• Why men are obligated to light the Chanukah candles?

    In the story of Chanukah, when the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem, they entered the Temple and cleared off all the idols that were placed there by the army of Antiochus. When they wanted to light the menorah, they found only a small jug of pure olive oil bearing the seal of the Rabbi Yochanan Cohen Hagadol. It was sufficient to light only for one day. By a miracle of Hashem, it continued to burn for eight days, till new oil was made available. That miracle proved that Hashem had again taken His people under His protection. In memory of this, our sages appointed these eight days for annual thanksgiving and for lighting candles.

    Chachamim z"l tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed for only one sin - Sinat Chinam - Baseless Hatred. Only one sin brought down the House of G-d, and I believe we are still battling with it till today. There's no unity, and plenty of lashon hara, dislike and ill-will floating between the communities and between people. I believe that the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash is the sin of the men - this is something we as men are responsible for. 

    That's why the obligation to light the Chanukah menorah lies on men and we have eight days to do it - in our own homes, each one no matter what part of the world he is in, or what the situation he may be in. In addition the Sages say that there's a segulah, to look at the burning candles and hopefully this will give us the chidushim or the new understandings in the Torah. But maybe it could also mean, that we should look at the candles and ponder - how can we fix the situation of the divisiveness, the hatred and the distancing between the communities and the people. We got whole eight days to do the pondering,  and the rest of the year to carry out the plan. If anyone can do it, then it is us - men.

    Since the destruction of the Second Temple, Hashem has no home to reside in, the Shechina is in exile, the nation is spread around the world, there are plenty of problems in the families, in the nation, and the world as a whole. 

    Perhaps, this is the time we say: We had enough of it?!

    Perhaps, this is the time to approach this consciously?!

    Either, we can keep on lighting our menorahs for years to come - in exile and in our warm homes, distanced from each other, comfortable and in disagreements, or we put our egos aside, make up with each other, unite as a nation and light the Golden Menorah next year in the House of Hashem - our own Bet Hamikdash Shlishi?!!

    Shmuel Katanov

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  • Why do we light bonfires on Lag BaOmer?

    Imagine it is dark, and there are hundreds of people dancing, and in the middle there's a huge bonfire lighting the excited faces of all the people that are present around it. But let me ask you a question, why do we have this tradition for so many hundreds of years?

    It says in the Zohar: "Rabbi Shimon said: All my life, I've been begging to reveal this secret. And up until today, my request has been turned down. But today, I received permission. I decree that this day does not turn into the night like any ordinary day. This day belongs to me, as I begin to reveal the secrets..." Rabbi Shimon sat down, engaging in the Divine Torah. Rabbi Aba sat down in front of him and took notes... A fire burned around them, and the sun did not set. He revealed hidden Torah secrets from the Kabbalah until he reached the verse "... For there the L‑rd commanded the blessing, life forever." Rabbi Aba said: "Our teacher had not finished enunciating the word chaim ('life') when his words began to become increasingly imperceptible... Throughout the day a fire burned in the house, and no one could come near him because he was engulfed by light and fire."

    Why was the daylight extended until he finished teaching? The Bnei Yissaschar explains that it was to signify that all the lights of the world were created for the Torah. Our bonfires mirror the sunlight that shone in honor of this special day.

    Another explanation - the bonfire that is lit, it is the fire inside every individual that maybe have been extinguished and is rekindled once again so this person will carry this light and light others, who maybe were not present at the bonfire event or feel down in their serving of HaShem, so they can also feel the excitement, see the beauty and taste the sweetnes of Torah and mitzvot.

    But there are may be another explanation which I would like to present to you today.

    Interestingly, if you ever been on this event either in Meron or in your neighborhood, you may have noticed that people are holding in their hands a small jug of oil and some have candles and during dancing they throw them into the fire, why do they do that?

    The reason we hold Sefirat HaOmer is because Rabbi Akiva's students did not treat each other with respect, they did not see eye to eye, could not agree with each other's opinions and did not accept each other's differences. As a punishment, they started dying, and on the 33rd day they stopped passing away.

