Gut Shabbes! (Terumah)

Today is the first day of Adar. Adar is the month in which we celebrate the joyous festival of Purim, and in fact, the whole of Adar is known as a month of rejoicing and gladness, marked by good fortune for the Jewish people. But that’s not all.

The word Adar is related to the word Adir, which refers to strength and power. Adir, which is used to describe the Jewish people, is connected to the spiritual strength within each of us, to do mitzvos and spread light. This month, as we celebrate the joy of Adar, let’s not forget the power we have inside us, to strengthen our observance and performance of good deeds.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 4:59 PM tonight, and Shabbes goes out at 6:10 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Moshe ben Soroh Malka, Moshe Ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Chashachana bas Bryna and Golda Shira bas Yenta Ruchel. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!


Nittel Nacht

I was always in two minds about the observance of Nittel Nacht. The Chabad custom is not to study Torah on the evening of December 24th, the reason for which is partially spiritual (not wanting to add vitality to the unclean forces which are present at this time) and partly practical (Jews who appeared in public were often attacked at this time, so they refrained from going to yeshiva or kollel). But despite this very good basis for observing Nittel Nacht, I felt somewhat suspicious of it in the past. It seemed too much like acknowledging a day which should not be acknowledged, and so I felt more comfortable sweeping it under the rug.

But this year, as I find myself with a different outlook on the whole December 25th conundrum- balancing family concerns and my own morals- I also have come to appreciate another purpose for Nittel Nacht. Studying Torah, I believe, gives us a purpose. It instils us with a G-dly life force, and by studying Hashem’s laws, we not only honour Him, but advance our own understanding. In short, Torah study is a necessary part of my life. But just as after Yom Kippur we appreciate a glass of water more than ever, perhaps Nittel Nacht will provide a much needed break, and give us a chance to return to Torah study with increased enthusiasm. Perhaps, extraordinarily, we can do what we do best and elevate this night into something very Holy- a chance to strengthen our Torah study over this upcoming week.

For those who wish to observe Nittel Nacht, a useful article can be found here.

What Chanukah Taught Me

Chanukah taught me that spending eight consecutive nights with your family is incredibly rare, incredibly difficult to organise, and incredibly beautiful.

It taught me that I don’t actually need all the gifts and celebrations which marked the holidays I celebrated in my “past life”, and that small, meaningful presents make me much happier than the drama of gift giving which surrounded previous years.

Above all, it taught me that with enough work and self reflection, I can make my own happiness.

Before Chanukah began, I wrote about my plans for the holiday. I had decided to do away with the fancy celebrations, expensive presents, and extravagant recipes. I wasn’t going to compete with the Perfect Women of Facebook, nor was I going to engage in the yearly contest of Keeping Up With the Cohens. Quite frankly, I’ve reached a point in my life where my daily activities- and religious observance- can no longer be influenced by these metaphorical Perfect People. I’ve had enough of them and the judgement they bring into my life. Instead, I set out to have a “homely” Chanukah, where I caught up with friends and family, davened by the menorah each night, and meditated upon the true meaning of the holiday.

Looking back on the past eight days, I think I did a pretty good job of it. I spent a lot more time- and a lot less money- than I have done on previous years, trying to make the festival meaningful. Usually, I fall flat on my face when I attempt to go all meaningful and spiritual with my family, but this year, it worked. Mostly, I decided that I was going to enjoy Chanukah and make myself happy, no matter how much work it took, and I found that if I really put my mind to it, I could actually do that.

Needless to say, this surprised me. I’m not a huge believer in positive thinking. I don’t think it’s the cure all, and in the past, when people have suggested it to me as a remedy for clinical mental illness, I may or may not have hit the metaphorical roof. But I found that when it comes to celebrations, it’s all about your expectations. Your enjoyment of a holiday is governed by how you decide you’re going to treat it. If I had planned a massive Chanukah celebration, or gifts and oily foods every night, I’d have been disappointed. I’d have probably ended up shouting at my family, throwing several plates of failed latkes away, and feeling like a total Failure. But I didn’t. I decided that this year, I’m going to treasure what I have- the lights of the menorah, my close family, and my best friends- and by making the most of these things, I found myself feeling content, and happy.

I’ve learned my lesson. No more throwing lavish dinners which I actually have no interest in just to impress people who don’t even like me. No more attempts to buy affection through pointless gifts. From now on, I’m doing the chagim just as we did Chanukah this year. And believe it or not, for the first time in my life, I’m actually looking forward to next Chanukah…

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.

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.