Parshios Vayeishev & Chanukah
Mitzvat Hanukkah (II)
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
In last week's shiur, we analyzed the central sugya in the Gemara which
presents the various levels of performing the Mitzvah of Hadlakat Ner Hanukkah:
Our Rabbis taught: The Mitzvah of Hanukkah is:
1) one *Ner* for a man and his household;
2) the *M'hadrin* (zealous - those who wish to beautify and enhance the
Mitzvah) [kindle] a light for each member [of the household];
3) and the *M'hadrin min haM'hadrin*:
a) Beit Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and
thereafter they are gradually reduced;
b) but Beit Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are
(BT Shabbat 21b)
As promised, this week we will share some insights of Rav Avraham Yitzchak
haKohen Kook zt"l relating to this sugya. First, a few words of introduction
to the writings of Rav Kook.
RAV KOOK AND THE 'EIN AYAH
Rav Kook, born in 1865 in Grieve, Latvia, made Aliyah at the beginning of
this century to serve as Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv/Yaffo. He later ascended to
the position of Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, a position he served with
distinction until his passing in 1935. Among his many achievements as
Halakhist ,theologian and communal leader, Rav Kook's greatest legacy is
likely his prodigious literary output. Among the many works already
published (there are many more still in manuscript form), "Ein Ayah", his
commentary on the Aggadot of the Gemara (the collection known as Ein
Ya'akov) is among the most insightful and profound. To date, only three
volumes of the Ein Ayah commentary have seen the light of day. Fortunately
for us, the third volume includes the discussion relating to Hanukkah in
Massechet Shabbat - and it is from this work that we will quote Rav Kook's
analysis on our sugya.
Rav Kook's many contributions to Jewish thought in this century are often
overlooked, as he is the ideological father of modern Religious Zionism and
most of his fame outside of the world of those Yeshivot which are guided and
inspired by his weltanschauung is limited to this politically-oriented and
hotly debated ideological position. Nonetheless, for those of us who have
had the opportunity to be exposed to some of the breadth and depth of his
writings, Rav Kook never fails to challenge, stimulate and inspire; engaging
the mind as well as speaking to the heart.
It was Rav Kook who, while decrying the blatantly anti-religious sentiment
present among the early Zionist leaders, understood the "Divine Spark" which
motivated their zeal on behalf of the People and the Land. In a sense, he
was the father of modern-day Outreach in that he was able to illuminate the
glory in every Jewish soul, regardless of how far from tradition that person
Most of the Ein Ayah was composed before Rav Kook made Aliyah, during his
tenure as the Rav in Boisk, Lithuania. During that time, the ferment of
political Zionism was felt throughout Europe and engaged the rabbinate -
most of whom were ardent opponents of the nascent political movement. I
believe that much of the commentary presented below (in abridged form - due
to space limitations) reflects some of the divisions felt within the
Orthodox community at the time. I will comment on this towards the end of
One word about this presentation:
Rav Kook's writing is among the most difficult to translate, due to his
lofty language and the many allusions and double-entendres which he employs.
Instead of translating "loosely", this presentation will include a literal
rendering (as much as is possible) of his essay, followed by an explanation
and commentary. Although it would be easier to translate his frequent use of
"Yisra'el" and "Yisra'eli" as "Jew" and "Jewish", respectively, I prefer to
keep greater fidelity to the original.
Now…to the Ein Ayah.
NER ISH UVEITO
"The victory which God granted through His servants, the Kohanim
[Hashmonaim] who overcame the Greeks - who desired not only to uproot Am
Yisra'el from their material position but also to uproot the character of
life which Yisra'el impact upon the world, which must be rooted in Torah,
that purity and dignity should be the chief goal in family life and from
there will follow all of the other Yisra'eli attitudes and traits. This is
what the Greek nation abhorred, seeing in it an enemy and foe to their
culture, wherein they raised the banner the enjoyment of life and the many
physical and imaginary pleasures; therefore the hatred of the Greeks for
Torat Yisra'el was very great. In the moderate way by which a Yisra'eli
comports himself, even if he is not an extraordinary individual, nonetheless
within family life, we recognize the 'Ivri' light, the purity and dignity,
trustworthiness and all of the character traits which branch out from this
for the good; these are easily seen in all of their glory in every Yisra'eli
house which follows the way of Torah and Mitzvot - therefore, the obligation
of Mitzvat Ner Hanukkah is 'Ner Ish uVeito.' "
Comment and Analysis:
The attempted Hellinization of Judea was the first time in our history that
we had encountered a deliberate attempt to sway us from our national ethos -
from the value system which informs the life of Torah commitment. Whereas we
had fought wars against enemies who desired our land - or even our demise -
this was the first real kulturkampf which we fought. The Greeks were not
interested (for the most part) in Judaicide - rather in the Hellenization of
all of the "barbaric peoples of the East". Rav Kook sees the fundamental
celebration of Hanukkah as marking the cultural/spiritual defense against
the onslaught of Hellenes.
