Throughout our sojourns in exile, the notion of “freedom of religion” has been the most important aspect of our relationship with our host country. Nothing is more vital for a Torah Jew than the ability to learn Torah and observe the mitzvos without fear of persecution. It is something that we must be extremely grateful for when we have it, and battle relentlessly to protect.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that this is, and always was, only a means to an end. We value religious liberty solely because it allows us to freely serve our Creator, and not because we cherish such freedoms as an ultimate ideal in itself.
In fact, what we really pine for is a day when such freedoms will be wholly unnecessary, when the entire world will, of their own volition, recognize the eternal truth, and as described in the tefillah of Aleinu, will render homage to the Ribbono shel Olam.
Unlike what some have erroneously assumed, Chanukah isn’t a festival of freedom. Rather, it is a time when we celebrate the victory of good over evil, and holiness over the forces of impurity.
A number of years ago, I briefly got to know a young man, a former yeshivah student from a wonderful family, who had cut nearly all connection to his heritage. Unlike some others in similar situations, he harbored neither bitterness nor anger towards Yiddishkeit or his family. Though he openly admitted to me that he often longed for the inner meaning it represented, he simply was unwilling to subjugate himself to living a Torah-true life.
Sometime before Chanukah, he revealed to me that while he didn’t keep Shabbos or eat kosher, he was willing to light a Chanukah menorah — if someone would provide him with one. I bought him a menorah with ready-to-light oil candles, and he assured me he was planning on using it. Shortly thereafter we lost contact, and to this day I don’t know if he ever found his way back.
Recently I was reminiscing about this anecdote with a friend of mine, and we began to analyze his reasoning.
“It is much easier to spend the few moments lighting some candles than keeping Shabbos or kashrus,” my friend argued.
“Perhaps that was part of it,” I rejoined. “But my heart tells me that the real reason is something deeper.”
“Then it must be because of the story of the Chozeh,” he concluded.
The well-known story my friend was referring to is about the time the Chozeh of Lublin said about a Yid who had drifted far from the proper path, and was committing terrible crimes against his fellow Jews, “This person is illuminating all the worlds.”
When the Chozeh was later asked about this most puzzling statement, he explained that at the moment he said it, this Yid was lighting Chanukah lecht.
The halachah is that even those wicks and oils that Chazal instruct not to be used for lighting neiros Shabbos can be used for neiros Chanukah. The Meor Einayim teaches that this symbolizes the power of Chanukah: Even those souls who aren’t on a level to be rectified through the holiness of Shabbos can find rectification in the mitzvah of hadlakas neiros Chanukah.
Regardless of the spiritual status of a Jew, no matter how far he has wandered and how low he may have sunk, on Chanukah he can reconnect to Hashem.
While the primary reason for this reality is based on esoteric concepts, perhaps this can also be understood through reflecting on the story of Chanukah:
When the Chashmona’im went to battle against the ancient Greeks and their Jewish supporters, known as misyavnim, they knew that from the standpoint of teva, they didn’t have a chance. Outnumbered by a massive, powerful army, it seemed that any attempt to fight would be futile.
In a similar vein, the very fact that a small vessel of pure oil was found intact with the seal of the Kohen Gadol was in itself a great miracle. The possibility of it lasting eight days was well beyond the realm of teva.
Chanukah teaches us that when it comes to matters pertaining to avodas Hashem – and especially when the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit are at stake – the laws of teva do not apply. Regardless of how daunting the odds may seem, all we have to do is try our best – and Hashem will miraculously do the rest.
Therefore, even when a Yid who has sunk so deeply into a spiritual morass that he feels that according to teva there is no way out, on Chanukah he can reconnect to his roots, for Chanukah itself symbolizes the fact that when it comes to our ruchniyus, teva does not apply.
The same lesson can also be applied to what is perhaps the most daunting nisayon of our generation: the misuse of technology. This trial is a particular challenge, in part because, in many cases, the lines between right and wrong are not always clearly evident. Throughout our community, there are individuals who have devices that are properly filtered, and who use them under the guidance of their Rav for legitimate parnassah reasons. Yet for others, these very same hand-held devices are being used for other purposes and proving to be a ticket to spiritual self-destruction.
In recent months, many heroic individuals, out of a sense of responsibility to themselves, their families, and the Klal, have taken upon themselves a range of kabbalos in this area. Some have given up these devices entirely. Others, after consulting with their spiritual mentors, have stopped using them in public, and use a basic device for phone conversations.
These efforts have elicited a significant amount of skepticism from those who insist that with the rapid changes in technology, “there is no going back.” They claim that in a matter of years, virtually all types of commerce will be via these devices, and any effort to wean people from using them is futile.
From a standpoint of teva they are probably right. But what they fail to take into account is the lesson of Chanukah. When it comes to Yiddishkeit, no such rules apply. We must do ours to the best of our abilities; Hashem will do His. Our very survival as Torah Jews is a miracle, and this miracle will, b’ezras Hashem, continue, as we will – against all odds – manage to defy the critics, until the great day when we will merit the miracles of the Geulah Sheleimah.