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