Spiritual Warfare

“The sins of Israel in the time of the Greeks were: Fraternising with the Greeks, studying their culture, profaning Shabbes and Holy Days, eating treif and neglecting Jewish tahara.”

– Hayom Yom, Kislev 29

When we read about the Chanukah miracle, we usually imagine violent wars and huge battles between the Greeks and the Jews. But in fact, the warfare conducted by the Greeks was much more dangerous than any sort of physical battle. It was spiritual warfare, designed to target the Jewish people’s weak spot, and convince them that they, too, could behave like the Greeks. It almost worked: we learn from the Hayom Yom that the Jewish people fraternised with the Greeks and were punished severely as a result. It was only through a great miracle that the Temple was restored and the oil burned for eight days, leaving us with the beautiful and inspiring story we repeat each Chanukah.

And yet, those of us who know and love this story quite often find ourselves falling into the behaviour patterns criticised by the Hayom Yom. We assimilate. We hide our observance. We feel ashamed to be Jewish or frum. I know all too well how easy it is to start doing this. In today’s world, frumkeit is portrayed as something outdated, or bigoted, or just plain uncool. We are told that we need to put our Jewish faith aside, or we are convinced that we can combine it with other sets of values, and other religious celebrations.

Simply put, we can’t. The Torah was given to us as a set of rules to live by for all our generations. And as we recount the Chanukah miracle this year, let’s remember how and why it happened, and strengthen our Yiddishkeit in response to the spiritual attacks we face every day.

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Gut Shabbes! (Mikeitz)

This Shabbes is known as “Shabbes Chanukah”, and tonight, as we enjoy the combined light of the Chanukiah and the Shabbes candles, we find ourselves in a place of increased Kedushah. Watching the Shabbes candles burn always makes me feel emotional, but it was only yesterday that I realised the incredible power of davening by the Menorah, when I learned that the Chasam Sofer zt”l taught that when you cry in front of the candles you can be sure your tefillos will be answered.

I always found the concept of prayers being answered a confusing one. I had been told that if I davened by a chuppah, Hashem would answer my prayers and I would get a shidduch. But I davened and nothing happened. I felt angry and betrayed. I had been promised an ‘answer’ from Hashem, and I hadn’t gotten one- or so I thought. But yesterday, after I read this quote about Chanukah, I started thinking about davening and I realised maybe, Hashem had answered, and the answer was “no”. Or more accurately, “no, not yet”. Maybe He realised that I am in no place for a shidduch- or whatever else I asked for- and just because I am promised an answer, it doesn’t mean that it will be the answer I want to hear right now.

This Shabbes Chanukah, I daven that our tefillos will be answered speedily, and we will see only revealed blessings. But I also understand that perhaps when Hashem answers my tefillos tonight, the answer will be “No, not yet”.

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit at 3:34 PM in London, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 4:50 PM. While lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Shmuel Yossef ben Soroh Malka, Chashachana bas Bryna and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, gut Shabbes, and a Freilichen Chanukah!

Spreading Light

On the first night of Chanukah, we use the shamash to light just one candle, and as the holiday progresses, we increase the number of lights, until we have eight candles burning. As we kindle the Chanukiah, we bring light and joy into the world- serving as a perfect metaphor for our role as Jews in a modern world, not just during Chanukah, but throughout the year, as we aim to spread kindness and light wherever we go.

We aim to be a light to the nations, but many people- including myself- feel somewhat insufficient upon reading this phrase. Perhaps we’re just ordinary people, we think. We aren’t great lights; we don’t have some amazing role in the way the world works; we just need to live our lives. And anyway, how can we progress from this sort of philosophy, to tikkun olam; to changing the world?

Chanukah provides us with the answer to this question. Start small, and dream big. Charity begins at home, with one kind deed, which has the power to light up a life, and lead to other illuminating and inspiring good deeds. So this Chanukah, as we sit by the candles and think about our lives, our goals, our purpose in this world, if we start to feel overwhelmed by the duties incumbent upon us, to mend a world with so much sadness in it, then we only need to look into the light of the Chanukiah to find courage and inspiration. Start small, and build up to greater things.

A Freilichen Chanukah

Tonight, the eight-night festival of Chanukah begins. It’s a well known but relatively minor Jewish holiday, and despite its less significant status (when compared to any of the Yom Tovim), I find that it is rich with meaning and beauty. Even long before I was observant, I had a Chanukiah at home, which we displayed each year to mark the holiday, and thinking back to years past, when Chanukah was often fraught with tension, arguments, and stress, I find myself- for the first time in my life- looking forwards to Chanukah.

I’m under no illusions that it will be a “perfect holiday”. In fact, I’m fairly certain that there’s no such thing. I am sure that between trying to remember which order I light the candles in, laughing at the Feta doughnuts recipe on Chabad.org, and attempting to get everyone in the room so we can light the menorah, there will be times when I feel irritated and harried, and I may even say something along the lines of “Why on earth is Chanukah so stressful when it’s not even a Yom Tov?!”.

But at the end of the day, I’m spending Chanukah with my family and friends. For the first time ever, I’m actually going to Chanukah events and Menorah lightings rather than sitting at home, labouring over the latkes which no one will eat. And just as I was losing faith, I found myself inspired by a modern day Chanukah miracle which made my year. Right now, at least, I feel blessed, as I celebrate the festival of lights with those who bring light into my life.

A Freilichen Chanukah to each and every one of you….

Gut Shabbes! (Vayeishev)

As the days get shorter and shorter, and Shabbes starts earlier and earlier, I find myself feeling pressured at the end of each week, trying to prepare for Shabbes in a short space of time, and making hurried arrangements for guests, meal plans and the suchlike. This week, as I was planning for Shabbes, I stopped and thought; perhaps, this isn’t actually what it’s all about.

