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Chanukah – Mesiras Nefesh

Every Yom Tov in the Jewish calendar represents not only an event or miracle that occurred, but also an ideal and everlasting concept. Shavuos signifies Kabbolas Hatorah and its acceptance as the center of our lives. Pesach reveals the manner in which a person must eat throughout the year (חמץ ומצה). Sukkos teaches us how to behave in this material world. The holiday of Chanukah represents מסירת נפש – how a Jew is willing to forgo his very existence to perpetuate the spirituality of Judaism, enabling him to live a life of Torah and mitzvos. The question is: If this is the basis of Chanukah, why is there no mention of this lofty ideal in any of our tefillos, or in the mitzvos that we do these days?

Answers R’ Yisroel Chortkover ZT”L, Mesiras Nefesh does not just mean giving up one’s life so as not to perform physical acts of sin against Hashem. One must be willing to relinquish his soul in avoidance of harmful intellectual pursuits and secular ideologies. However, the Jews in the times of Matisyohu Kohen Gadol were weak in this area and a substantial majority of the populace were not up to the task of shunning the popular culture of Hellenism. If not for the rallying of the Maccabim and the military success of a small but impassioned army, most of the Jews may have succumbed. מסירת נפש was not their strong point!

The פך שמן – flask of oil, which in Kabbalah terms signifies pure intellectual Torah wisdom, was found and lit for eight straight days, signifying a return to מסירת נפש on an intellectual basis. Thus, there is no mention of this ideal on Chanukah, however, when a Jew lights his menorah, he should reflect on how he can improve himself – just as the Jews of old did – in the area of mesiras nefesh for Torah.

          By and large, we don’t see people giving away their last dollar to learn Torah and there are hardly decrees that forbid us to keep Shabbos or perform a bris milah. Where, then, do we see mesirus nefesh in this day and age? Today, it is not necessarily the enemies from without that challenge our steadfast service of Hashem, but rather the enemy from within – the yetzer hara that detracts us. It is also our “friends” rather than our enemies that often dictate what we must do, where we must go, and what we must wear. There is an interesting saying: One who stands for nothing, falls for anything.

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          The first step in mesirus nefesh is to have our values and priorities straight. Once we know what is important, and we understand just how important it is, it will be easy for us to stand up for it –  and even sacrifice for it. The trick is to look at the situation from an objective, ruchnius point of view. Decide what’s truly the right thing to do – and then muster up the courage to do it!

          R’ Shimshon Pincus ZT”L says that Chanukah is the Yom Tov of mesirus nefesh. The Greeks are from Yefes who stands for gashmius – beauty for its own sake. The Jewish people come from Shem which stands for ruchnius. In many other religions, they believe the two cannot be mixed. Monks, for example, do not marry or have children because they consider themselves “holy.” According to the Torah, this is not at all holy. Rather than distancing oneself from gashmius we elevate it and make it holy.

          This is the lesson of Chanukah. The days of Chanukah are y’mei chol and we can do melachah. On these weekdays, we light a spark of kedushah – we take the mundane and make it holy. When one is moser nefesh he is, in essence, doing the same thing. Says R’ Pincus: When one takes his own ratzon – will, and, rather than nullifying it altogether, elevates it by doing the ratzon Hashem, this is mesirus nefesh through sacrifice. However we never give up pleasure when we are truly striving for ruchnius, because the pleasure one derives from being moser nefesh for the right thing is so great that one doesn’t feel the sacrifice!


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