officials to get me oil, cups, and wicks for Chanukah. I then buried the package in a field. What a pity that my small menorah was never used.”

Rav Shmelke could not contain his excitement at the revelation. “Your menorah was miraculously found. It kindled hope and faith in the hearts of hundreds of Jews and helped them pull through the dark days until their liberation.”

Shlomo Hamelech writes in Mishlei, “Ki ner mitzvah, v’Torah ohr.” The lamp is a mitzvah and the Torah is light. The 248 positive mitzvot parallel the 248 limbs of the body. If one adds yirah (fear) and ahavah (love) it equals 250 which is the numerical value of ner. A mitzvah takes something spiritual and abstract and gives it a foothold in the world of reality. If it is performed with fear and love it can bring down incredible light.

The menorah had seven branches paralleling the seven traits we share in common with Hashem. Our ability to experience our own enlightenment is the menorah within us. When we light the Chanukah lights, we reawaken the awareness of our inner eternal flame. Nes by definition is above nature. We have to skip over nature, remove the materialism within ourselves at least for the moment, to get to the miracle. Whenever we do a mitzvah that uses something physical, it’s an opportunity to get a little bit above that which defines whatever medium the mitzvah involves. It’s an opportunity to get closer to Hashem.



Adapted from 36 Candles: Chassidic Tales for Chanukah by L. Astaire

Chanukah Sefas Emes: Part I Reb. Tziporah Heller




Spinning the Cosmic Dreidel

10 12 2015

In October 1940, Rabbi Chaim Stein z’tzl led a group of students from Telshe on a daring escape from war ravaged Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The train moved excruciating slow, stopping at every town and village along the way. But the students absorbed in Torah and prayer hardly noticed the days slipping away. One day someone announced that Chanukah would begin that night. How would they fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles?

The students pondered the problem hoping to find a solution. One student tore a small piece of cloth from his shirt and formed a wick from the threads. Another student produced a metal can to serve as the menorah. But where would they find oil? Then suddenly one student had a brainstorm. At the next stop he jumped off the train and put a cup under a small venting pipe to catch the tiny drops of engine oil that continually dripped out. When the train started up again, he quickly jumped back on holding the precious liquid. As soon as the train stopped again, he went back to collect more drops. At every stop, the cup filled with more oil until there was enough to kindle a small flame. Words cannot describe the joy that filled the air that night as the students merited to fulfill the mitzvah of kindling the menorah.

The arduous task of gathering the oil continued every day throughout the holiday. One night the weather turned icy cold. The temperature on the train dropped below zero. One student volunteered to try and gather some oil. He climbed through the snow to the engine but not a drop of oil appeared from the frozen pipes. Sadly, he returned to the train empty handed.

The time to light the candles came but there was no way to fulfill the mitzvah. Despondency is not the Jewish way. If they couldn’t kindle the lights with oil, the students decided, they would do it in their hearts instead. They sat up all night exchanging words of Torah. Halacha, ethics, and mystical interpretations of Chanukah swirled through the air. Suddenly, just before daybreak, a burly Russian man filled the entrance way of their carriage.

“Do you need a candle?” he asked.

The students quickly took the candle, recited the blessing, and kindled it. Moments later dawn broke heralding a new day. They had succeeded in fulfilling the mitzvah with seconds to spare. They turned to thank the Russian but he had disappeared into thin air. They searched through the train with no success. He couldn’t have alighted as there were no stops that day.

Years later on Simchat Torah, as Rav Stein retold the story to his students he concluded, “Uhn efshar, maybe, it was Eliyahu HaNavi.”

The dreidel appears like a top, with a pointed tip on which it spins. Spinning the dreidel makes its square contours seemingly disappear revealing a round top. In a symbolic way, the dreidel’s square face signifies the rational logic of the ancient Greeks, over whom the Maccabbee’s triumphed. The Maccabbee’s believed that it is the infinite God who has no limits who brings all of reality into being. The round contours of the dreidel as it twirls around corresponds to the world of the Divine, which expresses itself as miracles—events that cannot be comprehended by the rational mind.

When a miracle happens, we can envision God playing with His big cosmic dreidel. God spins His inner light—His revealed finite nature as we see it—obscuring the rigid rational rules that govern reality and revealing His inner infinite nature. One might say that God is constantly turning miracles into nature.


The Last Drop by Rabbi Y. Sinclair

Chanukah and the Dreidel by Rabbi Ginsburgh

Old Telz In New World by Rabbi Y. Besser




The Hidden Light

10 12 2015

A group of chassidim once set out on a journey to the Chozeh of Lublin. Yankele, the wagon driver listened closely as the chassidim sitting in his wagon, told wondrous stories of the Chozeh and the miracles he had wrought.

