The Hidden Girl Power of the Hanukkah Story

Behind the heroic revolt against the Greeks, our sources are clear, it is Jewish women who provided the inspiration for this sensational victory.

In the final years of Greek rule in Israel, a series of new decrees aimed at the fabric of Jewish life, radically intensified the Hellenisation of Judea. One edict, aimed at undermining the family unit and progeny gave the Greek Governor ‘first rites’ to every Jewish bride on the day she was due to be married.

Jewish weddings were public events that were hard to miss. This was especially so following a rabbinic proclamation protecting the ‘daughters of Israel’ that a wedding feast needed to be suitably fancy that it should take three days to prepare. Since it was not possible to prepare food for the wedding on Shabbat, and fridges were not so easy to find, most weddings would take place mid week, making them easy picking for the Greeks.

greg_hildebrandt_judah_maccabee_fights-300x212The decree created a number of dilemmas for the rabbis since there were women who were highly modest and would likely resist the governors attempts, even to the point of death.

Understanding the danger, the rabbis relaxed the rule regarding wedding preparations, therefore increasing the days on which weddings would take place and lessening the chance of being caught by the Greek governor – who did not live among the Jews but would send soldiers into the town on certain days of the week.

In addition, they called on the people to continue Jewish life, but to conduct weddings in a clandestine way. If the worst happened, the women should neither resist, nor should they show willing, instead survive the ordeal and be like a stone.

What complicated the situation further was another group of women – those who were destined to marry kohanim, members of the Jewish priesthood for whom there was another very serious implication. Having relations with another man, would disallow the marriage to their intended husband, making these women the most likely of all to risk death. Acknowledging the desperate situation they were in, they had no other answers and hoped only that the decree would be a passing phase. It lasted three long years.

Why did the rabbis not advocate mounting resistance against the Greek rule? Why not fight back? Now we are hitting on the deeper meaning the of the ‘light of Judaism being dimmed’ which we speak about in the ‘Al Ha Nissim’ (about the miracles) prayer. The Greek empire had spent a hundred years slowly chipping away at Jewish values, in response the rabbis always chose life over death, but at what point would the threat of spiritual death warrant risking physical life? This was the conundrum of the rabbis at the time. The lines were blurred even further since many Jews had assimilated embracing parts of Greek culture, even within the highest ranks of the priesthood.
As the candle of Jewish independence faded to a flicker, it was women who were in the eye of the storm, at the heart of a ‘me-too movement’ 2200 years ago that brought the greatest mysogenest empire to its knees.

240px-Hanuka-Menorah-by-Gil-Dekel-2014Open up the laws of Hanukkah and you will find a curious custom for women to rest when the candles are lit. The reason given is to recall their role in the Hanukkah miracle with special praise reserved for Yehudit, the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, who is credited with cutting off the Greek governor’s head kick-starting the war. There are lots of questions to ask, and thankfully we have a set of midrashim (Jewish sources) to help put the pieces together.

Yehudit, daughter of the High Priest was engaged to be married to the son of the nasi -(president) the highest lay office in the nation. It was possible to keep some weddings quiet but this was not one of them. Imagine telling Hello magazine not to report on a royal wedding and you start to understand the predicament. The Greek edict regarding Jewish brides was in full effect, but life didn’t stand still. Yehudit was on her way to the Greek governor, accompanied by her wedding party, before her marriage could take place, when she stopped the ‘procession’ stepped down from her carriage and tore open her dress.

As her shocked brothers called for her to be punished for such an act of immodesty, Yehudit stepped forward calling out her brothers hypocrisy. “You want to punish me for showing some flesh, yet as you speak you are escorting me to be raped! When will you see that it is time to fight back?”

These stinging words shattered the glass, exposed the desperation of the Jewish predicament and filled the hearts of those present with an abounding courage to fight back. With any doubt removed that there was still any other option to a full-on revolt, together with his family, Yehudah a grandson of the high priest hatched a plan.


Yehudit continued on her way, with her family singing and dancing around her, holding a canopy over her head as the Greek governor looked on boastfully. “Look how happy the leaders of Israel and the descendants of Aharon the kohen are to do my will.” Taking the bait, he ordered his guards away leaving Yehudit to wine and dine him until he fell asleep sleep, whereupon she killed him, cut off his head and fled to the hills, cue the dreidels, donuts and latkes.


The role of women in this festival is closely tied to the role of the lights. Just as we don’t make use of the light of the candles except to publicise the miracle that took place through them, so too, as we stand in wonder at the miracle of our national survival, our attention is also turned to the courage of the Jewish women who are also are reminded to rest, since the miracle, was inspired by their daring courage to hold up a mirror to society, stand up for Jewish values and for their own dignity.

