Seeing with 20/20 Vision – the Essence of Chanuka
A husband and wife are getting ready to go to sleep. The wife is ready to close her eyes and her husband stands staring at himself in the full-length mirror. “What’s the matter with you?” she says. Come to sleep already.” He turns to her and says, “Look at this, I am so depressed. All I see is a receding hairline, a growing gut, and wrinkles under my eyes and what hair I have left is grey. Tell me something positive, something uplifting so I can go to sleep.” She thinks for a moment and says, “Well the good news is your vision is still 20/20.”
There is a very high association between Chanuka and the sense of sight. “HaNeiros halalu kodesh heim, v’ein lanu reshus l’hishtameish bahem elah lirosam bilvad.” As we will begin to sing next week on each night of Chanuka, the candles are sacred, we don’t have permission to benefit from their light but their purpose is simply to be looked at. Moreover, we have a unique halacha on Chanuka. The Talmud tells us and the Shulchan Aruch records – ha’roeh mevareich, one who can’t light for himself or herself and sees the candles of someone else – nevertheless makes the second beracha, she’asah nissim la’avosainu. When I see someone put on tefillin, take a lulav, or blow shofar, I don’t make a beracha. Only on Chanuka do I make a beracha on seeing someone else do the mitzvah.
The Kedushas Levi, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, tells us that Chanuka is the holiday of seeing. The different moadim correspond with our different senses. On Purim our hearing is heightened as we listen to the megilla. On Pesach our sense of taste is sharpened when we eat matzah and marror and on Chanuka, he says, we evaluate our sense of sight, how well do we see.
What kind of seeing are we honing? It is not our physical sense of sight. Indeed, in a sort of paradoxical way, our eyes are a liability. You see, we often feel that “seeing is believing.” If I can perceive and observe it, it is true. If I can’t, it is not real. Following this rule, we have dismissed and disregarded many of the most precious truths and realities in our lives. There are ideas, feelings, thoughts and dreams that are authentic and genuine, despite the fact that they can’t be seen or observed.
Our Rabbis describe the Greek empire and Hellenist influence as choshech, darkness. In expounding on the opening verses of the creation story, the Midrash Rabbah says choshech al p’nei sehom – zu galus yavan, darkness on the vastness, that is the exile of Greece. Moreover, our Rabbis taught that darkening our eyes was the goal of our Greek oppressors – shehechshichu einehem shel yisroel.
What is the difference between a room that is filled with darkness or with light? Is there any actual change to the room itself? Whether the light is on or off in the room, the furniture remains the same, the layout of the room, the placement of the door and the height of the ceiling are a constant. What, then, is the difference whether the light in my room is on or off? The answer is just my perception. The only difference is my ability to identify and see the reality, the truth and that which was right before me all along. Chanuka is about seeing things, people, ideas, and miracles that are really right in front of me, even though I may not be able to visibly see them.
George Orwell once wrote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” One can live with his eyes open, perfect vision, and the light on and still be cloaked in darkness. On the other hand it can be pitch black all around and yet a person can see absolutely clearly. The Chashmonaim didn’t see their few numbers, weak army, and impossible task. They saw the mighty hand of Hashem, they saw the obligation to fight, and they saw Divine protection that would accompany them.
Chanuka is about lighting the candles and using them to harness our sight, not opthalmologically speaking, but our deep vision of what is true, precious, and dear. When we look at our spouses and children, do we see the amazing blessing of their presence in our lives or do we hear lots of noise, see rooms that need to be cleaned up, and a messy house? When we face a challenge do we see no way out or an opportunity to further lean on our Creator? There are truths all around us; it is up to us to decide what to look at and how to see.
In her “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust,” Professor Yaffa Eliach shared the incredible story of Chanuka in Bergen Belsen:
It was time to kindle the Chanuka lights. A jug of oil was not to be found, no candle was in sight, and a Chanukia belonged to the distant past. Instead, a wooden clog, the shoe of one of the inmates, became a Chanukia, strings pulled from a concentration camp uniform, a wick, and the black camp shoe polish, pure oil.
Not far from the heaps of bodies, the living skeletons assembled to participate in the kindling of the Chanuka lights. The Rabbi of Bluzhov lit the first light and chanted the first two blessings in his pleasant voice, and the festive melody was filled with sorrow and pain. When he was about to recite the third blessing, he stopped, turned his head, and looked around as if he were searching for something.
But immediately, he turned his face back to the quivering small lights and in a strong, reassuring, comforting voice, chanted the third blessing: “Blessed are Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.”
Among the people present at the kindling of the light was a Mr. Zamietchkowski, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Bund. He was a clever, sincere person with a passion for discussing matters of religion, faith and truth. As soon as the Rabbi of Bluzhov had finished the ceremony of kindling the lights, Zamiechkowski elbowed his way to the Rabbi and said, “Spira, you are a clever and honest person. I can understand your need to light Chanuka candles in these wretched times. I can even understand the historical note of the second blessing, “Who wrought miracles for our Fathers in days of old, at this season.” But the fact that you recited the third blessing is beyond me. How could you thank God and say “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our G-d, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season”? How could you say it when hundreds of dead Jewish bodies are literally lying within the shadows of the Chanuka lights, when thousands of living Jewish skeletons are walking around in camp, and millions more are being massacred? For this you are thankful to God? For this you praise the Lord? This you call “keeping us alive?”
“Zamietchkowski, you are a hundred percent right,” answered the Rabbi. “When I reached the third blessing, I also hesitated and asked myself, what should I do with this blessing? I turned my head in order to ask the Rabbi of Zaner and other distinguished Rabbis who were standing near me if indeed I might recite the blessing. But just as I was turning my head, I noticed that behind me a throng was standing, a large crowd of living Jews, their faces expressing faith, devotion, and deliberation as they were listening to the rite of the kindling of the Chanuka lights.
I said to myself, if G-d has such a nation that at times like these, when during the lighting of the Chanuka lights they see in front of them the heaps of bodies of their beloved fathers, brothers, and sons, and death is looking from every corner, if despite all that, they stand in throngs and with devotion listening to the Chanuka blessing “Who performed miracles for our Fathers in days of old, at this season”; indeed I was blessed to see such a people with so much faith and fervor, then I am under a special obligation to recite the third blessing.”
You see, that night in Bergen Belson, Mr. Zamietchkowski only saw what lay before him, dead bodies and terrible suffering. The Rebbe also looked, but he saw another layer of truth that was equally accurate – that there was a gathering of people who maintained incredible faith despite the most horrific circumstances.
As we celebrate Chanuka next week, let us remember that there are truths all around us not visible to the naked eye. Let us use the light of the Chanuka candles to inspire us to see the truth with clarity and 20/20 vision.
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