We bentch Rosh Chodesh Kislev on Shabbos Parshas Chaya Sara, with Rosh Chodesh falling on Yom Chamishi and Yom Shishi (Thursday and Friday, November 12 and 13). The autumn landscape’s breathtaking hues dissipate before us like a fleeting dream as we hunker down for the winter season.
The Hebrew letter corresponding to Kislev is the Samach (meaning “support”). Its shape – closed on all sides – is symbolic of a fortress of protection. The attribute of this month is sleep, while the organ of the body associated with Kislev is the stomach. Both food and sleep are essential to human survival. Yet overindulgence of either can prove detrimental to our health and well-being.
The month of Kislev celebrates the liberation of two Chassidic luminaries: Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, first Lubavitch Rebbe, who was released from incarceration in Russia on the 19th of Kislev in the year 1798, and Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, who was rescued from the Bergen-Belson concentration camp on the 21st of Kislev in 1944.
It was during that year when the Nazis, perceiving their imminent defeat, began to escalate their barbarity. Hungarian Jews who had not already succumbed to the scourge of hunger or feebleness were systematically delivered to Bergen-Belsen to be processed for destruction.
Among those prisoners was a benevolent soul who went out of his way to lend words of encouragement to his demoralized peers, inspiring them not to lose faith in the Almighty. Reb Shmelke, as he was affectionately known, infused his fellow captives with nostalgic memories of a time gone by. As they would consume their Shabbos fare consisting of a ration of dried old bread, Reb Shmelke would create a semblance of an oneg Shabbos with words of Torah and by recounting fascinating tales of the Baal Shem Tov and his own great-grandfather, Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg.
The physically and spiritually starved inmates, distracted from the reality of their circumstances, would be uplifted from their despondency. His amiable ways garnered Reb Shmelke an “in” with the ruthless officers at the top, allowing him freedom of movement among the barracks and, to some degree, beyond. Reb Shmelke used this rare privilege to ensure the proper burial of his fallen comrades and kept a record of the names of the deceased by scribbling them on small scraps of paper with the charred tips of discarded matches that he collected for this purpose.
His aim was to spare war widows the agony of having to endure an agunah status. (Reb Shmelke’s selfless act of chesed did indeed prove invaluable after the war, when many widows were able to substantiate claim of their husbands’ demise before the bais din.)
With the advent of Chanukah, Reb Shmelke was determined to illuminate the hearts of the downtrodden, yet he couldn’t fathom how he would go about securing the means to carry out the lofty mitzvah of Chanukah candle lighting.
His dilemma weighed heavily on him, even as he was in the process of burying a poor departed soul. Reb Shmelke found himself short a couple of stones to complete the partitioning of the gravesite and scoured his immediate surroundings, to no avail. From a distance, a pile of rocks caught his eye. As he removed some of them, he was shocked to uncover a small bottle of oil. Shoving aside some more of the stones, he discovered cups and soon he unearthed a pack of wicks.
A stunned Reb Shmelke could hardly believe his good fortune; moreover, that night would be the first night of Chanukah. He lifted his eyes in a silent prayer of gratitude. Later that evening, when the guards were finally out for the count, a chorus of stifled but heartfelt Amens greeted Reb Shmelke’s fervent blessing of “Shehechiyanu ve’kimanu ve’higiyanu lazman hazeh.”
When the war ended, Reb Shmelke returned to Hungary where he would become widely known as the Tchaber Rav. He eventually immigrated to Israel and made his home in Jerusalem.
Upon a subsequent visit to America, the Tchaber Rav looked up an old acquaintance, the eminent Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum. At some point in their emotional reunion, the Satmar Rebbe quietly remarked to Reb Shmelke, “I heard of your Chanukah lighting in Bergen-Belsen and of your tremendous Kiddush Hashem. Allow me to enlighten you now – it was I who hid the oil, cups and wicks beneath the stones, hoping that the right person would discover them at the right time, with Hashem’s help. And that is exactly what happened.”
The element of Kislev is fire. It is with fire that we triumphantly celebrate Chanukah in remembrance of the time we awakened from our spiritual slumber, when we resolutely rejected the domineering influence and material pursuits of our adversaries. That tiny spark embedded within each Jewish soul ignites a burning desire for spiritual fulfillment – an inner yearning to heed the tenets of the foundation of Judaism, which the Syrian-Greeks were so intent on crushing. The small bright flame, the essence of Chanukah, commemorates the minute amount of oil that burnt for eight days in the Bais HaMikdosh, a miracle that G-d performed for His people in recognition of their intense emunah and steadfast belief that He would guide them to victory over their oppressors.
The Jewish nation is likened to the olive tree. Olives produce oil by being beaten and squeezed; the more suppressed we are by other nations, the more we cry out to Hashem and forge ahead by intensifying our performance of good deeds. The Greeks attempted to goad us into assimilation, but like olive oil that does not mix with other liquids, we separated from them and – as is the nature of pure olive oil – we rose to the top.
The fiery red-gold shades of the striking fall foliage impart a powerful message: to not despair when autumn leaves begin to fall. Chanukah will soon shine its holy lights into our hearts and homes and illuminate the dark days of winter, reminding us that we are never alone. Our Father in heaven is watching and waiting for us to display our unerring faith in Him. We need only trust that Hashem is with us!