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Vayetzei: Defining the Characters of our Children

This week, we meet Rachel and Leah, the leading Mothers of the Children of Israel, who Midrash tells us imbued their children with their own distinct signature characteristics.

thank youWhen Leah bore her fourth son,  Since Yaakov was due to have four wives, (Leah, Rachel, Bilha & Zilpa) a simple equation would mean that each mother should give birth 3 of the 12 tribes of Israel. Accordingly when Leah bore her fourth son, she felt she felt overwhelmed  with thanks for having been granted more than her quota of children and named this son Yehuda, stemming from the words ‘Hoda’ meaning gratitude and ‘Ada’ meaning acknowledgement.  Leah was grateful for what she had and was willing to acknowledge that publicly with a full heart.

Midrash explains that particularly these qualities were later to be the prominent characteristics of this child Yehuda in adulthood, who when confronted by Tamar, his daughter in law who he had unknowingly borne a child,  acknowledged his guilt publicly without a shred of hesitation. Our rabbis even teach us that it was this very quality of honesty and humility that caused allowed Kingship to flower from the tribe of Yehuda. Psalmsimage2These qualities, first exhibited by Leah can be seen clearly to King David who also stands out for embodying the values of gratitude and admission throughout his life  – His book of Tehilim (Psalms) expresses deep thanks to G-d with consistent humility, honesty and acknowledgement about his own struggles, mistakes and failings.

Leah is not the only mother who seals a character trait into future generations.  Rachel, according to Midrash, Rachel’s defining feature is her silence pointing to how she observed a complete and difficult silence on the night of Yaakov’s marriage to her sister Leah even though Rachel was meant to be under the huppa that day. Rachel broke all fences of selfishness to keep this silence – inspired by a desire not to embarrass or envy her sister, even giving her the secret code she and Yaakov had agreed before the wedding to be
used in such a case that Lavan would switch the brides.

keeping shtumMidrash points out that Rachel’s descendants inherited this trait of restraint with their words. Yosef her son managed to keep the secret of his identity, while Midrash states her other son Binyamin kept secret the sale of his brother Yosef into slavery for over 20 years. Meanwhile, King Saul another descendant also inherited this quality – not disclosing that he had been anointed King for some time, and  Queen Esther also kept quiet about her Jewish lineage during the Purim story until the appropriate moment.

The word בן Ben – meaning son in Hebrew is closely related to the words בונן (bonen) meaning to cause to understanding, לבנות   (livnot) meaning to build and בין   (bain) meaning to penetrate to the core.  The important questions of who we are and what we believe in become the building blocks that reach to the core of who our children are and will become.

As Rabbi Israel Salanter said, “Once I tried to change the world but the world did not change, and so I resolved to change my town, but my town did not change. Then I looked to my family and tried to change them, but they too did not change until I finally resolved to change myself.”

We each have the positive characteristics that are there to be shared and maximized and the negative characteristics which are there to be conquered and perfected.

Rachel and Leah imbued their descendants with gratitude, humility, honesty and immense self-control. B’ezrat Hashem we can also maximize and actualize each of our own unique personal character traits for ourselves and also for future generations.

Wishing you Shabbat Shalom!

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The city of complete seeing

c6996869-ee60-4852-bcfa-bcb6125cbd8c-lgJerusalem or as we pronounce it in Hebrew ‘Yerushalayim’ is the city of ‘complete seeing.’

This is the meaning of its name which comprises two words, ‘Yirah’ meaning seeing, and ‘Shalem’ meaning whole or complete.

It is the site of the Akeida, where Abraham’s eyes were opened to the sanctity of life and the evil of child sacrifice.

It is the place where Jacob dreamed a vision so clearly of angels going up and down a ladder connection heaven and earth.

It is the location of King Solomon’s Temple which Kings and Queens from across the world came to see a place where spirituality was tangible.

images (14)In Midrash the world is compared to an eye, with the oceans – the white of the eye. The Iris is the center of the world and at its heart, the pupil is Jerusalem. The reflection inside the pupil is that of the Temple.

The concept of complete seeing, is something which Jerusalem is meant to give to the world. A place where we see clearly, where things become clearer.

The Talmud teaches, there is no greater vessel for holding bracha (blessing) than shalom -a sense of wholeness, of peace and of unity.  Seeing completely, or seeing using the vessel of wholeness and peace, means that when we look at each other, we are, in a certain way looking at an extension of ourselves.

