Slavery, Psychology, and Bibi’s Or Hachaim: A Vort for Parshas Shemos

British psychologist Steve Taylor describes a phenomenon he discovered in his research which he calls, SITE – “Suffering Induced Transformational Experiences”.  Taylor found that individuals who went through painful experiences (medical, emotional, loss, etc.) would often emerge from them with a new state of being which included, “increased well-being, intensified perception, a sense of connection, improved relationships, a less materialistic and more altruistic attitude, decreased cognitive activity, and reduced fear of death”.

Taylor’s discovery also explains the silver lining of our slavery in Egypt.  In one of the most powerful pesukim in this week’s parsha, the painful abuse of the Egyptians is described: וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ, כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ, But the more they afflicted them so did they multiply and so did they spread.  On a simple level, the Torah tells us that in spite of the harsh treatment of the Jewish nation, they continued to increase in numbers.

However, the Or Hachaim, commenting on the pasuk, tells us that this pasuk actually describes the mechanism of Taylor’s SITE long before he coined the term.  כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ do not only connote growth in numbers, they also refer to becoming great and growing spiritually stronger.  The Or Hachaim says that the pasuk is teaching us that the more painful and traumatic the affliction of the Egyptians to the Jews was, the stronger the Jewish nation grew in spirit and identity.  Indeed, the Hebrews who came forth from Egypt had the greatest “Suffering Induced Transformational Experience” in history – they transformed into Jews.  This type of transformation began in Egypt and has continued throughout Jewish history.  Our survival for so many millennia is intimately tied to the incredible strength our people draws from the difficult chapters of our history.  In fact, when Bibi Netanyahu spoke to the Grand Synagogue of Paris (skip to 10:50) , following the horrific terrorist attacks against the Jewish community, he actually quoted this pasuk and used it for this same message (I don’t think he realized he was being mechavein to the words of the Or Hachaim).

Yosef Mendelevitch, the famed prisoner of zion, spent years in the Soviet gulag.  He recounted that at one point in his imprisonment he decided to start cutting kippa-shaped pieces of clothe from his uniform and put them on his head.  Every time he did so he was severely beaten by the guards; but he would do it again nonetheless.  It came to the point that he had holes all over his uniform from so many kippot.  One day he heard the guards talking among themselves.  The name Mendelevitch came up.  One of the guards commented, “there is nothing we can do to him – he’s a free man already”.

The stubborn ability of Jews to grow from their suffering was not only the secret to our freedom from Egypt, it is the key to our freedom for eternity.  Only when we see our national and personal hardships as a part of a “Transformational Experience” to better, more altruistic people and a freer, more connected nation will we truly receive the blessing –  כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ

Vignette of a Gadol – The Chozeh and the Upside Down Heavens

The great Chasidic master, the Chozeh of Lublin, was known to have a bad leg.  His chasidim would often help him limp from place to place in his beis medrash.  One night it was time to recite Kiddush Levana.  The moon only was visible through a window on the far side of the beis medrash.  The Chozeh’s follower’s would help him walk all the way there every month.  This specific night one of the younger students of the Chozeh, who was not aware of the moon’s location, felt bad that his rebbe would have to limp so far gave a different suggestion.  Why not use the window right next to the Chozeh’s seat, on the opposite side of the building, as the one by which they would all recite Kiddush Levana?  The Chasidim chuckled.  But to there surprise – the Chozeh agreed.  They all approached the window where the moon could not possibly be and to there amazement – there it was!  Shining brightly as if they were on the opposite side.

They said a joyous Kiddush Levana all together followed by their traditional dance.  At the conclusion, the Chozeh spoke to his Chasidim.  “You’re probably wondering how it is possible the moon appeared through this window.  Do you really think this young man had the power to change the directions of the heavens?!  Certainly not!.  But I will tell you the true answer.  When you have pity on a fellow Jew.  When you truly desire to do one little act of kindness for them.  The entire heavens turns upside down for you.”

Reclaiming Mehadrin – A Vort for Chanukah

One of the most well-known questions raised in regard to the miracle of Neiros Chanukah is that of the Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi (commentary to the smag; see also Pnei Yehoshua Shabbos 21b). The Re’em points out that the Gemara tells us that when there is no other choice, one may use impure oil for the lighting of the menorah (as a part of the general rule of “Tumah Hutra B’tzibbur”).  If this is so what was the purpose of the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights?  Could they not have used the remaining oils that were defiled by the invading Greeks?

Rav Asher Weiss (quoted in K’motzei Shalal Rav pg. 304) gives a novel explanation.  The Greeks were a unique type of enemy.  They were not traditional “anti-Semites” who wanted to kill the Jews or even destroy Jewish continuity.  They did not attempt to destroy the Beis Hamikdash or expel the Jewish nation from the Land of Israel as so many before and after.  The goal of Yavan was to destroy our identity in our own home.  Rather than destroy the Beis Hamikdash, they wanted to it to continue being used but for what they wanted.  They wanted Jews to continue living in the Land of Israel but without an authentic Jewish culture. 

Indeed, the Chashmonaim could have used the impure oil to light.  However, that would have been a victory for the Greeks.  There is nothing they would have liked more that performing the Temple service in a way not authentic to Jewish tradition.  Our ancestors relied on a miracle to have eight days of oil rather than give the Greeks this symbolic victory.  They did not want to perform the mitzvah in its non-ideal form.  The Chashmonaim wanted to do it in a mehadrin fashion, its most ideal form.  That’s why Chanukah is a halacha that is specifically fulfilled in it’s mehadrin form.  Although the Gemara gives a basic level of one candle every night, we fulfill it by lighting one more every night, which the Gemara terms mehadrin.  The halacha serves to remind us that the miracle of Chanukah was not merely the oil lasting, but the conviction of Bnei Chashmonai to restore the Menorah service in its authentic and mehadrin form.  It was this element of the miracle that served as the ultimate defeat of Greek culture.

Chanukah is about reclaiming the ideals of Judaism.  The neiros remind us that our ancestors never surrendered even when they had an excuse to do so.  The mitzvah is intimately tied to our house (see Gemara and Pnei Yehoshua Ibid) to remind us that we must only teach our families an authentic Yiddishkeit.  One that captures that glory of mehadrin in all its majesty.