FEATURE - CHANUKAH
(From the words of Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits)
Chanukah is one of the most observed of all the Jewish festivals - everyone enjoys lighting pretty menorahs and eating lots of doughnuts! But beneath the enjoyable remembrance of how the Hasmoneans defeated the powerful Greek army lies a fundamental ideological battle, one that still rages today. These two ideologies represent opposing attitudes towards the purpose of life. There is a Gemara in which a Roman leader asks Rabbi Akiva whose creation is greater, that of Hashem or that of man. Rabbi Akiva surprisingly answers that manís creation is greater - why? Because Hashem produces inedible produce such as a kernel of wheat which serves of no benefit, whereas man takes this kernel and, through much toil, makes it into bread. The Gemara tells us that Rabbi Akiva knew that the Roman expected him to say that Hashemís creation was greater, and the Roman was ready to ask that if that is so, why did Hashem create a human being and then man proceeds to perform Bris Mila, cutting away part of the human body, thus implying that man is improving upon Hashemís creation. Rabbi Akiva thereby avoided this by stating that manís creation is indeed greater. How can we understand this Gemara - surely Hashemís creation is infinitely greater than that of man?
There was a deeper disagreement underlying this discussion. The Roman represented the Greco-Roman philosophy that emphasised the perfection of man. The Greeks idolised the human body and human intellect: man was naturally perfect and the Romans basically represent a continuation of that ideology. Therefore the Jewish practise of Bris Mila was particularly abhorrent to them; it represented taking something that was perfect and damaging it. Rabbi Akiva represented the Torah belief - that Hashem deliberately created the world in an imperfect fashion so that man could perfect it himself. That is why Hashem creates a useless kernel of wheat; of course Hashem is infinitely greater than mankind, however, He wants man to go through the process of turning it into something greater. This too is the symbolism of Bris Mila - the idea that man is NOT born perfect - he has much work to do - in particular to harness and control all his powerful drives and use them for the good of growth or improvement. Life is one big opportunity to satisfy all of oneís natural drives.
Given all this, it should be of little surprise that one of the three mitzvos that the Greeks forbade the Jews from keeping was Bris Mila. They sought to uproot the idea that man is NOT made perfect, that life is about developing oneself, striving to remove his negative traits and improve his positive attributes. However, the Jews fought this prohibition with all their might and eventually overcame the Greeks. So too, we have outlived the Romans and all the philosophies that espouse the natural perfection of mankind. However, the battle continues; today we live in a society that places little or no emphasis on the concept of improving oneís character - instead it focuses far more on improving our physical pleasures. We, however know that the only true satisfaction is derived from growing, from becoming a kinder, more spiritual person, a better husband, a more attentive father. Happy Chanukah!
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Less than three years ago Rabbi David Markowitz left the Jerusalem Kollel to embark on a life devoted to helping the Jewish people. He joined JAM, an organisation that works on the campuses of LA. His job was to engage students who had no connection to Judaism and somehow bring them back to Torah. He met with remarkable success, developing close relationships with many assimilated Jews and viewing their process of coming back to Judaism. David befriended a student, John, and invited him for Shabbos - he had a great time and soon they developed a close relationship, playing basketball together. Soon, John met a more observant girl and began to be influenced by her. John is now studying Torah in Israel! This is just one of many stories of Davidís great success.
After one year his record was so impressive that he was promoted to the position of General Manager of JAM. His new job was to organize the programming and plan further developments for the expansion of JAM. He arranged a Shabbaton for 180 people with Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky as the special guest speaker. Soon after that he hired out a hotel for 500 people to hear Rabbi Rietti and Rabbi Becher speak. He also greatly increased the efficiency of the JAM system of enrolling students and has directed a number of trips to Israel and England. All these events have caused great changes in the lives of numerous people. Over 98% of all people who are exposed to JAM do not intermarry and one third of every participant on a trip begins keeping Shabbos! Moreover, many of these JAM Ďgraduatesí plan to send their own children to Day Schools, which means that the next generation will continue to reap the benefits of JAMís efforts on campus.
JAM has expanded greatly since David joined Ė from having a presence on 5 campuses, now they are on 13 and have branched out to Northern California. However, David continues to have new ideas of how to bring even more people back to Torah. He is currently planning a new kiruv Kollel that will cater for postgraduates who were touched by JAM but still need considerable attention in order to take them further in the next step of their growth.
David is evidently a naturally very talented individual but he emphasises that he owes a great deal of his success to Rav Berkovits and the Jerusalem Kollel. It was Rav Berkovits that made him realize the true urgency of the situation in the Jewish people today and that we must take responsibility for this and strive to do whatever we can to turn the tide. Moreover, the atmosphere in the Kollel itself provided great inspiration for David, seeing dozens of Torah students who care about the Jewish people and hope to make a difference. Even though David has left the Kollel he still feels very much part of it - he maintains a strong connection with Rav Berkovits who guides him in all aspects of his life. David is a great example of what the Jerusalem Kollel is all about.
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Rabbi Ari Goldberg only left the Jerusalem Kollel a few months ago to become Assistant Rabbi in Pittsburgh and to run NCSY there. His achievements in such a short time are very inspiring:
"When I started we had 35 kids involved with NCSY and only a handful of those were public school kids. Now our list has grown to well over 65 with more than a third of those coming from public school. We have events at least twice a month and they all draw at least 30 kids. For example, we had a Latte & Learning program at Starbucks and we sponsor their coffee as an incentive! We did an explanatory Mussaf service for Rosh Hashanah followed by a lunch - more than 30 kids were there, most of whom would not have come without the added attraction.
We just got back from a major regional Shabbaton in Detroit where 38 kids came from Pittsburgh. This was a very uplifting weekend for one kid in particular. He comes from a non-observant background and knows little to nothing about Judaism. Now he puts on Tefillin every day and wants to get a pair of his own. He also learns with someone over the phone at least once a week!
Things are just warming up here in Pittsburgh. The best is yet to come!"