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 In today’s world, frumkeit is portrayed as something outdated, or bigoted, or just plain uncool.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.

Parshas Mikeitz: Dreams and Ambitions

This week’s Parsha, Mikeitz, begins with Yosef interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. Following the incident in jail, in which he correctly predicts the butler’s freedom, and the baker’s execution, he is summoned to the royal court, and Pharaoh gives an account of his dreams, which Yosef correctly interprets to be about the plentiful harvest and the famine which will follow.

The Talmud tells us that dreams are subject to the interpreter. The dream itself is essentially devoid of apparent meaning; it’s up to the one interpreting the dream to find the hidden meaning. Only then are dreams worthwhile analysing or dwelling upon, and only then can they form prophecies.

Of course, the rabbis in the Talmud said this in reference to the sort of dreams that we have while we are asleep. But there’s another kind of dream: an ambition. Something we would like to do, something which we daydream about, even. And as I thought about the whole issue of dreams and interpretations, I realised the rabbinical statement applies to this second type of dream, as well.

Once we utilise the powers of interpretation, there is no such thing as an unfulfilled dream. We might dream about doing something, only for it to go wrong, but if we analyse and interpret our dreams- the dreams we have while we’re awake- then we realise that there is meaning and purpose in everything that happens to us.

Perhaps our dream didn’t turn out quite right. Let’s say we dreamed of spending a life with someone, only to find that they’re not the right one. It’s heartbreaking and painful and feels a lot more like a nightmare than a dream- but once we’ve moved past that, we start to realise something. We realise that maybe they treated us badly, or vice versa. Maybe you didn’t get on well together after all. Maybe, due to circumstances and limitations, it wouldn’t have been a fairytale “dream” relationship after all.

When we think this way, we can interpret our dreams. We can realise that even if it initially seems like that particular dream has gone wrong, there are actually hidden blessings in everything. Sometimes they are so hidden that we can’t see a blessing at all- for example in the case of death- but sometimes, it takes just a bit of interpretation to realise that maybe our dream was fulfilled after all- just in a slightly different way than we imagined.

Just as Yosef interpreted prophecies in Pharaoh’s dreams in Parshas Mikeitz, we, too, hold the power to read important messages into the dreams we have while we’re still awake. So next time you find yourself dreami about what you’d like to do- or next time you mourn a dream that ‘went wrong’- stop and think. After all, dreams are in the hands of the interpreter, and perhaps there’s a crucial message here, too.

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!

Parshas Vayeishev: Good People and Bad Actions

This week’s Parsha, Vayeishev, tells us the famous story of Yosef and his brothers. We learn that Yaakov Avinu loved Yosef more than any of his other sons, and treated him preferentially, giving him a fine coat of many colours. In response, Yosef began to feel superior to his brothers, who hated and envied him for his attitude towards them. We learn from both the texts and the commentaries that Yosef’s brothers had many faults. They hated their fellow Jew- their brother, no less!- in their hearts, plotted against him, and sold him into slavery. They grieved their father, by telling him that his favourite son was dead, and the eldest tried to save Yosef only because he was worried that he would bear the brunt of the punishment. All in all, their behaviour was far from ideal, but when we read the commentaries, we learn that Yosef’s behaviour spoke volumes, too.

It wasn’t just his arrogant behaviour towards his brothers which made Yosef unpopular. He also brought “evil tales” about them to his father. We learn in Pireki d’Rabbeinu haKadosh that “[The Sages said:] Two righteous men were punished on account of the bearing of malevolent reports— Yaakov and Yosef. Because Yosef spoke badly of his brothers, he was incarcerated in prison for 12 years; and because Jacob listened to these reports, the divine spirit departed from him for 22 years. This teaches us that one who speaks negatively of another is punished once, while someone who listens to negative talk about another is twice punished.”

Despite the harshness of the decree against Yosef and Yaakov, I actually find that this story is incredibly uplifting. Why? Because although Yosef and Yaakov both acted “badly” in this instance, they were still good people. They were still tzadikkim. And, yes, they did wrong and were punished but it didn’t mean that they were “evildoers” or bad people. And for someone who struggles a lot with Frumkeit and Yiddishkeit, to see that two of the greatest men in the Torah erred and made mistakes and still came out the other side as highly respected individuals is extremely inspiring.

Of course, this is no excuse for us to speak loshon horo or behave badly, just because Yaakov and Yosef did so, and were eventually forgiven after they had been punished. But it also means that there’s no excuse to give up on oneself just because one has made a huge mistake and treated another wrongly. There’s always time to turn our lives around, right our wrongs, apologise to those we’ve hurt, and lead lives as righteous people- just as Yaakov and Yosef did.

On ‘One of Us’

Earlier today, I read an interesting piece about films such as One of Us, which showcase the stories of individuals who have been mistreated by- and subsequently left- Chareidi communities. The article argued that these films, and television programs such as Extreme Wives (which documented the lives of Orthodox Jewish wives) do not present a realistic image of frum communities, and portray Chareidim in an unfairly negative light, while ignoring the issues faced by Jews in the secular world.

Responding to the article, I wrote that I was, in fact, willing to see frum Jews such as myself portrayed in this way, if and only if these films do something to help those victims who are suffering as a result of the Chareidi community’s attitudes towards abuse. I detest the “sweep it under the rug” attitude, and, unfortunately, it is rampant among frum community leaders. Abuse is hidden and victims are told not to go to the police, and often, as shown in One of Us, victims end up losing their children to an unfair legal system.

If the choice is between focusing on the negative points of Chareidim, and sweeping abuse under the rug, I will always choose the former. But the article led me to wonder… will these films actually help those who are suffering? Will they force the rabbonim to tackle abuse, help those in bad situations, and stop covering up for powerful people who acts disgracefully? I unfortunately feel that the answer is no. Although it’s all well and good to give a platform for survivors to share their stories, true change must come from within the community- and I fear that perhaps these documentaries will do little or nothing to help change community attitudes.