    From the first day of Omer to Lag BaOmer we count from 1 to 33 days, where Kabbalistically they represent different Kavanot. But in simple terms, we are required to work on our middot - the character traits, during this time of the year, and day by day become better people and be better then we used to be before.

    So here we are, dancing around the fire, and holding our jug of oil in our hands, and suddenly we see that guy, yes that guy that did bad to us, spoke bad about us, or caused us to lose money or other things - simply someone we can't stand. So what do we do? Rabbi Akiva's students died since they mistreated each other, and we are not supposed to repeat their mistake, and we need to fix the situation - make the Tikun. But we can't, as we are circling around the fire, it throws different shadows that make that person more unbearable and causes much agony to us.

    There's a story in the Zohar of the day when Rabbi Shimon came out of the cave. "When the father and son left the cave they passed a field where they saw Jewish farmers working on the land, they said, "Imagine people giving up the sacred study of the Torah for worldly matters!"

    The moment they uttered these words, than all the produce of the field went up in smoke. Then they heard a heavenly voice saying, "Have you come out to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!" They returned to the cave for another twelve months, and left it again, only after they heard the same heavenly voice calling them to leave.

    Seeing a Jew carrying two bunches of myrtle, rushing home on Friday afternoon, they asked him what he was going to do with the myrtle.

    "It is to adorn my house in honor of the Shabbat," the man replied.

    "Would not one bunch of myrtle be sufficient to fill your house with fragrance?" they asked.

    The stranger replied, "I am taking two bunches, one for 'Remember the Shabbat day' and the other for 'Keep the Shabbat Day holy.'"

    Said Rabbi Shimon to his son, "See how precious the mitzvot are to our brothers! Despite all the decrees and persecution of the Romans, the Jews still observed the commandments and especially the Shabbat. Rabbi Shimon and his son felt greatly encouraged."

    Many times in the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is referred to as butzina kadisha - "The Holy Candle" since he brought to light the secrets of the Torah, and was able to rise to the levels where he was able to have a different outlook on life.

    So as we dance around the bonfire suddenly we realize that 33 days of Omer that we been counting, have not done their job and we still have a lot to fix. And at that moment, one thought gives us hope, that we still have another 16 days of Omer left to work on our middot. And that moment before throwing a jug of oil into the bonfire, we say our prayer: "Ribbono Shel Olam, please accept my small jug of oil and make it a Butzina Kadisha - 'the holy candle' that should join the grand fire and make my flame be part of it. Just like Rabbi Shimon was able to change his view of the world, to accept everyone and become the holy candle, so I should be able to do the same, since a bonfire is a collection of flames that dance together in unison and make one flame, a big bonfire - so is the community, that has all sorts of people as each individual flame burning away in one big fire called Life".

    As the Shavuot approaches, we have the remaining 16 days to achieve that level of Butzina Kadisha - "The Holy Candle" and truly become one flame and be together as one community and one nation - Ba Lev Echad and Guf  Echad - One in Heart and One in Body and to accept the Torah once again on the night of the Shavuot as One Nation under G-d.

    Shmuel Katanov

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  • Why the community of ancient Jerusalem was destroyed?

    The 9th of Av is the most horrible and darkest day in Jewish history. Thousands of Roman troops came to the walls of Jerusalem and on 9th of Av, Jerusalem was on fire. Why? What did the Jews in the community do, so this happened to the nation?

    The Talmud, Gittin 55–56 says, that Second Bet Hamikdash was destroyed because of an argument of two people - Kamtza & Bar Kamtza. The story goes like this, there are was a man who made a party and he asked his servant to go and invite his friend Kamtza. The servant went, but instead of going to Kamtza, by mistake he invited his enemy Bar Kamtza. Already on the party, as the host was going from table to table, he noticed his enemy sitting and having a good time with the rest of the people. The host came over and asked him: What are you doing here? Bar Kamtza answered politely and said, that he was invited by his servant. That's when the host realized that his servant made a mistake, and called the wrong guy. Furiously, he asked the guy to leave the party, but Bar Kamtza offered to pay for his meal and asked him not to make a scene and humiliate him in front of everyone. But the host refused and asked him again to leave. Bar Kamtza offered to pay for half of the cost of the party and then for the whole party, but the host refused and threw him out from the party.

