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 In today’s world, frumkeit is portrayed as something outdated, or bigoted, or just plain uncool.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

Sparks In The Sky

I truly believe that all art forms can honour Hashem and capture an essence of His glory in some small way. This includes music, paintings, and, of course, poetry. I’m always looking for meaningful Jewish poetry, and the other day, I found myself inspired by Ester Kazinik’s beautiful and talented poem, which she has kindly allowed me to share here…

She twirls the fire
Dances the drum beats
Her wings against the star
Filled sky and dies
Buried face up so she won’t miss the falling
Stars or fallen soldiers
Wings outstretched taut
She taught them all to fly with wings
She molded from warmed clay
Her nails scratching, etching marks down backs
Of hills- the mud slid towards bare trees
It was winter and white like snow
She glowed in the dark
Sparks from the bonfire
Danced up to the sky
She danced hard
Beating the earth with her feet
Hair wild in the wind
She whipped the colors against
Stretched leathers
Feathers in her hair declared
The rare beauty she had become
A crow and owl in one
Her talons aching for new flesh
Inhaling pungent smoke she choked and
Lay back on grass and willow
She danced spinning circles of light and energy
Altering the present and fluctuating time
Skirts spinning like a dervish a fervor
She stood still
Silent
Breathing
Fire

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….

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.

Counting

Today I stood, watching snowflakes fall,
Soft kisses from the sky above,
And as each one touched my skin,
I was taken back to a different time.
Far-off, oh so far away,
A time from before I encountered You,
A static memory of snowballs and frost-
Yes, it took me right back.
So I stopped counting snowflakes,
And started counting blessings,
But that didn’t last long either.
For the blessings in my life
Are too numerous to count,
Falling faster than the flakes of snow.
When I stopped counting blessings,
I fell to the ground,
Got up, and counted again,
And as I walked,
Counting my blessings,
I could barely feel the cold.