Seeing the good in each other, wanting the best for each other, increasing understanding, and lowering the jealousy, envy and feelings of being threatened by others success. 

What does complete seeing mean when it comes to each other – trying as hard as possible to see things from their perspective. This will bring us closer.

sunset-western-wall-dome-rock-jerusalem-0e45e9222043In the three weeks , we are now living, between the 17th of Tammuz when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, and the 9th of Av when the Temple was destroyed, one of the things we are mourning is what happened to the city of complete seeing, and how the world grew darker as a result.  We may not have a Temple, but that shouldn’t stop us from challenging ourselves to try and see the people around us with greater completeness – perhaps it is the first step to the city of Jerusalem – Yerushalayim – the city of complete seeing, being rebuilt in its material and spiritual sense speedily in our days.

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Balak: Listening to the bird on your shoulder

Bird on Shoulder 1Imagine a person who has a bird on his shoulder he would consult before any doing anything…  Welcome to the world of Balak ben Zippor, or Balak the son of a bird. Midrash explains he was a devoted follower of a form of witchcraft idolatry which saw him pay homage to a bird named ‘Yadua’ – the knowing bird, and the bird would indicate the answer to all of his questions…

He was a man who had little grasp of his own head. He delegated others to do the thinking for him. We meet Balak in this week’s parasha, described as terrified of the Children of Israel, deciding to take them down – not going to war with them but trying to enlist mystical powers to remove their spiritual protection.

The whole episode is strange not least because Balak is from the nation of Moab and the Jewish People had been commanded not to attack them. Commentaries explain that Ruth would later emerge from this nation who would convert and include as one of her descendants, King David. Why then would Balak be so scared to take this action ..?   Didn’t he know there was no reason to be scared?

Yosef_Dov_Halevi_Soloveychik_1a.jpgAny answer is given by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik of Brisk who says the answer can be found in Balak’s thought process – or lack of. 

Although the Jewish People were not to attack  Moab, if Moab attacked them, they were permitted to respond with force. Here is what went through Balak’s mind. ‘The Children of Israel will go around conquering all of the areas around me, and then we will get scared and will attack them from fear,’ then he reasoned, ‘after this, they will respond and attack us’

Balak feared that he wouldn’t manage to hold on to the power of logic when it was tested with fear..

But after we saw how he rarely flexed the muscles in his brain we can start to understand why he lacked confidence in his own thinking. He teaches us, we all ask others to make our decisions for us at different times in our lives… what should I do, where should I go, who should I date, which job should I apply for?  Of course advice can be great, and it has its place – usually after we have first respected ourselves enough to have a good go at thinking things through.

If we find that we are taking ourselves out of the decision making process too much, walking around with a proverbial bird on our shoulder,  we may find ourselves like Balak, not only susceptible to inappropriate advice, but also lacking faith and confidence in our ability to think well at all in the future.

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Shelach: Saying is Believing!

“Whether you say you can or whether you say you can’t…. You’re probably right.” The words of Henry Ford. Yes, I know he was anti Semitic. Maybe even more reason to add a Jewish source to help explain this piece of wisdom.

We determine so much of our lives by how we speak, which impacts strongly on how we think, and act.

If a person wakes up and says, it’d going to be an awful day -this will likely be the prism through which the day pans out and vice-versa.

roping-moon-dream.jpg.480x0_q71_crop-scaleThe Talmud tells of Bar Hedya, a renowned dream interpreter in Jerusalem who would give out a positive interpretation of a dream to those who paid him for this services, and a negative approach to those who didn’t pay. Whatever he said, happened. Two rabbis went to see him. Rav paid him and Abaye didn’t. Rav saw great wealth, was promoted, and had many children, whilst Abaye lost his job, his wife died, you get the picture. Even when Rav had a negative sounding dream, Bar Hedya spun it in an upbeat way, and when Abaya came with a positive dream, Bar Hedya said it only bore more bad news.  Much later, the truth finally surfaced about Bar Hedya’s secret. Dreams always pan out according to how they are interpreted.

Those who had their lives destroyed realise the opposite could have happened to them, had the interpreter said something pleasant.

We see this also beautifully demonstrated in this week’s parasha (in Israel) Shelach where 12 spies tour the land of Israel and come back with differing reports.

spies_02Ten of the spies, return with a bad report, and two come back with a glowing report.
The first group had previously expressed their feeling that conquering the land of Israel was beyond them, and subsequently this mentality never left them. They brought back a negative account of their 40 day expedition, even finding evidence to prove their case, in the form of huge grapes and pomegranates, not to praise the produce of the land, but rather to subtly scare their brothers into imagining the giants who lived there who would eat such fruits.  

