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Chanukah: “In the Days of Matisyahu”

As I sit here and write this article, I, and the rest of America, are sloshing our way through an historical, unusual, highly explosive and utterly ridiculous period of time, that will go down in history as one of the most laughable in American history. The presidential election was last week – and we still don’t know who the president is! As I (obviously mistakenly) understood it, the entire point of a presidential election is to determine a president – just as the entire point of a “liquidation sale” is to liquidate, and the entire point of a car wash is, rather conclusively, to wash a car! Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that entire reason why we use a “hands- free” telephone is so as not to have to use our hands, while smart travellers amass frequent flyer miles because – you guessed it – they fly frequently! I think “microwave popcorn” is pretty obvious and does not need me to spell it out! Obviously, we’re missing something here, and I would venture to say, it’s a lack of leadership and responsible people in charge of taking control of situations.

One of the most notable inclusions in our daily tefillos on Chanukkah, is the thanksgiving prayer of “Al Hanissim”, which begins by noting the historical period of the miracle: “In the days of Matisyahu Ben Yochanan, the kohen gadol, Chashmonai, and his sons.” Matisyahu was the elder of the village of Modi’in, who was given the “honor” by the enemies of Israel to slaughter a pig on the pagan altar. He was the one who heroically stepped up to the improvised altar, took a dagger from his pocket and killed the Hellenist, declaring, “Mi L’Hashem Alai!” – “Who is for Hashem come with me!” This was Matisyahu whose five sons led the rebellion and saw great miracles. One of the sons, Elazar, fell in battle, while the others became kings and kohanim gedolim, each one in his turn, thus establishing the Chashmonite dynasty.

Matisyahu, however, was very old and had already died by the beginning of the revolt. His son, Yehudah, led the rebellion under the slogan, “Mi Kamocha B’eilim, Hashem” – “Who is like You among the mighty, Hashem,” the sentence that formed the acronym that became his title, Yehudah HaMakabi. The question thus arises, why are the miracles, and the period in general, associated with the elderly father, who never even saw the miracles? Why do Jews forever more speak of these events as having occurred “in the time of Matisyahu!”

It would seem that a profound lesson is conveyed through these words in “Al Hanisim,” an eternal lesson for all generations, ours in particular. We can understand the answer to our question through a story that occurred around ninety years ago, when a spirit of rebellion and recklessness overcame the jewish youth, a wave of worship to false propaganda and meaningless slogans. Some were caught up in communism, others in socialism, still others in nationalism and there were those who got involved in the movement of enlightenment. None of them dreamed of how these slogans would eventually disappoint their followers, how they would all collapse and disintegrate. In the meantime, these movements earned the enthusiastic involvement of the youth, and their involvement carried with it the scorn and resentment of all that was sacred and precious. They shook themselves from their heritage and severed themselves from the golden chain of Yiddishkeit.

The madness made its way even to the small town of Radin, the town where the great Chofetz Chaim lived. Enthusiastic youth established a library stocked with books of heresy. Their minds were not put at ease until they built yet another structure, a social club where they would have presentations renouncing religion and its followers and turning them into a laughing stock.

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As the story goes, at that time, the blacksmith’s daughter fell critically ill. She suffered from a dangerously high fever and the doctors had all but given up. They told the concerned father that they saw little chance for her survival. The blacksmith, as a final resort, turned to the tzadik and begged tearfully, “Rebbe, please save my little girl!” The Chofetz Chaim pondered this for a while. Finally, he answered, “If you want your daughter to live, go destroy the heretical club, and I promise you a complete recovery.” The smith was a bit surprised when he heard these words but he nevertheless, hurried home. He took two giant hammers, one in each hand, and made his way to the club. He forced his way in and began swinging the hammers, waving them back and forth forcefully, until he smashed the walls into smithereens. The young dissidents quickly surrounded him, but  he turned to them with the fury of a wild animal and cried, “Whoever comes near me, I will throw this hammer at him!!” They quickly retreated, and the seemingkly deranged blacksmith continued his destructive activity unabated. He destroyed the walls, the ceiling, the roof, doors, windows, benches and tables, turning everything into a pile of twigs. The club was destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

