HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Experiences That Nurture Faith
We live in an age that is thirsty for meaning, and perhaps our greatest challenge as educators is to transmit a sense of meaning to our students. But how can we effectively nurture faith? My sense is that the task has become a cerebral affair, instead of the experience it is meant to be, and that the solution lies not in trying to convince our students of anything, but rather in sharing meaningful, joy-filled Jewish experiences with them.
To that end, I would like to recount a particular Chanukah experience I had while serving in the Israeli army many years ago. To be honest, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Chanukah that year and hadn’t really had much time to think about it. Our armored battalion had recently spent a few months in Lebanon, and while I was thankful we would be spending the winter in Israel and not up in the freezing cold mountains of Lebanon, we were still in the process of overhauling the tanks—not a particularly enjoyable task.
So what do you say to two hundred modern day Maccabees defending the borders of Israel, after two thousand years of exile, in a modern Jewish state?
We were so involved with the procedures involved in getting the tanks back on alert status that it was only a few hours before Chanukah when I realized that I had no menorah, no candles or oil, and certainly no gold coins or dreidels. As the newest officer, I also had no hope of getting leave just to get some Chanukah lights. A wave of depression swept over me, as I realized that I would be celebrating Chanukah alone, surrounded by dirty, exhausted soldiers who didn’t place much stock in the holiday anyway. As the sun set, and the mountains of Jordan changed colors, my mood worsened. I remembered what Chanukah used to feel like, how much I always looked forward to it, and how sad it was going to be to just light a Shabbat candle in a corner of the dining room.
At this point, to my great surprise, one of the reserve duty soldiers who were helping us overhaul the tanks wished me a happy Chanukah. I guess he saw the surprise on my face, because he smiled and said, “Mah haba’ayah? Atah lo rotzeh chag sameach?” (“What’s the matter? You don’t want a happy Chanukah?”)
I launched into a long-winded explanation of how depressing it was to be alone on Chanukah, especially since one of the major points of the Chanukah celebration is supposed to be pirsumah de-nisah, publicizing the miracle. With great clarity of vision, my fellow soldier responded, “Az eifoh ba‘olam yesh makom yoter tov lachgog et hanes hazeh, me’asher hamakom hazeh?” (“So where else in the world is there a better place than here to celebrate the miracle of Chanukah?”)
As my company headed to the dining hall for dinner, the reservist grabbed my arm and told me to follow him to the edge of the line of tanks, where some spent 105mm shell casings were lying on the ground, waiting to be taken out to the ammo dump.
He grabbed a couple and gave me one, and started walking back to the mess hall. Picking up a shovel from the emergency fire stand, he dug a hole and shoved the empty tank shell casing into it, shoveling some of the dirt into the shell casing, which was about waist-high. By this time, I was grinning, having figured out that when we were done, we would have the largest makeshift menorah I had ever seen. We poured gun-oil on top of the dirt in each shell casing, and then topped it off with some very flammable benzene. I grabbed a lighter and was about to flick it when he looked at me with horror, and said, “Mah karah lecha? Lech tikra lekulam!” (“What’s the matter with you? Go call everyone out here!”)
I went inside and made a fairly weak announcement that we were lighting Chanukah candles outside, and that whoever was interested should come join us. I figured it would be nice if a few guys decided to join us. Suddenly, the battalion commander stood up, looked around the dining hall, and strode outside. At that point the entire base, at least a couple of hundred men, also came outside.
My comrade handed me a stick with a rag dipped in some benzene and said,” Go ahead and light.” But I refused, feeling this was really his show, and he should have the incredible privilege of lighting the menorah he had created. So he took the stick in his hand and, when everyone got really quiet, announced in a loud voice, “Lifnei she-nadlik, Bini yomar kamah milim!” (“Before we light, Binny will say a couple of words!”)
He had set me up, and with everyone watching I had to say something. So what do you say to two hundred modern day Maccabees defending the borders of Israel, after two thousand years of exile, in a modern Jewish state? Words failed me that night, and to be honest, I don’t really recall what I said, which is probably as it should be, because some experiences are not meant to be put into words.
I do remember looking over at my newfound friend, whose name, to be honest, I cannot even recall, and watching with surprise as he took a kippah out of his pocket and put it on his head before he lit the candles. And I remember being even more surprised as he recited all the blessings for the first night’s candlelighting from memory. Someone started singing and a few of the guys started dancing, all by the light of the Chanukah “candle” in a 105mm tank shell casing, in the middle of an Israeli Army tank base, near the Jordanian border.
And when we were done, I went over to thank the reservist, who instead thanked me with the following explanation: He had been one of the original tank crews on the Suez Canal, on the infamous Bar-Lev Line, when thousands of Egyptian tanks and tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers crossed the canal into Israeli territory. He made it out of the first wave and found himself, on the third day of the fighting, with one of the tank units attempting to counter-attack and regain lost ground.
Deep in the desert, the night turned into day as tanks all around him burst into flame. His unit, he told me, was at the mercy of the newest anti-tank missiles being fired by the Egyptians from the dunes. The whole scène seemed to him like candles burning in the night, and, terrified that his tank was next, he found himself thinking of Chanukah and the menorah lights, which he had not lit in a good number of years. So he made a deal with G-d that if he made it out of that inferno, he would light the Chanukah candles that year with all the blessings and all the bells and whistles. And indeed, he managed to do just that, and had not missed a night of Chanukah candles ever since.
And one thing I can say with conviction: I have never lit Chanukah candles in quite the same way. ♦
Rabbi Binny Freedman, a company commander in the IDF, is Director of Isralight and Dean of Orayta, a leadership training gap-year program for post-high school students in the Old City of Jerusalem. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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Faith is the most elusive quality to inculcate, the hardest to measure. Yet at some level, everything Jewish day schools seek to achieve depends upon it. The sense of belonging and connection that is fundamental to Jewish identity resides, at heart, in a sense of emunah, of trust and belief in something larger than ourselves. This issue considers factors that nourish Jewish faith of different kinds.
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