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Where am I this Chanukah?


Are the lights on the Chanukah menorah like speech or like silence? Do they open up our minds and souls to the meaning of the evil that has surrounded us, the Jewish people, since October 7? Do the lights enable us to speak?

Or do the lights on the menorah silence our minds and souls, enwrapping us in an unfathomable mystery unfolding since October 7?

In short, where are we this Chanukah?

It is an impenetrable question, to me at least.

I am riddled with angst, sadness, astonished at myself that I want Israel to engage in war to vanquish evil incarnate; I am, time after time, broken by one shiva house after the other; I am at a loss for words to hear people defend beheadings, rapes and murders; I am ripped apart by Hamas intentionally endangering its own people; I mourn every innocent loss, even, I admit, as I increasingly wonder just what the definition of innocence is. Does it include a teenager throwing a weapon, or a female prisoner, now set free, who was convicted of attempted murder, with the prior, full right to Israeli counsel and the presumption of innocence?

Where am I this Chanukah?

I am drawn to a passage by the late Rabbi Isaac Hutner, published in 1989. It was translated by Bezalel Naor in 2016. It reads:

One of the disciples has a special gift for being able to grasp the thought of the master when the master is silent. The content of the master’s thoughts when he is silent is much deeper than the content of the thoughts that he verbalizes to the disciples. The reason being that the thoughts in which the master is sunk during his silence are “for himself,” whereas the thoughts that make up his spoken remarks always take into account the level of the disciples, which is below the level of “his self.”

We find therefore that though the transition from speech to silence spells an absolute break in communication between master and disciples — for that special disciple who has the gift of grasping the master’s thoughts at the time he is silent, the moment of transition from speech to silence is an opportunity for ascent. At that moment, he rises from the level of the master as he exists for the other, to the level of the master as he exists for himself. And the insights of the master “for himself” are deeper than the insights of the master “for the other.”*

Can we regard this as an analogy?

Can we call the master G-d and ourselves the disciples? Can we regard the thoughts that G-d verbalizes to be the Torah? Can we say that G-d has thoughts, beyond the Torah, that are only “for Himself?” Then, can we say that there is among us a “special disciple,” who has the gift of grasping the Master’s thoughts at the time He is silent?

Of course I cannot answer this question. I cannot know G-d’s silent thoughts “for Himself.” Merely to pose the question — to ask whether we can fathom the current terror — reflects my anguish over the horrendous choices forced on us:

• to go to war in self-defense, or not to kill in war but instead to expose ourselves to a repeat of the horrors of Oct. 7; and

• to choose between pausing in war in order to secure the freedom of hostages, thus giving ground to the enemy; and between not pausing and not giving ground to the enemy.

A different level of anguish: Some call me naive, but I remain shocked to watch the good name of the Jewish people besmirched by so many, including (but hardly limited to) The New York Times, which cast doubt on Israel’s statement that it did not bomb a hospital in Gaza on Oct. 17, when, in fact, Israel didn’t; and which wrote a subsequent article that cast doubt on Israel’s statement that another hospital in Gaza sheltered Hamas weapons, when, in fact, the hospital did.

Unable to fathom all this, I cannot say whether the Chanukah candles are like speech or silence. So this Chanukah, I simply let the candles shine in their own speechless way; I take them in as they are: Beautiful. Alluring. Shining with meaning. Reminders of a previous era of wickedness followed by a glorious victory.

Ultimately, I take comfort in the fertile message in a short, revelatory piece of dialogue some 100 years ago.

Once, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (d. 1972) arrived in the Slobodka yeshiva and lectured. All went to listen, the Elder of Slobodka (d. 1927) among them. The lecture was passionate, admonitory, and the Elder was moved to tears.

The next day, when Rabbi Lopian came to take his leave, the Elder rebuked him, asking rhetorically, “How could you admonish such a distinguished group of talmudic scholars?” Rabbi Lopian remained silent, accepting the rebuke.

Afterwards, Rabbi Hutner, who had been present, questioned the rebuke, noting that the Elder himself had wept during the lecture.

Said the Elder:

“A thing and its opposite — contradictions — these are among the ways of G-d Himself.”

Contradictions: Yes, I am in mourning. This period of Jewish history is not one of “six degrees of separation,” but of one degree of separation. That is how close some of the losses in Israel have been to me.

At the same time — literally — I rejoice in the memory of the Chanukah triumph, and I know it was not a one time event. Yes, I am in mourning, but I know that Jews and Jewish ideals will ultimately win the day for us and for all of humanity.

Where am I this Chanukah? I live with the contradiction.

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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