April 17, 2024
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Chanukah: Make It Personal

Recently, I recalled part of a shiur that a friend of mine, Rabbi Yosef Greenwald, taught over 20 years ago at a Chanukah mesiba (party). I really wanted to remember the details, since it linked to the parsha that week. It was Friday, two hours before Shabbos—a hectic time—but I called him anyway. I apologized for the hour, reminded him about the long-ago shiur, and just like that, he said, “Sure, I remember that piece!” He then spent the next 15 minutes repeating the entire shiur from 20 years ago with perfect clarity. How could he remember it so well?

I started thinking about what is key to memory. I recalled the first dvar Torah I gave publicly in yeshiva. I remember it well! I came to the realization that good memory is all about time, energy and focus—and connecting the item to yourself! Rabbi Greenwald remembered what he spoke about because he made it personal.

Making Torah personal is the core concept of Chanukah. The tefillah of Al Hanisim, added to Shemoneh Esrei and Birkas Hamazon during Chanukah, states that the Greeks attempted to make the Jewish nation forget the Torah and to violate the laws of Hashem. This seems puzzling. It’s one thing to make laws that persecute Jews or forbid Torah study. But how could they make us forget what we already learned?

The Greeks were attempting to assimilate the Jewish nation with exposure to Greek culture and ideology, which they made look very alluring. But they knew that as long as the Jewish nation was attached to the Torah they studied they would resist any and all infiltration of outside values. The Greeks’ only road to success was to disconnect klal Yisrael from their Torah study and their passion for mitzvos. To this end, they outlawed teaching Torah, keeping Shabbos, bris milah and observing Rosh Chodesh. The objective was to turn Judaism into a set of customs and practices, but not a way of life. Customs and practices do not have long-term sustainability.

In the last two centuries we’ve seen strong evidence of this phenomenon of casualization. Many Jews decided to only keep certain Jewish “traditions,” choosing which mitzvos to observe and which not. Each subsequent generation became more estranged and disconnected, leading to millions of intermarriages!

The Bach points out that the Greeks almost accomplished their mission, since the Jews became more casual in their study of Torah. The key to the victory of the Chashmonaim was that they made Torah life and study very “personal” by defending it with their very lives. They launched a fierce battle against the massive Greek army—impossible odds! But the alternative of assimilation was not an option! When Hashem saw the commitment and passion of the Chashmonaim, He performed a miracle of epic proportions in which a few hundred Chashmonaim defeated the well-trained, skilled and heavily armed Greek soldiers.

Rav Chaim Freidlander notes how the words of Al Hanisim confirm this point. “Hashem took up their quarrels, judged their claims and avenged their vengeance.” Although the future of Torah and mitzvos had been on the line, Hashem only stepped in when the Chashmonaim made defense of the Torah their personal vendetta. Indeed, their being saved—along with the whole Jewish nation—came from their taking this struggle with the Greeks very personally.

In the Mafia, before they eliminate an opponent who is a friend of theirs, they tell them, “It’s nothing personal, just business.” Judaism has just the opposite approach. Torah and mitzvos are personal! It’s not just about customs and casual practices.

Al Hanisim concludes by stating that Hashem handed the zeidim (the Greeks) into the hands of those who toiled in Torah (the Chashmonaim). A zeid is a scoffer, someone who scorns and derides a person by stripping him of his value and importance. The toiling in Torah of the Chashmonaim demonstrated the immense value they assigned to Torah learning, which the Greek scoffers tried to devalue.

The war of “casual” Judaism versus “passionate” Judaism wages on in our generation. Chanukah is the time to assess whether we treat our performance of mitzvos and our approach to Torah study casually or personally. Chanukah is an opportunity to select one area of Torah and make it personal. Choose an area of Torah study or a specific mitzvah and really invest yourself in it. Some goals may seem too lofty or out of reach, but Chanukah is a time when Hashem gives extraordinary success to those who make Torah personal.


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. PTI has attracted people from all over northern New Jersey, including Teaneck, Paramus, Fair Lawn, Livingston and West Orange. He initiated and leads a multi-level Gemara-learning program. He has spread out beyond PTI to begin a weekly beis medrash program with in-depth chavrusa learning in Livingston, Fort Lee and a monthly group in West Caldwell. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected]. For more info about PTI and its full offering of torah classes visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.

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