A Chanuka Lesson: Spirituality and Torah Learning Levels the Playing Field

Recently saw a short but sweet message extracted from the Al Hanisim prayer added to Shemonei Esrei and Birchat Hamazon on Chanuka.

The essence of the miracle recounted in Al Hanisim is "masarta giborim b'yad chalashim, v'rabim b'yad me'atim" - you (Hashem) handed over the strong to the weak, and the many to the few." These are, indeed, miracles since, according to the natural order of things, the strong should vanquish the weak, and the many should defeat the few.

However, what is so miraculous about the subsequent outcomes: "the impure in the hands of the pure," "the wicked in the hands of the righteous," and the "evil in the hands of those absorbed in Torah?" These seem more like factual statements, not miracles.

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The Purpose and Psychology Behind Mitzvah Performance

A key symbol of the recently celebrated chag of Sukkos is the arba minim - lulav, hadasim, aravos and esrog. It is well known that, when purchasing arba minim, observant Jews carefully examine the details of the samples offered for sale in the hope of purchasing as beautiful a specimen as possible - i.e., a "mehudar" for each of the minim. In other words, we don't just want "kosher" arba minim; we want the best.

The source of purchasing "mehudar" arba minim is the pasuk "zeh keli v'anveyhu - This is my G-d and I will beautify him." (Shemot, BeShalach 15:2). As the gemara in Shabbos (133b) explains, how does one beautify Hashem? The first opininon (Tanna Kamma) states that one beautifies Hashem through the embellished performance of mitzvot - i.e., making a beautiful sukkah, purchasing beautiful arba minim, a beautiful shofar, etc. That is, instead of being content with performing mitzvos within the letter of the law, we seek to optimize our performance through "hidur mitzvah" - that is, by acquiring the most beautiful specimen we can find (as an aside, in the sefer Iyun B'Lomdus by Rav Yitzchak Adler, pages 20-23, there appear some interesting analyses revolving around the chakira of whether "hidur mitzvah" is deemed part and parcel of the core mitzva, or constitutes its own independent mitzvah separate and apart from the core mitzvah being beautified; various nafka minot are discussed).

What's interesting is that a second opinion is brought down in the gemara concerning the meaning of the pasuk, "Zeh keli v'anveyhu." Abba Shaul states that "V'anveyhu" teaches us to emulate Hashem: "Ma hu rachum v'chanun, af ata rachum v'chanun - Just as Hashem is merciful and compassionate, so too, you [i.e., man] should be merciful and compassionate." (Shabbos 133b). This is how we "beautify" Hashem - by emulating His attributes.

So we have two opinions: the Tanna Kamma say that "zeh keli v'anveyhu" teaches hiddur mitzvah, and Abba Shaul opines that "zeh keli v'anveyhu" teaches emulation of Hashem's attributes of mercy and compassion (i.e., moral excellence).

I wonder - are these two tanaim arguing? Are their opinions mutually exclusive? IMHO, the answer is "No," and instead, based on the teachings of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, what we may actually have here is a progression; namely, that the stellar performance of mitzvos b'hiddur leads one to moral excellence (i.e., emulation of Hashem's attributes of mercy and compassion). If so, how does that work?

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Hearing Hashem's Kol Throughout the Year (and What We Can Learn from the Story of Guma Aguiar)

The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva, 3:4) explains the message of the shofar as follows: "Awake, sleepers, from your sleep, amd slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds, and repent, and remember your Maker...look to your souls and improve your ways and your faults..."

There is a custom to sound the shofar at the conclusion of the Neilah service on Yom Kippur. What is the meaning of this practice? Hasn't our judgment already been sealed at that point? What value, then, does an additional shofar blast add?

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A Modern Day Bilaam Story: How a Russian Ba'al Teshuvah Nearly Destroyed the State of Israel and the Power of Yom Kippur Tefila

The story of Balak and Bilaam is a paradigm for how Hashem protects the Jewish people without them even being aware of the danger that lurks. It's a little early in the year to discuss parshas Balak, but for anyone who read the story of Leonid Tikochinsky in this week's Mishpacha magazine, the connection is clear.