One of the hallmarks of Hellenistic culture was the focus on personal
excellence - in a word, you were only as good as the latest achievement you
had demonstrated. This performance could be athletic in nature, or in the
marketplace of ideas and wisdom. Whether in art, science, battle or
philosophy, the Greeks introduced us to the notion of personal excellence.
This focus was rooted, however, in a fundamental lack of respect for the
human being per se - you were nothing if you had not achieved, in a
measurable way, something grand and impressive.
Much as we hail the achievements of great individuals (especially in the
battleground of the Beit Midrash, but also in the laboratory and on the
battlefield), this does not diminish our regard for every person, even those
who are far from excellent.
The Greeks used to "dispose" of disabled children and send their invalid old
away to die (an approach adopted by our tormentors of two generations past).
The innate dignity which we, contradistinctively, accord each person, is the
product of our recognition of the image of God which is the stamp of each human.
Greek excellence was an external demonstration, in the arena, marketplace
and theater. Jewish excellence begins, first and foremost and most
critically, within the four walls of our homes. We recognize bravery as
being proved in restraint as much - if not more - than in conquest. "Who is
mighty?" ask Haza"l, "He who conquers his own urges". (Avot 4:1). The
respect which we show towards each of our loved ones, the intense care we
have for family is a reflection of that understanding of sanctity. The
concentration of Jewish excellence is found in the private, personal lives
of regular people, restraining their anger when a loved one errs,
restraining their passions when a loved one requests privacy and
controlling their appetites when consumption is outside of the bounds of
All of this said, it was the Jewish home - i.e. the way that Jewish families
demonstrated courage and sanctity in the private domain of average
individuals - that irked the Greeks and was a thorn in their side. It
challenged the entire Hellenistic enterprise. As such, the first and most
fundamental battleground in the kulturkampf was the Jewish home. That being
the case, it is the Jewish family upon whom the most fundamental celebration
of this victory devolves - hences, the basic Mitzvah is "Ner Ish uVeito."
By the way, although far from the original intent of Rav Kook's words, we
can even see this phenomenon among relatively non-observant Jews today. Many
of our brothers and sisters who are not scrupulous about Kashrut in their
own lives, insist on maintaining a Kosher home. So many "lines in the sand"
drawn in contemporary Jewish life are defenses of the Jewish home and family
- even among those who are still far from personal observance.
A note on Rav Kook's very sensitive use of words.. Although he usually uses
"Yisra'el" here, when describing the "light" which emanates from the Jewish
home, Rav Kook refers to "the Ivri light". As we pointed out in an earlier
shiur (in the Yonah series), the word "Ivri" is always used in T'nakh to
describe us from the perspective of our separateness from pagan nations and
our affiliation with the universal God. Since Rav Kook is referring to this
light as it permeates the outside (more on this later), he makes mention of
the "Ivri" light.
"The extraordinary individuals in Yisra'el, whose lives themselves stand
ready to experience the Divine sanctity which the complete Torah has
imprinted on them - it is appropriate that such people be of the 'Mehadrin -
[that have] one candle per person'. Even in the individual life, the glow,
splendor and light of Torah which accompanies him in all of his paths will
be recognized, as long as he is very careful to guard his ways according to
the Torah, then he will experience the fulfillment of 'and all of the
peoples of the earth shall see that Hashem's Name has been proclaimed over
you and they shall stand in fear of you.' (D'varim 28:10)."
Comment and Analysis:
Whereas every Jewish home, regardless of the stature of its constituent
members, reflects the light of Torah (as long as it operates according to
the ethos of Torah), by dint of the holiness expressed in the mode of
interpersonal relationships therein - the extraordinary individual carries
this light with him wherever he goes. Although individual sanctity may have
its drawbacks, from a perspective of cultural interaction and social impact,
the person who can carry the light with him at all times is clearly
positioned to impact more intensely and consistently on his surroundings.
Thus, such a person should be represented by his own individual light.
MEHADRIN MIN HAMEHADRIN (I)
"Among those extraordinary individuals whose every step is weighed "B'Shekel
haKodesh" (lit. "with a holy weight" - meaning, always considered against
the measure of holiness which will be brought into the world as a result),
to the point where not only their family lives exude Godly holiness but also
their personal lives, there are found saintly people whose entire focus in
their lives is not for their own benefit - even spiritual (i.e. the World to
Come), rather their entire desire is to bring about God's will in His world.
"In analyzing how the miracle of Hanukkah can arouse the hearts of such holy
people to bring about this noble desire, there are two general approaches,
each of which divides into two particular paths:
"There are great people who look deeply at God's will in this world; and
since they recognize that the Master of all Souls created Man as a general
being in His image and all creatures in the image of God, He certainly
intended to benefit them in their end, that they should rise above the depth
of evil and foolishness which surrounds them until they are worthy of the
level of the righteous who delight in God and His good. It is true that God
prepared Yisra'el to be the recipients of the of Godly light in the world;
but only then will the goal which elates the heart of all who are upright be
realized, when the goal is completed by Yisra'el to bring all citizens of
the world to the light of God and a holy life.