When they reached Lublin, Yankele asked the chassidim to take a kvitl for him to the Rebbe. They happily obliged as they set off for the court of the Rebbe. Upon entering the Chozeh’s chamber each of the chassidim presented their requests and received the Chozeh’s warm blessing in return. Finally they handed the wagon driver’s kvitl to the Rebbe.

The Chozeh took the kvitl and clasped it in his hands for several moments. Then he exclaimed, “This person is a very great man. His name is shining with a very special light.”

One of the chassidim hastened to inform the Rebbe that the kvitl was from a simple wagon driver. “He may be a good person but he is not a holy man.” The Chozeh remained unconvinced, “There is a great light radiating from the soul of this simple wagon driver. Go search for him and you will understand why.”

The chassidim immediately left the Chozeh’s court and began looking for the wagon driver. They heard strains of lively music coming from the street and as they got closer it seemed that the entire town had turned out for a wedding. The people were dancing and singing and rejoicing with the bride and groom but happiest of all was the wagon driver whose face shone with ethereal joy.
The chassidim approached the wagon driver and asked him if he was related to the bride or groom. “No,” said the wagon driver.

“So, why are you so happy?” asked the chassidim.

The wagon driver began to relate what happened. I went for a walk through the town and I noticed a large crowd gathering for a wedding. But instead of the joy that should have been palpable, a pallor of sadness marred the air. The bride-an older woman-stood in a corner of the square weeping, while the groom —an older bachelor — stood off to the other side gesticulating angrily.

The wagon driver approached one of the townspeople and asked what had happened.

“The bride is poverty stricken. She couldn’t offer a dowry, but she undertook to give the groom a tallit (prayer shawl). However, she couldn’t raise the money for that either. So now the groom wants to cancel the wedding because she didn’t keep her word.”

The wagon driver’s heart filled with mercy for the poor bride. He immediately took off his hat and removed everything he had earned over the past few days from its secret hiding place. He rushed to purchase the prayer shawl and sent it over to the groom. Then he vanished into the crowd.

“When the dancing began, an otherworldly joy overtook over me,” the wagon driver said. “When does a simple Jew like me get an opportunity to perform such an extraordinary mitzvah? That is why I was so incredibly happy.”

When the chassidim related the story to the Chozeh he exclaimed, “Yes, that is the light that I saw. The great mitzvah, particularly the joy with which he fulfilled it, caused his soul to fill the Heavens with a wondrous light.”

The Bnei Yissachar explains that the word Kislev can be read as kas, lamed, vav, the concealed thirty six. This alludes to the hidden thirty six tzaddikim who live in every generation. It also refers to the first thirty six hours in which a great light shone in the world. Kislev’s essence is about the ohr haganuz, the hidden light. The Gemara in Sanhedrin says, “A person is commanded to say, “The world was created for me.” Within each person there are thirty six hidden lights and there is a potential within us to be a lamed vavnik, a hidden tzaddik. It is up to us to reveal the holiness within ourselves and other people. In Parshat Noach, we read how the dove came back to the ark with an olive branch. Hashem says just as the dove brought light to the world, the Jews will bring light to the world with the olive oil. This refers to the menora in the beit hamikdash and Chanuka. We are the yonah. Our avoda (mission) in the month of Kislev is to reveal the points of righteousness in ourselves and others.

The sum total of lights on Chanukah is thirty six, which is what the holiday is about. The stories we tell about lamed vavniks who appeared so coarse and uncouth aren’t just folklore. They teach that within each of us is concealed the power of Kislev, thirty six hidden lights waiting to be revealed.




The Light In Lublin by L. Astaire


Chodesh Kislev: Mrs. S. Nissenbaum


The Artist’s Task

8 12 2015

On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the famous violinist, appeared on stage in New York to give a concert. Pearlman wears braces and walks with crutches, remnants of his bout with polio as a child. The audience waited quietly as he laboriously trekked across the stage, settled his crutches on the floor, and undid the clasps on his legs. He then signaled to the conductor and began to play.

Suddenly one of the strings on his violin snapped. The unmistakable sound ricocheted through the hall. You would think he would have halted the concert, limped off stage, replaced the string or violin, and started again. But not Itzhak Perlman. He paused for a moment, closed his eyes, and then motioned to the conductor to pick up just where they had left off. Playing a symphonic piece with merely three strings is nearly impossible. But Perlman refused to capitulate. The audience watched in wonder as he modulated, changed, and recreated the symphony as he played. It seemed as if he was de-tuning the strings to extract something it had never given before. Perlman was at his peak as he played with poise, passion, and purity.

