YAHALOM SEMINARY Bridging the Gap

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ILLUMINATING THE DARK TUNNELS OF LIFE





I am not a fan of segulot – “charms” that allegedly have some mystical power to bring a person what he needs, be it money, health, a shidduch, or anything else.  The tradition I’ve received from my rabbis is that there are no shortcuts in life.  If we have a need that is not being filled, or a difficult problem that we need to solve, then instead of looking for a magical solution, we need to work hard, do the best we can, and turn to Gd in heartfelt prayer and repentance, asking Him to do the rest.  This isn’t as exciting or appealing as a hocus pocus segulah, but this is what Torah Judaism teaches.

I must admit, however, that there is one exception.  There is one famous segulahwhich I – and everyone – needs to accept, because it is written black-on-white in the Talmud.

In Masechet Avodah Zarah, the Gemara tells that Rabbi Meir tried bribing a Roman prison guard to release his sister-in-law, who was held in captivity.  The guard refused, fearful that he would be punished.  Rabbi Meir guaranteed him that if the authorities tried punishing him, all he needs to do is simply declare the words, “Ela-ha deMeir aneni – Gd of Meir, answer me!” and he will be saved.  To prove to the warden that this “seguah” works, Rabbi Meir started throwing rocks at a nearby group of wild dogs, which immediately then started running to him.  Rabbi Meir announced, “Ela-ha deMeir aneni,” and the dogs stopped dead in their tracks and turned around.

The warden was convinced, and released the prisoner.  Sure enough, the authorities caught him and sentenced him to hanging.  Just before he was about to be hung, he announced, “Ela-ha deMeir aneni,” and the authorities released him.

On the basis of this story told in the Gemara, many people have the practice when facing some difficulty or challenge – especially when searching for something valuable which was lost – to give charity in Rabbi Meir’s memory and to announce, “Ela-ha deMeir aneni.”

What is the secret behind this “segulah”?  Why does mentioning Rabbi Meir help us in times of need?

The Gd Who Illuminates

The Maharsha (Rav Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631), one of the classic commentators to the Talmud, raises another question regarding this story.  Elsewhere, as the Maharsha cites, the sages teach that Gd does not allow Himself to be called “the Gd of” an individual who is still alive.  In our Amidahprayer, we refer to the Almighty as “the Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yitzhak, and the Gd of Yaakov,” because our three patriarchs are no longer among the living.  We are not, however, allowed to refer to Him as “the Gd of” a living person.  How, then, did Rabbi Meir refer to Gd as “Ela-ha deMeir– the Gd of Meir”?

This question led the Maharsha to offer a radically different interpretation of the phrase “Ela-ha deMeir aneni.”  He explains that in truth, the word “meir” in this declaration does not refer to Rabbi Meir.  Rather, “Ela-ha demeir” means, “the Gd who illuminates.”  As we recite each morning in the shaharit service, Gd is “hameir la’aretz veladarim aleha” – the One who illuminates the earth for all its inhabitants.  This is what we mean when we proclaim, ““Ela-ha deMeir aneni” – not that “the Gd of Meir” should answer us, but rather that “the Gd who illuminates” should answer us.

Explaining further, the Maharsha comments that the “illumination” mentioned in this brief prayer refers to one specific instance of supernatural “illumination” – namely, the Hanukah miracle.  We pray that just as Gd miraculously sustained the candles of the menorahin the Temple during the time of the Hasmoneans, providing supernatural illumination when the available oil did not suffice, he should likewise help us solve whatever problem we currently face.

However, this itself requires explanation.  Why do we invoke specifically the Hanukah miracle?  Of all the miracles that have occurred to our nation over the course of our remarkable history, why do we mention the oil that burned for eight days after the Jews’ victory over the Greeks?

In order to answer this question, we need to take a step back and understand the deeper significance of the Hanukah candles which we light each night of this special holiday.