"From the perspective of this approach, the internal tendency which guides
the hearts of the upright will be to walk in the path of God according to
the Torah not only because it brings goodness to Yisra'el specifically, but
rather because of this ultimate and most enlightened purpose, since the good
of Yisra'el will eventually bring goodness to all of Mankind. Such a
tendency, which is passionate, could lead one to believe that an orientation
which singles out the goal of Toraic actions on account of the general
welfare of Yisra'el is not the loftiest of tendencies and should be raised
even higher to overcome the tendency of love of Yisra'el.
"For such people, national fellowship cannot be the source of their lives,
rather the love of God and His Torah - since this ultimate goal can be found
within the Torah; a goal which is so lofty that they could only appropriate
national fellowship as a means to this end."
Comments and Analysis:
[Although this selection does not conclude Rav Kook's analysis of the
Mehadrin min haMehadrin, the language and ideas are abstruse and recondite
and it is probably advisable to intersperse a few observations here. ]
Rav Kook is pointing out that although the "Mehadrin" may represent those
excellent individuals, whose very lives exude holiness and promote Torah
wherever they go, they are usually motivated by self-interest (albeit, of
the noblest form). The desire to "grow in Torah", to become an authentic
"Talmid Hakham", to increase ones measure of kindness and to develop ever
finer character traits is usually motivated by the ambition of personal
greatness. There is no question that this is a necessary and praiseworthy
ambition - but it is still "self-centered" and lacks the idealistic purity
of the "Mehadrin min haMehadrin".
The "elite" described here, who may engage in the same behavior as the
"extraordinary", are motivated by a wholly different set of concerns. As
opposed to asking "how can I become closer to God?", "how can I become more
knowledgeable in Torah?" etc., the question asked is "How can God's Name be
enhanced in this world - and what can I do to promote that?".
This ideologically driven person can fall into one of two categories - and
only the first has been adumbrated in this paragraph. Such a person accepts
several postulates about the world - that God is good, that He created all
creatures in His image and that, therefore, God desires to bring all of them
(since He is good) to a realization of their potential (being in His
image).. As such, the ultimate goal - the idyllic vision - of creation is to
bring all of creation and all of Mankind to a level of awareness of God and
sensitivity to the values by which His world can thrive. Such a person views
the life of Torah, the fulfillment of Mizvot etc. as oriented towards this
great goal. That being the case, any nationalistic ties we have, any special
allegiance we carry for fellow members of Yisra'el, are ultimately a
hindrance to reaching this goal and can only be seen in a positive light as
a means to achieving this end. The reason that this fellowship is a valid
means is because Am Yisra'el, as the recipients of the Torah, are uniquely
positioned to demonstrate to the rest of the world how a holy people should
comport themselves - but that is, again, merely a vehicle for the ultimate goal.
Rav Kook is defending/explaining a school of thought which was very popular
in the nineteenth century in Europe (a school most often associated with R.
Shimshon Raphael Hirsch - although it has roots which reach back much
earlier in Jewish literary history). This school views Am Yisra'el chiefly
in its role as teachers of the world, who are situated throughout the
Diaspora in order to inspire, instruct and illuminate the non-Jewish world
around us. This school is fond of the adage of Haza"l:
"R. Elazar says: HaKadosh Barukh Hu only exiled Yisra'el among the nations
in order that converts should be added to their ranks." (BT Pesahim 87b)
One final note: Rav Kook does an exquisite job of shedding light on the
curious title: Mehadrin MIN haMehadrin. Instead of understanding this as a
hierarchical title (i.e. "greater" than the Mehadrin), he uses the language
to identify this as an elite sub-group within the Mehadrin.
MEHADRIN MIN HAMEHADRIN (II)
"There is another approach, in which the heart of an extraordinary person
will contemplate and reach the conclusion that it is indeed true that
self-love is not fitting for the greatest level of profundity, even if it is
expanded to include a love for the whole nation. Nonetheless it is
appropriate to love the good on its own merit - therefore it is right to
accord to the goal of public life the greatest content possible in life.
Since the Divine treasure is hidden within Yisra'el, therefore they are
certainly qualified to become completed to this degree such that their life
should be the desire of any upright person, not because of the self-love of
"a man is prejudiced regarding himself"; rather because of the truth and
"Therefore, the treasure of Yisra'el should be the focus of all spiritual
life, and it is upon this that the objective of all of Torah should be
built. It follows that there is room in the simple sensitive heart of
national fellowship, to make it an appropriate trait in the paths of Torah.,
since even according to the depth of Divine justice the final objective will
remain the purpose of Yisr'ael. [This is] because the final goal should not
be based upon the quantity of lives, rather their quality, and the most
wondrous quality will e'er remain the legacy of Yisra'el as testimony of the
Divine choice and their treasure."
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.