Some of the students of the Chofetz Chaim saw what had happened and decided to expand on the blacksmith’s efforts. In the middle of the night, they sneaked out to the library and burned it down, together with all the books espousing heresy and apostasy. They acted with sincere intentions and believed that just as the blacksmith accomplished what he did and was not detained by the authorities, they too, would get away with their acts. This time, however, the victims took action. They contacted the police who conducted an intense investigation. The perpetrators were apprehended and made to pay for their actions. The young activists, however, were not satisfied with this and they embarked on a campaign against the “forces of darkness” – a clear reference to the yeshiva students and a huge chilul Hashem – who acted in the middle of the night against the champions of progress, and they collected funds from all over the region to rebuild the burnt library. In only a short time, they completed a magnificent building, more lavish than the first, furnished with more heretical works than before.

The lesson that the Chofetz Chaim’s students learned was apparent. Even actions of protest and zealousness require the approval of a respected leader, a prominent Rov or even the gadol hador. Even Pinchas, who avenged the revenge of the Almighty, did not act before receiving the approval of Moshe Rabbeinu. It appears that the activity of the religious community in Israel over the last few years proves this point – whoever first consulted with the sages, succeeded. But those who acted zealously but independently, led to an unnecessary struggle and were defeated. This is the lesson taught to us by the introduction – “in the times of Matisyahu Beh Yochanan, the kohen gadol.” If he gave the signal, if he instructed and conducted the rebellion, then success was guaranteed!

Yehudahs tactic can be better understood through the following story. Secular Jews in the city of Brisk, in an attempt to make a mockery of the religious community, staged a play depicting what a religious army under Torah authority would have looked like. The curtain rose over a group of soldiers dressed in black as the kohen spoke to the group: “Whoever has built a new home and did not dedicate it – should return to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it” A group of soldiers marched and left their position. The kohen continued, “Whoever has planted a vineyard and did not perform hilul or who was betrothed to a woman and did not marry her – should return to his home” Again, a handful of got up and left. The kohen then proceeded to announce the final release: “Whoever is afraid and soft of heart – referring to those afraid on sins which they have committed – should return to their homes” Immediately, panic broke out among the soldiers. Who has not committed one sin or another? Who has never spoken any “lashon hara” or wasted any time from Torah study? They all picked themselves up and left. On the stage stood only three people – the kohen, and two elderly men. The first was the Vilna Gaon, and the second was the author of “Shaagat Aryeh.” They engaged in an involved “halachic” discussion as to which one of them has the privilege of beginning the battle against the enemy. The frivolous audience broke out in hysterical laughter. Understandably, the secularists relished this or any opportunity to poke fun at the Torah. The religious community, however, turned to Rabbi Hayim of Brisk to ask for his response. Reb Hayim answered, “What can I say – they are correct! This is exactly how it appeared when the Jewish people went out to fight. Bu the actors forgot just one thing – those two won the battle!” Strange as it may seem, there is precedent for such a lopsided defeat. The Humash tells how Mosheh sent spies to scout the region of Yazer, and they proceeded to actually conquer the entire area (Rashi, Bemidbar 21:32). Similarly, Shimon and Levi themselves captured the city of Shechem, and Yehonatan, son of Shaul, defeated an entire Philistine battalion with his servant (Shemuel I, 14). When the Creator is on our side, then we merit the fulfillment of the pasuk, “Five of you will chase after one hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand.” When our Creator wishes, even just two are more than needed. Not a single individual chased after Pharaoh and his army – they themselves went into the sea to drown therein. Large stones fell from the heavens upon the Philistines, the Kishon river swept the entire army of Sisra, Hashem scattered the army of Aram in every which direction, and 180,000 soldiers in Sanherivs army suddenly died one night as they besieged the city of Jerusalem. Our most critical job is to ensure that the Almighty is on our side. Once we accomplish this, “These come with chariots, others come with horses – but we come with the mentioning of Name of Hashem our God.


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