The Darkness Before the Light

The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat tells a seemingly strange story about Rabbi Yehuda, who once invited his students to ask any questions they had.  One student seized the opportunity to ask the following question: “Why do goats walk before sheep?”  When shepherds tend to their herds, the goats always walk first, and the sheep walk behind them.

Few of us, I imagine, have ever lost sleep over this mystery.  This is certainly not something that has concerned us.  Yet, Rabbi Yehuda’s student chose this as the question he would ask the great rabbi.

Rabbi Yehuda’s answer is equally peculiar.  He replied, simply, “This is the way of the world.”  What kind of answer is this?  How does this explain the phenomenon of goats walking before sheep?  And why did the Gemara bother recording this exchange?  Neither the question nor the answer, appears, at first glance, to have any significance for us.  Clearly, there must be more to this story than at first meets the eye.

The depth of story is uncovered for us by Rav Tzadok of Lublin (1823-1900), in his work Resiseh Layla.  He explains that the Gemara teaches us a fundamental truth about our unredeemed world: darkness always precedes light.  The dark goats always go ahead, before the white sheep.  Rav Tzadok gives the example of Matan Torah, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the greatest event in all human history, which was preceded by 210 years of bitter slavery in Egypt.  Likewise, the construction of the Mishkanin the wilderness, one of our nation’s greatest spiritual achievements, came on the heels of one of our nation’s most catastrophic spiritual failures – the golden calf.  Light is always preceded by night.

We might also add an example from the natural world – a seed’s decomposition before it takes root and produces vegetation.  A period of darkness, of gloom, of decline, will always precede a period of light and achievement.

We know this is true from our own lives.  The great joy of marriage is preceded by the difficult process of finding a marriage partner.  Financial success comes only after the arduous process of finding a job or building a business.  We experience the great joy of seeing mature, independent, successful children only after many years of hard work raising them.  Nothing comes easily.  Just like a person jumping on a trampoline must go down to propel himself upwards, life takes us down before it can thrust us upwards to success and happiness.  Our life journey takes us through dark tunnels before we can enjoy the bright light of satisfaction.  This is, in Rabbi Yehuda’s words, “the way of the world.”

Retrieving the “Concealed Light”

However, for one 36-hour period very early in world history, this is not how it was.

The Rokeah (Rabbi Elazar of Worms, late 12th-early 13th century) taught that Gd created the world with a special kind of light which did not need to be preceded by darkness.  Adam and Havah benefitted from this special light on the day they were created, on Friday, until the end of Shabbat the next day.  For those 36 hours, this special light shone.  It was taken away with the close of Shabbat, plunging Adam and Havah into darkness.  It was at that point when Adam took two sticks to produce fire, which is why we recite a special blessing over fire each week after Shabbat.

Natural light, which is produced through fire, requires destruction.  Fire cannot exist unless it consumes something.  This symbolizes the condition in our unredeemed world, where the light of joy and success cannot be experienced without some degree of difficulty and hardship.  But the special light which was lost, and which is therefore called the “or haganuz – the concealed light” because it has been concealed and is no longer accessible, requires no destruction.  It is the light which can be experienced without having to go through a dark tunnel, happiness that comes without a preceding period of hardship.

Tradition teaches that in the future, this light will be restored.  When the world finally experiences its final and complete redemption, we will experience light without any dark tunnels.  We will enjoy happiness, success and blessing without having to first struggle with adversity.

However, the Rokeah adds, even in our unredeemed world, we can catch a glimpse of this unique light, the light of the or haganuz.

For eight days, the candles of the menorahin the Bet Hamikdashburned without consuming the oil.  The light the candles produced was the miraculous light of the or haganuz, the primordial light of Gan Eden before it was concealed.  In reward for their faith and their heroic struggle against the Greeks who sought to extinguish the flame of Torah, the Jews of the time experienced the or haganuz for those eight special days.