Meanwhile the two men who returned with good words to say, Calev and Yehoshua went into the episode with a positive frame of mind. They returned saying “This is a beautiful land,” and “We can do it with G-d’s help!” 

What’s the message, we speak out the lives we will live.

We hold the key to so much, in how we choose to speak about it. The reality we choose to create with our words and frame of mind. 

As King David asked in his book of Psalms,

“Who is a person that desires life?   And the answers he gives, “ a person who loves looking forward to seeing good days.”  If you want to live in a beautiful world, start speaking it into reality. Perhaps it’s not easy to always be staying upbeat and looking forward to seeing good, there are many obstacles, and changing a mindset over night is not easy, but whenever we succeed we give our world a lift.

Just by starting each day with a short list of things to be grateful for and appreciate or a positive statement about the day and what it might bring can have a big impact.

Wishing us all a Shabbat Shalom.

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A story about getting closer

aid408467-v4-728px-Cope-With-Being-a-Social-Outcast-Step-24Danny,  remembered feeling a part of a big group of friends but now that felt pretty distant. A lot of water had passed under the bridge. He had been missed a lot of days of school the previous year for a whole number of reasons, some of them legitimate, but when he did return it wasn’t the same. He had assumed a group was something you could slip in and out of, but increasingly he felt on the outside, and on more than one occasion his frustration had got the better of him. A few lunchtime scuffles didn’t make things any easier.

Mr Reubens had a knack of seeing the bigger picture in the school yard and had noted Danny’s predicament. He had taught him Geography a year earlier when he was more settled with his friends, and had known a successful, bright student, however a brief word with his teachers this year spelled out the opposite. His grades had slipped, his work was poor and he wasn’t participating in class to any of his teacher’s satisfaction.  Taking a few days to think about the situation, came up with a plan.

image-3The school hiking trip was coming up which he knew Danny would be attending –  Mr Reubens was running the trip and before the trip assigned a special role for Danny – it would be his role to stay at the back and collect any lost property that the the other students had dropped along the way. 

Danny, sighed when he was given the job. Although he had not been relishing the idea of three days with the group he had fallen out if sorts with, a small part of him hoped the time together might resolve things. Now he was sure, being left at the back forced to follow behind the other 70 students would just make things worse. 

images.jpegAs the hike began, Mr Reubens, took him aside to give some specific instructions. “Your job is not just to collect all the lost items, it is to work out which item belongs to who and to personally return it to them.” He added sternly, “By the end of each day, I want to see this bag empty with everything returned.”

This is exactly what happened. On the first day alone, as predicted, Danny’s bag filled up, by the end of the afternoon it was brimming with 5 water bottles, 2 sets of headphones, 4 pens, 3 folders, 2 key-rings, a baseball cap, a wallet, two bottles of sun lotion and a phone. Danny got to work, some of things he knew immediately having seen them in the hands of their owners. Some had names on, and others had distinguishing signs, but most made him think hard, whose it could be, how he could be sure, who he would ask. Although still on his own, his mind was filled with the other members of his group, what they had lost, what they were missing and how to return it to them as quickly as possible. All the while he thought about returning these items, more appeared.  

Each time he returned an item, he received a wide smile and profuse thanks, with almost each person asking him how he knew it was theirs. With each item returned he connected another dot in the group, feeling himself increasingly closer to them, on better terms, invested in them. After three days, even though still at the back, he felt very much a part of the group and the feeling in the group towards him had also completely changed.  On return to school, Danny’s entire demeanour lifted and his grades improved.

ravnevenzalIn this week’s parashah, Bamidbar, the Jewish people are counted. In his commentary, Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzal, rabbi of the Old City in Jerusalem, points out that the tribe of Dan are counted last. He brings a midrash to explain the reason why.  They had succumbed to avoda zara- idol worship in Egypt more than the other tribes and felt disconnected to the bigger group. They trailed behind. The midrash explains why they weren’t moved further forward. Wouldn’t that have helped them feel more included? By keeping them trailing behind, the mitzvah of hashavat aveida – returning lost property – fell to them, everything the other tribes dropped, or left behind. Through the process of  thinking and doing for the other tribes, day in, day out, they grew closer and closer to the heart of ‘Klal Yisrael’ the Jewish People.
bamidbar_orig

The Torah was given at Mount Sinai when the Jewish People were Ish Echad K’lev echad – like one person with one heart. Our rabbis teach, there is no greater vessel for receiving bracha – blessing  – than seeing the world from the perspective of others.  However distant we feel in life, to the people around us, the communities around us, thinking about what others lack and doing kindness will always take us a step closer.

