By Yochanan Gordon
The Hidden Light
The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that everything one encounters during the course of a day was sent to that person for a specific purpose. On that note, there has been a recurring string of notifications that have crossed my line of vision since the outset of Chanukah that I wanted to address this week.
It began on motzaei Shabbos, which marked the culmination of this year’s Agudah convention. I didn’t attend the convention, although a convocation of about 25 of my fellow shul-goers chartered a sprinter up to the convention on motzaei Shabbos to hear our esteemed rav, Rabbi Yussie Zakutinsky, deliver the final of his two derashos over the weekend. The speech was billed “From Burnout to On-Fire,” and Rabbi Zakutinsky made it unmistakably clear from the beginning of his speech that it is impossible for a Jew to be burnt out.
Rabbi Osher Kleinman followed Rabbi Zakutinsky, speaking on the same topic, and although I didn’t hear the entirety of his address, I did tune in to the part when he lamented how we are living in times where the majority of frum Jews are walking around with TVs literally in their pockets.
In full recognition of the great value that the Agudah provides to the worldwide Jewish communities, the convention, which convenes annually, has been a platform dedicated to addressing the issues that we as a community struggle with. It just seems, however, that many of the issues that have been addressed for time immemorial at the convention haven’t borne fruit and require a new, fresh approach.
The subject of the Internet has been brought up as a main topic of the Agudah convention for the last two decades. Please fact-check me on that claim. At what point will someone in the leadership of the organization declare at a board meeting that our approach to the Internet has to change? It isn’t something that can be combated or, quite frankly, needs to be.
Then, as I was preparing to light the menorah on the first night of Chanukah, my oldest son, who began mesivta this year, told me that his rebbe asked his class to keep their cellphones in a different room while they are sitting by the candles, paying close attention to the flickering flames and the story it has to tell.
Shortly thereafter I came across a news story from Yeshiva World News that was shared on one of the many WhatsApp groups I am a part of, stating that the Vizhnitzer Rebbe demanded that all of his chassidim deposit their smartphones with him during the duration of Chanukah. Seeing that story, the only thing I can think of is how permissive it makes even the Agudah seem.
In the learning that I have accomplished this year over the yom tov of Chanukah, I have come across parallels between Chanukah and other yomim tovim. However, I haven’t come across any parallels between Chanukah and smartphones—or, on second thought, I have, but it was with a vastly different message.
The yom tov of Chanukah is preceded by an important Chassidic holiday on the 19th of Kislev, known as the Rosh Hashanah of Chassidus. It was the day on which the Alter Rebbe, the first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was liberated from a 53-day period of incarceration to which he was sentenced for freely disseminating the deepest secrets of the Torah.
In a letter the Ba’al HaTanya released in the aftermath of his liberation, he wrote that he was saying Tehillim for the day of the month, specifically the verse: “He has redeemed my soul in peace, from my war, for the multitudes were with me.” The Ba’al HaTanya continued: “As I recited the words, ‘padah b’ahalom nafshi’—I went out in peace from the G-d of peace.”
In my preparation for this significant day I had been studying an exploration of the main ideas relating to this day in a sefer compiled based on the teachings of Rabbi Yoel Kahan, ob’m. Rabbi Yoel Kahan was the main oral scribe of the Lubavitcher Rebbe from the day he ascended to the helm of Lubavitch leadership in January of 1951 and is the one said to have understood most acutely the message that the Lubavitcher Rebbe sought to impart in his lifetime of teachings.
In a piece on the 19th of Kislev, Rabbi Kahan explores the deeper meaning in the verse “Padah b’shalom nafshi” and explains that there are two distinct levels of peace. In the first level, the battling sides reach a truce and agree, despite their differences, to withdraw arms. However, this isn’t the level of peace that the Alter Rebbe was referring to and it wasn’t the level of peace that King David was referring to when he said this verse. The deeper level is when the opposition is transformed into an ally. This verse was authored by King David when, despite his son Avshalom’s quest to unseat and ultimately kill his own father, Avshalom’s own adherents were praying for the success of King David. However, furthermore, the Alter Rebbe makes it clear that this is an objective that needs to be achieved naturally, without a military exercise. The Alter Rebbe was known during his lifetime never to break anything. In the words of his grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek, the Alter Rebbe wasn’t able to break anything.
An interesting story that highlights this idea is said about the Alter Rebbe and the Berditchiver who were both going to walk down the aisle at the chasunah of their grandchildren. The two tzaddikim argued over who would go first when it was decided that they would walk down together, beside each other. The issue was that the doorway was only wide enough for one of them to fit at a time. The Berditchiver suggested that they run through the wall, whereupon the Alter Rebbe rejoined: “Why should we run through the wall when we can just simply expand the doorway?”
This really puts the Alter Rebbe’s philosophical approach of chochmah, binah, and da’at into context. Where many tzaddikim and colleagues of the Alter Rebbe felt that the average intellect was filled with ideas and thoughts contrary to the purity of the secrets of Torah, the Alter Rebbe advocated specifically for each person to arrive at a clear understanding of the unity of G-d through Torah, both revealed and concealed, which would ultimately lead them through life without relying upon the service of their leader. The Alter Rebbe taught that true peace will only be attained when those things that are perceived as being contrary and antithetical to Torah, mitzvos, and the service of G-d are transformed into vehicles that help disseminate those selfsame messages.
I was thinking that it is perhaps this reason why little attention is given to the military victory as the primary miracle in the Chanukah story and instead is given to the oil, which miraculously remained lit for eight days. Again, because true peace requires a transformation of the opposition specifically using natural means as opposed to having to achieve it by force.
In light of this, it seems ironic that people are being compelled to put away those devices that are often used as distractions from real life, especially during the high-school years, when we can train and educate them to use it to further the message within the flames themselves. It was specifically the Lubavitcher Rebbe who televised Chanukah menorah lightings worldwide to bring Jewish pride into the lives of people who were distant from it year-round but whose fire in their soul was looking to connect with the source of that light in the ohr ha’ganuz, represented by the Chanukah candles.
In coming across these lamentations and instructions I was hard-pressed to understand why, given the tools to overpower any of these obstacles, we are being taught to remain threatened and in fear of these devices that were created ultimately to bring awareness of G-d into the lowest of places.
In the remaining two candles to Chanukah 5782, I urge you to sit close to the candles and reflect on the ability of the small light to naturally dispel darkness and to finally come to the realization that we are more powerful than the distractions presented by the yetzer ha’ra. If we display our strength and fortitude, we will soon see the day when all of these distractions will be the tools used to declare the oneness of G-d to the world.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.