Briefly, before ultimately returning to Judasim and making aliyah, Mr. Tikochinsky was an ardent Communist who rose within the Russian naval service to the position of commander of a Soviet nuclear submarine. And it so happens that during the Yom Kippur War, he was directed to position his sub off the coast of Israel, and await an order to fire nuclear missles that would inevitably have killed millions of Jews and destroyed the Jewish state. While, at the time, Tikochinsky knew he was a Jew, he had been so brainwashed by Soviet propoganda that he says now he would not have hesitated to fire had the order arrived, or even given a second thought to slaughtering millions of his brethren. Of course, B"H, the order never came.

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Rosh Hashana: Calling Upon Hashem's Mercy Through Humility

For anyone who has been saying selichos since before Rosh Hashana, and then continued in the days after Rosh Hashana all the way through Yom Kippur, one glaring discrepancy may have jumped out. Whereas we include vidui (confession - ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, etc.) in all selichos and culminate with the lengthy al chet vidui on Yom Kippur, we don't recite vidui on Rosh Hashana. To the contrary, the Mishnah Berurah states in 584:3 that "One should not confess on Rosh Hashana."

Why not?

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Torah Behavior Inside and Outside the House

In last week's parsha Ki Savo, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch comments on the pasuk (28:6): baruch ata b'voecha, u'baruch ata b'tzetecha - Blessed thou shalt be when you come, and blessed thou shalt be when you depart. Rav Hirsch explains: "you are blessed in your home life and in your public life."

IMHO, we can expand on Rav Hirsch's terse comment with an idea I heard in a shiur available on the YU Torah website given by Rabbi Shalom Rosner (formerly of the Island shul in Cedarhurst, and now of Beit Shemesh), and Rav Hirsch's own explanation of the meaning of the term "baruch" earlier in sefer Devarim.

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On the Value of Tears During Tefila

The intensity of tefila on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur often moves one to tears as we pray for life, health, parnasa, shidduchim, etc. As we ask Hashem during the selichos for Kol Nidrei: "koli shema u'reay dema ayni" - "hear my voice and see the tears of my eyes."

The gemara in Brachos (32b) teaches that the destruction of the beis hamikdash sealed off all gateways of prayer to heaven except the Gate of Tears.

Yet sadly, but inevitably, people who cry during tefila sometimes find that their prayers are not answered. Hashem says, "No."

How can we reconcile the gemara in Brachos with the apparent reality?

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A Connection Between Yibum and Purim?

This post examines a pasuk from last week's parsha, Ki Taytzei, and welcomes input from readers since I haven't found any commentaries discussing the question raised.

The pasuk concerns the procedure of chalitza, which is implemented when the brother of a deceased man who had no children chooses not to marry the man's widow through yibum (levirite marriage). The pasuk (Devarim 25:9) states:

V'nigsha yevamto elav l'aynei hazekeinim v'chaltza na'alo may'al raglo v'yarka b'fanav; v'anta v'amra ka'cha ya'aseh l'ish asher lo ivneh et beit achiv.

And she proceeds towards her yavam [i.e., her brother-in-law] before the elders and removes his shoe from his foot and spits in his face; and declares, "This shall be done to the man that will not build his brother's house."

I would like to focus on the phrase "ka'cha ya'aseh l'ish" - "this is what shall be done to the man" - now where else do we see that phrase?

Answer: see Megilas Esther (6:5-11) where Achasverosh asks Haman what reward shall be given to a man whom the king wishes to honor. Arrogantly thinking Achasverosh must be referring to him, Haman suggests dressing such a man in royal garments and having him led through the streets on horseback declaring, "kacha ya'aseh l'ish asher hamelech chafetz bikaro." (6:9) Yes, the phrase "kacha ya'aseh l'ish appears in Megilas Esther (and appears again in 6:11 after Achasverosh reveals that Mordechai is the man he wishes to honor, and Haman actually implements for Mordechai all that he recommended - including calling out: "ka'ach ya'aseh l'ish" as he leads Mordechai through the streets).

For the same phrase ka'cha ya'aseh l'ish to appear in both Devarim in connection with the discussion of chalitza and the humiliation of the yavam, and in Megilas Esther in connection with the humiliation of Haman, is surely no coincidence. Instructive connections between seemingly unconnected portions of Tanach have been built on slimmer reeds than that. Yet, after looking at various sources that tend to delve into ta'ami hamitzvos (e.g., Rav Hirsch, Ramban, and Sefer Hachinuch), I could not find any discussion of the significance of the repetition of the phrase ka'acha ya'aseh l'ish in Devarim and Megilas Esther.

Maybe someone has seen a commentary discussing this? For now, let me share some possible thoughts.

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