When we commemorate this miracle through the kindling of lights on Hanukah, we, too, are able to access the or haganuz.  The 36 candles that we light over the course of the eight days of Hanukah (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8), the Rokeah writes, correspond to the 36 hours during which the or haganuz shone at the time of Adam’s creation.   Moreover, the 25th word in the Torah is or(“light”), referring to the original light which Gd produced at the time of creation.  This word alludes to the 25th of Kislev, the first day of Hanukah, because the holiday of Hanukah is associated with the or haganuz, the special light of Gan Eden which comes without a preceding period of darkness and gloom.

Hanukah grants us a special opportunity – the ability to retrieve, if only somewhat, the or haganuz.  This is why many people have the custom to refrain from work during the first half-hour after lighting the Hanukah candles, the minimum period which halachahrequires that the candles burn.  This custom alludes to the fact that in the realm of the or haganuz, in the pristine conditions of a redeemed world, we do not need to work.  Our livelihood comes easily, as do all our other needs and wishes.  This half-hour period each day of Hanukah is a very special time, a glimpse of redemption, of the perfect world for which we long, where all our needs are provided without struggle or hardship.

For this reason, when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we pray, “Ela-ha deMeir aneni,” that Gd should help us as he helped the Hasmoneans in the Bet Ha’mikdash.  We pray for the or haganuz, for the opportunity to avoid the darkness before light, to obtain our needs and fulfill our dreams without having to first experience darkness and gloom.

The Bridge or the Tunnel?

The five boroughs of New York City are situated around several rivers.  In order to travel to and from many parts of the city, or to or from New Jersey, a commuter needs to cross one or several bodies of water.  For this purpose, the city features numerous bridges crossing over the rivers, as well as tunnels dug underneath them.

For people with claustrophobia, who find tunnels frightening, or for those who for other reasons dislike the enclosed, “suffocating” environment of tunnels, there is usually an option to take the bridge, instead.  Motorists traveling from Manhattan to New Jersey can, if they so desire, head northward to the George Washington Bridge instead of crossing into Jersey via the Lincoln Tunnel or Holland Tunnel.  Similarly, commuters to the city from Queens can choose the Queensboro Bridge or Triboro Bridge over the Queens-Midtown Tunnel.  It might take longer, but they have a way of avoiding the darkness and gloom of the tunnel.

In our “commute” through life, we are given a somewhat similar option.  Normally, life takes us through tunnels.  As mentioned, we so often need to endure long, difficult periods of darkness before we experience the great “light” of joy and fulfillment.  However, on Hanukah, as we commemorate the great miracle performed for our ancestors who stood up to the Greeks and insisted on defending their faith and traditions, we are given access to the “bridge.”  When the Hanukah candles burn, they contain an element of the or haganuz.  This is an especially auspicious time to pray that Gd lead us over the “bridge” instead of through the “tunnel,” that He enable us to achieve the joy we seek without having to first endure hardship.  As the or haganuzshines in our homes, we have the rare opportunity to bring into our lives some degree of this special light which does not need to be preceded by darkness.

At least for the first half-hour after kindling the Hanukah lights, we should not be opening presents, playing dreidelor eating jelly donuts.  There is plenty of time for that afterward.  Instead, we should seize the opportunity to pray, to reflect upon the areas in our lives where there is darkness, and trust that Gd can illuminate those areas in but an instant.  This is a time to reinforce our faith in Gd’s unlimited ability to get us through any situation, to solve any problem, to transform the gloomiest situation into one of joy and elation.  It is a time to remind ourselves that while life so often brings us through dark “tunnels” on the way to “light,” we can, at times, bypass the tunnel and travel along a beautiful, sunlit bridge to the glorious destination we seek.

Of course, until the time of our final redemption, we will always have “tunnels” to go through.  I have never met anybody – neither a great rabbi, nor a successful businessman, nor a youngster, nor an elderly person, nor a man, nor a woman – who has a completely smooth life.  All people, without exception, hit bumps along the road of life.  However, Hanukah affords us a special opportunity to reduce the frequency of these bumps, to eliminate some of the darkness in our lives and usher in the light we desire.  Let us take full advantage of this opportunity, and beseech Gd to help us bypass all the dark tunnels of life, and lead us directly to the light of happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment, amen.