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Miketz - 5778/2017~ Can one ever be “too Frum”?


Is it possible to be too religious?

After a recent Torah learning session with my Chavrusa, my mother asked me if I came up with any ideas I can share. My response was straight out of the Talmud: “Iy Efsahr L’Bais Medrash B’Lo Chiddush”-“There is no such thing as (learning in) a place of Torah study without new ideas” (Talmud Chagiga 3a).

This year I came up with a new idea to an age-old question, made famous by the “Pnay Yehoshua” Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua Falk Zatza”l (1680-1756) which is: Why all the fuss and trouble over finding pure olive oil for the Menorah in the Temple? Why need the miracle of Chanukah altogether? After all, the Halacha, the law is very clear: when dealing with public, “mass” contamination, “impurity is permitted”.  In other words, the fact that there was no pure oil with which to light the Menorah would not have stopped the Kohanim from lighting the Menorah because in “public impurity” situations as in the Chanukah story, the requirement of purity in the service may be disregarded. Any oil would have worked!  So why “waste” a miracle when none is necessary?

My Chiddush comes to play when contemplating another fundamental question about the Chanukah story, or really of life itself. We all know that the Chanukah battle was one for the survival not of our physical existence but of our spirit. The Greeks sought to assimilate us, not destroy us. In fighting the Greeks, we stood strong in our adherence to religion. It was the most G-d fearing among us who led the battle against the Greeks (Maccabees), fighting essentially a battle between the “Frum way of life” and a more secular existence. But: How do we know if we  are being possibly too religious? How do we know when we are placing too much emphasis on the form and “tradition” of our practice and forgetting about the true essence and meaning of Judaism? Maybe Greece, to many the “Parent of Western Culture” was right in prioritizing beauty, grace, science, art and physical perfection. After all, as humans we inherited earth. While celebrating Purim may be obvious, after all they tried to annihilate us, and we survived, how are we so clear that our victory over the Greeks was good for us? Greek Imperialism revolutionized the world, paved the way for societies such as ours where life liberty and pursuit of happiness are the foundations of culture. Not so bad, right? As we remain steadfast to our ancient traditions and careful observance of Halachic minutiae, are we losing sight of the forest as we get lost in the trees?

Well the Chanukah tale answers this. As the Talmud relates, when the Temple was defiled, the priests “checked and only found one cruz of oil”. A big deal seems to have been made about looking, and checking for pure oil. Why were they so concerned about finding pure oil if it wasn’t needed?

Here is why: Because these “Frum” zealots who rejected Greek acculturation recognized that pure and complete adherence to Halachic details and practices without an emphasis on the depth of Judaism behind those rules and regulations is indeed a recipe for failure-and a way of life that won’t stand up to the powerful and seductive lights of modern wisdom and culture. For that reason, the Temple priests abandoned the technicalities of pure Halacha. Yes, according to precise Talmudic law and practice, nothing at all was wrong with impure oil. Using impure oil with a contaminated Temple staff would be “100 percent kosher”.  No one would be able to say we were not religious, not “Frum”.

But… there are times when you look beyond the technical. Past what’s “allowed”, as you seek to engage in the real meaning behind our Torah. Yes, you can light with impure oil. But we are talking about rededicating the Bais Hamikdash. We are talking about fighting for religious values that define us as a nation. When fighting for that, should we just stick to the rules, or should we go beyond. Demonstrate that we understand there is a rhyme and reason for the rules in the first place: Our national Menorah, shining light on the entire world-can it afford to have even a hint of impurity, of adulteration? Our mission is too important, our message too critical.

Hashem took notice of this. Hashem saw that we were not satisfied with just “being Halachic and Kosher”, but that we wanted more. That we craved a Yiddishkayt pregnant with meaning, that we were not satisfied with a religiously superficial existence. We rejected a life of “form over substance”. He saw how we recognized that despite all the wonder that Greek civilization offered to humanity, at the end of the day its essence was superficiality. Physical prowess, beauty, attraction were paramount. Character, integrity, “soul” were of much lesser priority to the new Greek world. Embracing that life with all its benefits would spell the end of a world where eternal, inherently enduring traits are memorialized, and perhaps spell the end of society. Once the surface is gone after all-what would be left? Hashem saw that we valued meaning, depth, essence-and sought to have our Judaism reflect that-allowing no shortcuts.

In short, Hashem how we fought-and won- way more than a military battle. We won the REAL war against the Greeks: the fight between form over substance. Therefore, to demonstrate His recognition of this, Hashem performed the miracle of the oil-a victory of form over substance…in the greatest validation of our desire to seek substance, meaning and depth in our faith.

So that’s my Chiddush and message to us all. Of course, we all need to allow the Torah and its laws do it’s magic on our day to day lives. We need to increase our observance to the best of our abilities, for sure. But when our religion gets so stale that we forget the depth behind it, it’s time to pull out our Menorahs, and remember that band of Maccabees who wouldn’t let their passion for the rules overcome their personal spirit, and the spirit of our Torah.

Wishing you all therefore, purity and meaning in all that you do. Go on and Shine your lights!

Shabbat Shalom and a Frelichen And Lichtige Chanukah!



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