Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

It’s a story that former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau recounted. And it was my son Dovi who prompted that recounting.

Rabbi Lau, when we were hosting him at our home in Toronto, asked Dovi how old he was. Dovi replied that he was eight years old.

Dovi’s response motivated Rabbi Lau – who spent his childhood in the ghettoes and concentration camps – to recall: “By age eight, I already graduated from Buchenwald.”

Rabbi Lau’s recollection then segued into him reminiscing about his first post-Holocaust Chanukah. That post-Holocaust world was a yawning abyss – bereft of parents, communities and schools – so it afforded little Yisrael Meir almost no guidance. Yisrael Meir, therefore, knew very little about Chanukah.

Yisrael Meir , though, knew an awful lot about yahrzeit candles. That’s because those candles were omnipresent in that ever-mourning post-Holocaust world. Yisrael Meir, therefore, assumed that Chanukah candles were a type of yahrtzeit candle. And because everyone lit these “Chanukah-yahrtzeit” candles – and because new candles were added every night -Yisrael Meir assumed that these were special yahrtzeit candles.

Which is why he asked the adults: Which tzaddik do these candles commemorate? What great things did he do?

That’s when the adults finally began teaching the orphan about Chanukah.

They began explaining that candles aren’t just about yahrzeits and yiddishkeit isn’t just about death. Candles and yiddishkeit are also – and more so – about light, warmth and celebration.

It was a message to that orphan. And it’s a message to us.

Like that orphan, our losses may force us to light candles of mourning.

Those candles, though, can’t be our yiddishkeit’s end-all and be-all.

Once those candles are lit, once our yahrtzeits are commemorated we must refocus our energies on that which is joyous. All of this spelled out in the following exhortation: “Serve Hashem with happiness and approach him with joyous song.”[1]

All of this is also spelled in the following warning: ““because you didn’t serve Hashem with joy …you will serve your enemies…in hunger and thirst…and they will place an iron yoke on your neck until they destroy you.”[2]

Yes, we’re being told that terrible punishments – starvation, slavery, exile – will come our way if we don’t “serve Hashem with joy.” [3]

And isn’t that the sad truth?

People who can’t find positivism and joy can’t accomplish. And when people don’t accomplish, they slide into depression, self-destructive behaviors and sin – acts that led to dysfunctionality and to all sorts of terrible punishments.

All this was documented by Corrie ten Boom, a non-Jew who hid Jews during the Holocaust and who nursed Jews to health after the Holocaust.

She writes about those survivors as follows: “Since the end of the war, I had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality…some victims were able to …. rebuild their lives, no matter the physical scars. But those who nursed their bitterness against the Nazis remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.”

The Torah’s command to “serve Hashem with happiness”[4]– to rise above our Buchenwalds – is a mitzva.

The Torah’s command to “serve Hashem with happiness”[5]– to rise above our Buchenwalds – is also a recipe for a life that allows people “rebuild their lives, no matter the physical scars.”

Yes, it’s hard to “serve Hashem with happiness”[6]– to light candles of joy – when we just lit yahrtzeit candles.

It’s far harder, though, to focus too much on those yahrtzeit candles – because that will “nurse a bitterness” that will render us “invalids.”

A Lichtigen Chanukah

[1] Tehillim 100:2

[2] Devarim 28:47-48

[3] As explained by the Rambam, Shofar 8:25, although see Rashi ad loc.

[4] Tehillim 100:2

[5] Tehillim 100:2

[6] Tehillim 100:2