Wishing us all a Shabbat Shalom 

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A Story for Shabbat: Counting the Omer

The walls in Dana’s office were bright white and empty, except for the giant poster sitting behind her desk.  The words, emblazoned in thick black ink read, simply “Be what you want to be.”
careerproblems_400.jpgA day earlier, Oded had returned from yet another walk around the park, the third of that afternoon alone. It was the only way he knew to calm his nerves while he waited for the phone to ring, still hoping the last of the interviews he had been invited to would yield his first job since graduating. When the phone finally rang it was not good news. “They said they would keep my resume on file,” he told his mother, looking down feeling the burden of another knock back. It was the fifth rejection in a matter of two months.

“Do you think it’s worth seeing a coach,” his mother asked gently. “It could be, they might have some good advice?”   Without any good reason why not, Oded had agreed to an initial meeting.

“That’s the key,” Dana said, pointing to the words jumping out from the wall, that seemed, somehow to fill the room. “So tell me,” she fired at him, “What is it you want to be?”  

Slightly taken aback, at her directness, he stammered, “A sports writer.”  Looking straight at him, as if searching his soul, she shot back her reply, “How much?”  Oded shuffled in his seat preparing his answer.

hand-towards-rising-sun.jpg
“This is the first step,” she continued, “Building up your desire for the things that you want. Every day you need to tell yourself over and over again, how much you want this, why you want this, what it means to you and what you will do with it.” She continued, “You need to do this so much that becomes alive in you,”  Oded listened intently, “The Second step, is about becoming that which you desire so strongly to be, but that,” she added, “will come later.”

Over the course of the following two weeks, Oded spent five minutes each day talking to himself aloud, awakening and strengthening his desire to find his perfect job. Soon his face began to shine with the glow of a person living with a purpose so real he could almost taste. As he continued to visualise what it would be like to be working in his dream job, he began to feel like he was already a successful sports writer, it felt it was getting closer.

As his next coaching session approached Oded called Dana, happy to relate that he wouldn’t need to attend after all. He had just received an offer from the leading sports news service in Boston. 


These few weeks in the Jewish year are weeks of ‘desire and the ‘will to make change’’ or in Hebrew ‘ratzon.’ This is encompassed in the mitzvah of the Counting of the Omer, which began on the second day of Pesach and continues through Shavuout.

abacus_0.jpgThe daily count up is meant to instill into our deepest essence, an empassioned desire for the gift of the Torah that awaits us – and was given on Shavuot at Mount Sinai. The more we want it, the more likely we are to acquire our portion in it. We learn here, profoundly that the yearning for something, is a prerequisite for receiving it.

Perhaps we can say, when bracha comes into the world, we have to have open hands and be ready to receive it.

sapphire.jpgThe Maggid of Koznitz, one of the great Hasidic leaders of Poland from the 18th century explained that the words given in the Torah ‘Usphartem lechem’ – count for yourselves – can also be read, -’and explain to yourselves,’ with the word ‘lispor’ – to count,  spelt with same letters as the word l’saper meaning to explain. and closely connected to ‘sapir’ meaning a sapphire. Here’s his message:

The more you explain something, the brighter the idea becomes until it shines like a sapphire.

The Maggid of Koznitz explains that this is the key to reaching any kind of goal – is to increase your will and desire for it, by ‘telling it to yourself’, again and again and again.  To make it so real that it actually starts to shine bright in you.  Once this desire for something has such energy, he adds, it is only a matter of time before the goal you are dreaming of, like  a magnet, is drawn to you and starts to take shape.

download (8).jpegDuring this process of increasing our ‘ratzon’- our will, we have to get over a number of obstacles. These can be doubts of our own ability or inability, self worth and challenging the things we have subconsciously already placed into the realm of the impossible.  In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav ‘A person is where they are thinking about being,’ when that light is strong, its starts to guide the way.

This also explains why the Torah commands that we count 50 days, whereas in reality we only actually count 49.  The 50th day, our rabbis explain is finished up for us by some divine assistance – which teaches us we can reach our goals when we put in our maximum effort and t
ruly desire something that is for the sake of heaven. Then these efforts will be blessed and the shortfall made up.  

As we count up toward the Omer, we all have an opportunity to increase the desire within ourselves for the things that we want, or want to become. It all starts with ‘telling ourselves’ repeatedly until it starts to feel real, and before we know, with help from shamayim, Bezrat Hashem we are already halfway there.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.  

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