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As we get ready for the very sweet festival of Chanukah, it behooves us to brush up on its spiritual messages. In this way, we can ensure that it doesn’t become a mere season of gastronomic delight such as latkes and sufgoniot.

A common thread that runs through most of the amazing events of Chanukah is the element of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, of the valiant Jews during the era of the Chashmanoim: Whether the “many in the hands of the few,” the “mighty in the hands of the weak,” the heroic self-sacrifice of the Maccabees; the legendary Chana and her seven sons who chose death rather than bow down to Antiochus’s idol; or the zealous search of the Kohanim to find a single jar of oil with the seal of the Kohein Gadol. That search can be compared to looking for a needle in a haystack, when they could have allowed themselves the Talmudic allowance, of tumah hutra b’tzibbor – that when the entire congregation is contaminated, one can use even defiled oil. But they demonstrated amazing mesiras nefesh in passionately wanting to fulfill the mitzvah in its best possible way. We also note the amazing valor of the daughter of the Kohen Gadol who, instead of succumbing to the wickedness of the Syrian-Greek governor, killed the wicked official and thus jump-started the Jewish conquest.


Chanukah therefore is a time to take stock in whether we have this element of mesiras nefesh in our spiritual lives. When we are tired, do we still push ourselves to get up early and join a minyan, or do we succumb to temptation and say our prayers quickly at home before dashing off to work? Do we exercise self-sacrifice in pushing ourselves to attend a shiur after a hard day’s work, or do we cave in to our physical laziness and just go home and read the paper?

In this area, Chanukah should jog us to make a reality check. Is there an element of mesiras nefesh in our relationships with our children? Do we find the time – although there is never enough time – to take interest in our children’s learning, in their character development, in their personal happiness? All of these objectives are mitzvahs of the highest priority, since if we, their parents don’t attend to these needs, who will?

Do we have the spiritual bounce in our steps to use a Sunday or any day off to provide pleasure for our spouse – thereby ensuring the Shechina will permeate our homes? Mesiras nefesh doesn’t only mean putting your life on the line for your spiritual beliefs. Rather, anytime we push ourselves beyond our natural physical tendencies in order to fulfill the will of Hashem, we are following in the footsteps of the great Maccabees, the heroes of Chanukah.

The Aleinu Leshabei’ach, on parshas Vayishlach, tells a fascinating story about Rav Shach, zt”l. Rav Shach, already a very old man, had to spend some time in the hospital. One day, he informed his family that he desired to go one floor down to visit a man who was also staying at the hospital. Rav Shach knew that this man was treating his wife badly. He wanted to talk to him again about adopting better marital behavior. The family was aghast, as Rav Shach was ill and very aged, yet he wanted to get up from his sick bed and go down a flight of stairs for a shalom bais discussion. Despite their pleas, Rav Shach was adamant. They then suggested that they would ask the man to come up to Rav Shach’s room instead. This too, he vehemently vetoed.

At this point, when reading this story, I thought that Rav Shach’s reason probably was that he was banking on the impression he would make on the man by leaving his sickbed and trekking downstairs. Perhaps this would impress him to realize the severity and importance of the issue! Yet Rav Shach went on to explain that he had previously worked on this couple’s marriage many times to no avail, and therefore felt that perhaps if he took heroic measures to be moser nefesh – to get out of his sick bed to help save a marriage, Hashem would see his self-sacrifice and perhaps, in that merit, bless his efforts with success.

This vignette introduces a new angle to mesiras nefesh. Sometimes a person says, ‘Why should I go through so much trouble? My mate won’t appreciate it anyway?” Or a parent thinks, “Why am I investing so much energy in this child? S/he just takes it for granted.” Even if these conjectures are true, a supreme effort might still be effective, for Hashem might take note of the additional exertion and in that merit bless us with Divine assistance to succeed in our marriage or in the chinuch of our child.


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