Shabbes and Chanukah have one thing in common. They’re both about increasing the amount of light in the world. When we light Shabbes candles, and when we light the Chanukiah, we are bringing in holiness and light, and sharing this light with our families, friends, and all of klal Yisroel. As we prepare to celebrate the miracle of Chanukah, remember that Shabbes is about light. And although the external light is important- the light we bring to others when we host them for a Shabbes meal, and the light we spread when we honour Shabbes- let’s not forget the internal light. The miracles we take for granted. We’re alive. We’re breathing. We’re here to celebrate another Shabbes. The preparations can wait for a minute- stop and think about what you’re looking forward to this Shabbes, and what you’re thankful for.

This week, Shabbes candles should be lit in London at 3:34 PM, and Shabbes ends at 4:50 PM tomorrow. With gratitude to Hashem, I am happy to announce the birth of a baby girl to two of my dearest friends- please keep her in mind for a refuah shleimah when you are lighting the Shabbes candles. Her name is Tinokes bas Shana Rochel Golda Rus. Also, please remember Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Shmuel Yossef ben Soroh Malka, Chashachana bas Bryna and Rivka Miriam bas Tsivia Bina. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Good Yom Tov!

Tonight, as we celebrate Yud Tes Kislev- the Rosh Hashono of Chassidism- we remember the liberation of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, from imprisonment in Czarist Russia, and the subsequent strengthening of the Chabad movement, as the Rebbe redoubled his efforts to spread Chassidic teachings, and make them accessible to everyone.

Out of all of the special days on the Jewish calendar, Yud Tes Kislev speaks to me the most. There’s something so inspiring about the Alter Rebbe’s story- in a way, it appeals directly to my emotions and my Jewish journey. When I first became interested in Judaism, and decided to become frum, I found myself held back by my family and living situation. I was very much ‘imprisoned’, and I found it really hard to do the things I wanted to do. Spiritually, I was weakened by the negative influences around me.

During this difficult time, I read about the Alter Rebbe, and I learned that after his imprisonment, he didn’t back down; instead, he upped his game, and started working harder than ever to spread Jewish knowledge. The more I thought about it, the more inspired I felt. It was on Yud Tes Kislev last year that I received news which changed my life, and I decided straightaway that this was no mere coincidence. It was Hasgocho Protis.

Last Yud Tes Kislev, my life turned around, just as the Alter Rebbe’s had, so many years before me. And this year, as I look back over what I’ve been through, I daven that all those people who, like me, are held back by their circumstances, and find themselves spiritually ‘imprisoned’, witness the sort of miracle which Hashem bestowed upon me, and find the strength to continue their Jewish journey. May this be the Divine will, and may we merit to welcome the Moshiach, speedily and in our days!

GOOD YOM TOV.

MAY YOU BE INSCRIBED AND SEALED

FOR A GOOD YEAR IN THE STUDY OF CHASSIDUS

AND THE WAYS OF CHASSIDUS

Doing Chanukah Differently

Those of you who use social media are probably inundated with Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and witty tweets capturing the magic of Chanukah. Between recipes, adverts, and countless photos of other people’s cooking, it’s easy to feel panicked by the rapidly approaching holiday. But maybe, you don’t have to feel this way.

Every year, I say the same things to myself. This year, I won’t run myself into debt buying Chanukah gifts and food. This year, I won’t worry about the little things like menus and table decorations. This year, I’ll appreciate the fact that Chanukah is a meaningful holiday and not simply synonymous with gifts and food. And every year, I find myself running around like a headless chicken, tearing my hair out over how much money I’ve spent and the fact that all the other women on Facebook have already started cooking for *next* Chanukah and here I am without even a menu plan to my name.

Then this year, I decided that I was going to start doing Chanukah differently.

I looked at what had made the previous Chanukahs so difficult- miserable, even- for me. I think I spent too much money trying to win the affection of those around me, I realised. Chanukah isn’t really about gifts, and I was attempting to use gifts to make my family and friends choose Chanukah over the “other December holiday”, perhaps even trying to get them to like me more.

Then there was the food. All the time spent cooking “traditional” dishes which my family didn’t actually like. Day after day, year after year, they pushed my latkes around their plates before discreetly throwing them away, on top of whatever else it was I had laboured over in the hope that just this once, we’d have a “proper Chanukah”.

It followed the same pattern every year. I would begin Chanukah super organised, telling myself that this year, it would all go according to plan and I would have a happy family and a perfect Chanukah. By day three, I would have given up on the whole idea and spend the rest of the week alone, often in bed, crying about how it “all went wrong”. Some people just don’t learn. Until this year. This year, I learnt.

I learnt that no matter how much money I spend, it’s up to my family and friends whether or not they want to celebrate Chanukah. It’s no good plying people with gifts in an attempt to change their minds. I learnt that it wasn’t my job to prepare beautiful traditional dishes like the other women on Facebook did, if it came at the cost of shalom bayis and my own happiness. And above all, I learnt that a large part of my enjoyment of Chanukah came from who I spent it with.

When I cut my Chanukah gift budget in half, I also cut off the people who made the holiday stressful. Because, despite the number of times I told myself that true happiness came from within, and that Chanukah isn’t supposed to be this materialistic, I realised that it’s pretty much impossible to be happy when your efforts are being thrown back in your face. And when I took this step, and made plans with genuinely good people, I found that for the first time in my life I was genuinely looking forward to Chanukah.

Next week, you’ll find me with the people who truly care, as I look into the flickering lights of the Menorah and realise how lucky I am. Because even though Chanukah commemorates a certain miracle of oil, there’s no reason why I can’t recall the other miracles in my life- including the fact that this year, I won’t have to make latkes…