Chanukah Victory

Just about anyone who has gone through the
yeshivah system can identify with the scene I am about to describe. Just a bit into the “meat” of the winter zman, having just gotten over the original hump that is any beginning, and with Chanukah looming, the Menahel or Mashgiach will inevitably utter some variation of these words when speaking about Chanukah vacation.

“Apparently, the Yevanim won!”

The hyperbole used to describe the apparent contradiction of a yeshivah vacation on a Yom Tov which was established to commemorate the deliverance of zeidim b’yad oskei Sorasecha aside (as well as the justifications for said vacation), there is an importance in the message that needs to be remembered. The Chashmona’im fought against the Yevanim (and, to a large extent, the misyavnim) in order to preserve purity of Torah and the centrality of Torah in a Jew’s life.

Recently, I found myself in unfamiliar surroundings. A conference I had been invited to meant I needed to spend a few days in Manhattan, and the timing of the sessions precluded my being able to go back home to Lakewood every night. So I found myself staying in a hotel in the city, with a list of area minyanim sent to me by the organizers. One minyan started at the perfect time for my schedule, so I decided to daven there.

To say that I was surprised by what I encountered at 7:25 that morning would be an understatement. In space set aside as a beis medrash in an office in midtown, a group of Klal Yisrael’s baalei batim gathered before a hard day’s work to daven — and not just to “chap a Shacharis,” but to daven. Yet what struck me more was the fact that among this worthy group were people who had arrived before this minyan to learn.

Apparently I shouldn’t have been surprised. My understanding now, after having spoken with others, is that what I saw isn’t so much the exception as it is the rule. But I still am. This kind of fealty to Torah study can only be possible if the Torah occupies a central place in the person’s life. And for anyone to live a life revolving around the value of Torah study in this day and age is quite impressive and surprising.

It’s important on a practical level as well. This past summer, I made the acquaintance of a young ben Torah who is now involved in outreach, serving as a Rabbi in a shul which is less than “heimish.” Among the things we discussed were his observations of the challenges his community and other communities like it faced in retaining their youth. The problem, he said, was that it is exceedingly difficult to make Yiddishkeit “relevant” to children and teenagers.

While the more frum world has its unique set of challenges, studies (most notably the Pew Survey) have shown that as the years go by, the retention rate of the Orthodox community gets higher and higher. That means that we, as a community, are doing a better job than ever in keeping our children “on the derech.” You also don’t really need to be a rocket scientist to realize that at the very same time, the kollel system in America has experienced unprecedented growth as well.

When the study of Torah is a central value in a parent’s life — the central value when the father is in kollel — an important side benefit is that for the children, the entirety of their life revolves around Torah. That provides a relevance that can’t be taught, and certainly can’t be preached to children.

The proliferation of baalei batim who have embraced being kovei’a itim in a serious way is very much a part of this as well. When a child can see that his father, who works hard to provide for his family, still has the primacy of Torah occupying such a central place in his life’s value system that he makes an extra effort to learn and to grow in his avodas Hashem, the impact is incalculable. A child sees the difference between what is truly important — and what is done only because we have to.

There is no doubt in my mind that these two phenomena are related. The extent to which learning in kollel has become a regular way of life, and the fact that the amount (and level) of learning by those who don’t spend their days within the walls of a yeshivah surpasses that which it has been at any point in my lifetime, correlate too perfectly to be a coincidence. Why it is this way is certainly up for discussion, but it is undeniable that across the board, more than ever in recent history, Torah is the most important thing in the average frum Jew’s life.

And that is the greatest possible victory over the Yevanim.