When he finally completed the symphony, the audience sat as if shell shocked. And then they rose as one and applauded as they never did before. They knew they had just observed an incredible scene of human artistry and ingenuity. Perlman dabbed the sweat from his brow and in a quiet, pensive tone said, “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have left.”

Hakarat hatov means searching out the good. Training ourselves to be grateful means recognizing the good we already have. We are all deficient in something, and so the question challenges us all: Will we create something of beauty out of what we do have, although it may be imperfect? Or we will concentrate on what we are lacking and allow ourselves to wallow in self-pity?

Chanukah is about l’hodot u’lehallel, not just for the miracles of war, but for all the miracles that He does for us every day. We say in davening, “Kol haneshama tehalel kah.” The commentators explain, “Al kol neshima,” for every breath of life we must thank Hashem. The beauty of Chanukah is making that gratitude a part of our life.


Path of the Soul: Gratitude #3, Dr. A. Morinis


Chanukah: Affectionate Light, Mrs. S. Smiles





The Eternal Spark Within Us

8 12 2015

About a century ago, a poor wandering Rabbi traveled to Milan, Italy on a fundraising mission. As he walked along the city streets he met a wealthy Jew who invited him to his home for Shabbos. That evening as the Rabbi sat enjoying the meal his interest was piqued by a small broken glass flask which seemed very out of place amid the elegant silverware and crystal bowls on display in the cabinet. The wealthy man followed his gaze and began to tell his story.

“I was born in Amsterdam and traveled to Italy at the young age of eighteen to assist my elderly grandfather in his business. When my grandfather died, my parents asked me to sell the enterprise and come back to Amsterdam. However by that time the business had become so successful that I decided to stay in Italy. I became so engrossed in my work that my Jewish observance slowly fell to the wayside. One day I forgot to daven Shachrit. Then it was Mincha. Bit by bit I found myself letting go of all the mitzvot. I married and had children. Although I remembered that I was Jewish we led a totally secular lifestyle.

One afternoon, as I was walking down the street I found a child crying bitterly, ‘What will I tell my father? What will I tell my father?’ I asked the boy what had happened and he told me that although his father was very poor he had set aside a few precious coins to buy a flask of oil for Chanukah. His father gave him the money and cautioned him to come straight home with the precious oil. But he didn’t listen and stopped to play with his friends. The flask fell and broke and now all the oil was gone.

I comforted the boy and bought him a new flask of oil. But as I headed home his refrain rang in my ears, ‘What will I tell my father?’ What would I tell my Father in heaven? How would I face Him on the final day of judgement? I retraced my steps and picked up the broken flask. That night, my wife and children watched in wonderment, as I kindled a Chanukah candle. The following evening, I lit two, and with each passing night, I lit one more. I watched the flames as they danced and glowed and I remembered my parents’ home in Amsterdam. I had drifted far away.”

The wealthy man finished his story, “That Chanukah was the beginning of my return to Judaism. Eventually, with the understanding of my wife, we began educating our children the way we were brought up. Our road back had started with that broken flask and the words of that boy, ‘What will I tell my father?’ That is why I keep that flask as a treasured memento of that which changed my life.”

In Tehilim it says, “Hashem’s candle is the human soul, it searches man’s inner chambers.” Our souls never change, though our awareness may lessen. There is a part within us that stays eternally lit no matter how hidden it may be. The word ner (candle) is composed of the initial letters of the words nefesh and ruach, soul and spirit. Nefesh is related to nofesh, vacation. There is an aspect of the soul that rests within the walls of the body that we can only get at with the senses. When we hear or see something that inspires us, our nefesh is momentarily awakened. Above that is ruach (wind), the part of the soul that cannot be put it into words, the part that moves us and brings us to tears. When we do a mitzvah with love and fear using our 248 limbs, the body itself becomes a candle illuminating the hidden mishkan within us. At the time of the Chanukah story as the Greeks launched their spiritual attack against Judaism, we lost some of the ahavah and yirah, and with that the ability to be who we could be. But we still had the will to grow in Hashem’s ways and in this merit we found the pure cruse of oil. This is the miracle of Chanukah. Although our inner ner may be buried under layers of dross and sin, if we have the passion and desire to grow, Hashem will give us the ability to find our true selves.




Echoes of the Maggid by Rabbi Paysach Krohn retold by Rabbi S Price


Chanuka: Sefas Emes Part I #2 by Reb. Tziporah Heller