| Voice in the Crowd |

Chanukah Gifts

It’s not easy, it’s not convenient, and it’s not always understood by the outside world, but it’s how we roll



Dear Yechiel and Eliyahu,

Some of the greatest men of all time wrote personal letters that were essentially messages to the public too, people like the Ramban, the Vilna Gaon, the Baal HaTanya, and Rav Yisrael Salanter. (For a great contemporary example, see “A Pesach Letter to My Son” by Rav Ahron Lopiansky.)

If you’re a gadol, it works, but if you’re not, it comes across as somewhere between presumptuousness and cheap literary gimmickry.

I’m trying anyway, because I somehow feel that this conversation is not unique to our family.

When we recite the brachos on the menorah, we say, “she’asa nissim la’avoseinu bayamim haheim bazman hazeh, in those days, in this season.” The sifrei chassidus tell us that “bazman hazeh” doesn’t only mean this season, but right now: the “he’aros,” the special radiance that shone into the world at the time of the original neis, flows again each year anew.

We know this is true, but most years, it’s a nice vort for the Chanukah party.

Not this year. Not this year.

Guys, it’s an exciting time in our family, baruch Hashem. Your older sister had her first child, our first grandson, and you’re so excited to take the trip with us from Montreal to Lakewood for the bris.

But you can’t come. Right. I said it.

You look astonished and check my face to see if I’m joking because who says “can’t” anymore? And suddenly you realize that no, I’m not joking.

You can’t come, because if you leave Canada to go to the United States, the rule in your school, as mandated by law, is that you have to quarantine for two weeks when you return.

And that’s not an option.

What I’m trying to say is, that, frustrating as it might seem, you’re getting a gift.

Not just you and this is not just about our personal simchah. Klal Yisrael got a Chanukah gift.

It’s like one of those presents you have to open and unfold and examine to figure out, but then you get it.

Basically, ever since forever, we’ve been telling our children that Torah is the most important thing in the world. The Yevanim knew that, and they sought to stop limud haTorah, but we wouldn’t have any of it and we faked them out and played dreidel.

That was the story, the backdrop to all those Chanukah parties and latkes and overtired children and insufferable cousins who wanted to sing Carlebach on a loop or tell you how they nailed the stock market.

At a different time, being Jewish meant making choices. Torah or your life.

Not anymore: In our days being Jewish came to mean choosing between Ramat Eshkol and Maalot Dafna, MBD and Fried, salted dulce de leche or slow-roasted white-chocolate-macadamia doughnuts for your Chanukah party, whatever and whatever.

Chanukah was the story we told while we partied.

This year, we became the characters in that story. Our children saw that it was true all along, that Torah is the most important thing in the world, that even with our respect for and compliance with the government, there are still certain things that are not negotiable.

Chazal refer to children as “tinokos shel beis rabban.” Children who are “shel,” belonging to their rebbeim. That’s their identity.

And that will never change.

So you get it, right? You know that your Torah is the most important thing in the world, the reason everyone else in the history books at school has disappeared, and even America has no idea if it still exists, yet we’re still doing our thing.

So yes, Mommy and I are 2020 parents and we would love nothing more than to make everything right and have you with us in Lakewood for the simchah and also get you back to school the next day where everyone would wish you mazel tov, but we also have to make a choice.

And we’re choosing what Jews have always chosen.

Montreal doesn’t have a ton of history that’s not hockey or snowstorm-related, but here’s an anecdote.

In 1961, a respected English historian, Arnold Toynbee, delivered a lecture at McGill University in which he opined that the Jewish People were not a nation deserving of a state, but a “fossilized civilization” and “extinct society.”

Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Yaacov Herzog (son of Rav Yitzchak Isaac Herzog), challenged the visiting scholar to a debate.

In his arguments, Herzog told Toynbee — and the audience — to imagine the scene of Socrates returning to his native Greece. This national hero, father of Western philosophy, would start talking Greek, but no one would understand his words, which bear no resemblance to modern Greek. He would ask to see the temples that were so renowned, and he would learn that the country had long changed religions and that the vaunted structures now lie in ruins.

Imagine Julius Caesar arriving in contemporary Rome. He would speak ancient Latin, and no one would understand him, and even if they would recognize his name, they would mock his speech and dress.

Then, Ambassador Herzog continued, imagine Moshe Rabbeinu stepping into a Jerusalem yeshivah. He would see a young bochur wearing tefillin painted black, because… it’s a halachah l’Moshe miSinai, passed down from father to son. He would see bochurim swaying by Gemaras, learning what they call “Toras Moshe.” He would learn that the outer Wall of our Beis Hamikdash still stands, and it’s where we wait, still speaking to the One Who rests there.

Our nation lives.

(As a geshmake postscript, Mrs. Pnina Herzog, who sat next to Toynbee’s wife, heard her telling her husband as the debate concluded, “I told you not to take part in this debate!”)

If the gibborim, the tehorim, the tzaddikim of old would somehow land in one of your schools, they would recognize you and your choices, see the aura and shine of people who have announced, over the last ten months, that it’s Torah at all costs.

It’s not easy, it’s not convenient, and it’s not always understood by the outside world, but it’s how we roll.

So boys, I’m sorry, but I’m also happy that it gets to be real for you. I’ll try to find a Lakewood-style Chanukah present (coming to Montreal, Chanukah 2021!!!) to bring home.

You always knew that Hashem chose us, of course.

But in recent months, our schoolchildren and the ones who teach them, our bochurim and our Bais Yaakov girls, and so many others, have shown us that it’s not just that He chose us, but that we chose Him.

They who’ve given us that reminder are heroes and you know what? You guys are among them. Stand tall.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 839.

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