April 19, 2024
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April 19, 2024
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Pursuing Mitzvos In a Beautiful Way

Last week, Congress summoned the presidents of three of the leading universities—MIT, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania. The reason: to pointedly question them about allowing antisemitism on their campuses and facilitating the harassment of Jewish students. All three presidents were vague in answering whether advocating for the genocide of Jews was against their university’s code of conduct. They all said, “It depends on the context.” Most people were shocked at their refusal to stand up against antisemitism, and even worse, at their fostering an environment where their students feel free to openly intimidate and harass Jews.

Antisemitism is real. What’s shocking is that even some Jewish people are blinded from the truth. I was having a conversation with a young professional and he told me that his sister is pro-Hamas. Kind-hearted souls like her wouldn’t last two minutes living under Hamas! How can people be so blind?

At the beginning of creation the Torah says, “Veha’aretz hayesah sohu vavohu vechoshech al penei sehom, the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness on the surface of the deep.” Midrash Rabbah says that this darkness is an allusion to the exile of the Greeks, who blinded the Jewish nation with their decrees, preventing them from keeping Shabbos, bris milah, Rosh Chodesh and learning Torah.

Darkness is not just the absence of light. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto says that darkness distorts reality. A person can see black and think it’s white; hear falsehood and think it’s truth; see evil and think it’s good.

The Chashmonaim fought against the Greeks and, with the help of Hashem, they won. Thereafter, Chazal instituted the mitzvah to light the menorah on each day of Chanukah, reminding us that light chases away darkness. The highest level of performing the mitzvah, “mehadrin min hamehadrin,” is for each person in a home to light a menorah, adding an additional candle on each night of Chanukah.

Why are there multiple levels of performing the mitzvah of menorah lighting, something not found in other mitzvos? Even more perplexing, why does the Shulchan Aruch only list the preferred option?

Let’s look at how we define mehadrin in the case of menorah lighting. On one level it means hiddur—beautifying the mitzvah of menorah. However, Rashi defines mehadrin as “those who pursue,” meaning that those who pursue mitzvos should light an additional candle each night. Thus we can understand “mehadrin min hamehadrin” as meaning to pursue the opportunity of doing a mitzvah and to beautify the mitzvah in a special way.

In 2005, one of my best friends, Rabbi Yoli Margolese, organized the first Siyum HaShas in Eretz Yisrael for Anglos. They invited my rosh yeshiva from Mir Yerushalayim, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, ztz”l to address the crowd. He had advanced Parkinson’s disease, and when he got up to the podium, he found himself unable to speak. After close to five minutes he broke the silence, and in a shaky voice, he said an unforgettable line: “‘Hadran alach Talmud Bavli’ are the most beautiful words a Jew can hear.”

Let me explain. Upon completing a Gemara, a person recites the words “hadran alach, We will return to you.” This says that the completion is not a goodbye, but a temporary parting, with the intent to return and learn more. This also expresses the other meaning of hadar—to honor or beautify. My rosh yeshiva thereby combined the two meanings of the word hadar—to return/pursue and to beautify.

The victory of the Chashmonaim was only because they pursued and made their ultimate effort to serve Hashem in the best way possible. They would have been permitted to light the menorah in the Beis Hamikdash with defiled oil if no pure oil was available. But since they wanted to perform the mitzvah in the best possible manner, Hashem made one cruse of pure oil last the entire seven days. Therefore, Klal Yisrael subsequently accepted upon themselves the practice of mehadrin min hamehadrin—the extra special way—where every person in the home lights a menorah and adds a candle each night. We don’t do just the basics; we want to beautify the mitzvah.

The Midrash at the beginning of Parshas Mikeitz opens with the words, “Keitz sam lachoshech—Hashem has a designated time for the end of the darkness.” There is a tremendous amount of darkness in the world. Many people are blinded from the truth and have a distorted view. The leaders of the top universities condone antisemitism and the ideology of Hamas! But there is a time when this darkness will end. We will get there by pursuing mitzvos with zeal and beautification.

Let us continue the ideal of Chanukah to pursue and beautify any opportunity we have to perform mitzvos, especially when it comes to Torah learning. In “Al HaNissim” it states that the Chashmonaim were “osekei Torasecha, those who toiled in Torah.” Each time we exert ourselves to understand a passage of Torah, we are expressing our pursuit of closeness to Hashem, which is the most beautiful way to bring out our love for Hashem.


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected]. For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com

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