    The Talmud says, that people present at the party, especially the Torah sages, sat quietly and didn't get involved. The Talmud rebukes this behavior and says at the end, that this incident was the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple.

    Any argument is accompanied by gossip and spreading of rumors.

    The same thing happened many times in our history, and every time the reaction from Hashem was very severe. 

    - Yosef was saying about his brothers to his father, and for that they hated him. Because of this, the brothers sold Yosef, and later the whole family emigrated to Egypt. (Bereshit Chapter 37, and Bereshit Rabah 84:7)

    - Moshe was puzzled at why the Jewish people had such a hard life being slaves in Egypt. But when he found out that amongst them were people that spread rumors, he understood why this was their fate. (Shemot and Rashi 2:14)

    - When the spies came back and slandered the Eretz Yisrael, those that believed paid with their life - all the adults died and were buried in the desert. (Parashat Shelach)

    - Doeg, the Head of Sanhedrin, was solely responsible for the killing of the City of Kohanim. (Shmuel 22:9)

    - The armies of Shaul HaMelech were losing battles with Philistines because people were spreading rumors about (already anointed and future) King David. (Midrash Shocher Tov 7:8)

    There are lots of other stories where people slandered and all of them have one thing in common - all these events break one commandment: The Commandment of Lashon Hara - which means to say something bad, even though this is true. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Hachaim 156:10)

    - It is forbidden to repeat something about someone, even though this may not be negative, this is called Rechilut. (Vayikra 19:16, Mishneh Torah, Chilchot Deot Chapter 7)

    - It is forbidden to listen when someone says something negative about someone. The person should admonish the speaker, and if this is not possible, he needs to remove himself from his presence. (Chafetz Chaim 6:2, based on Talmud Ketubot 5A and many other sources)

    - And even if the person heard something negative about someone, he is not allowed to believe it, on the contrary, he needs to give him a benefit of the doubt and justify his actions, and always judge a person for good. (Talmud Pesachim 118A, also in the commentaries of Rashbam in Perek HaMekabel)

    In the Book of Shemot, Parashat Vayera 18:1 - 18:33 talks about Avraham Avinu right after he made a brit, the three angels came to him. One of the angels said that he came to destroy the cities of Soddom and Gomorrah. When Avraham Avinu heard that, he started praying to Hashem and asked Him if there are fifty righteous people that live there - for their sake not to destroy the cities. Hashem told him, there are not. Then he asked him to save the cities for forty five and again He said they are not there. Then he asked for thirty, and twenty and still he got a negative answer. Then once again he approached Hashem in prayer and asked to save the cities for ten righteous people and still, Hashem said even ten don't exist in those cities. Rashi says, that lawyer - Avraham Avinu fell silent, and Hashem left his presence since there are were not even ten tzaddikim in order to save the cities in their merit.

    In the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, there are were no ten members of the community that have thought well of Bar Kamtza, and who were willing to get up and publicly defend him and stop the host of the party. People have been gossiping about Bar Kamtza, and others believed and have been spreading it further, this was an epidemic in the society that had laws against this kind of behavior. People were so sure that Bar Kamtza was the guilty party, that they have assumed the roles of the observers at the party. They were judging Bar Kamtza unfavorably since they already had an opinion of him, which was under an influence of all the gossiping and rumors going around before this incident at the party. And with all of this - laws of lashon hara and other laws were broken, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple, loss of millions of lives and an exile till our time.

    We are in exile, which means this disease is still plaguing us. And if there's a person amongst us, about whom everyone is talking, and talking very badly, and people believe and spread rumors, and based on these rumors he is being judged and treated differently, while imposing on him more and more of the new labels and accusations - this is called Lashon Hara - talking badly, spreading of rumors and gossiping, which Torah calls in two words - Sinat Chinam or Baseless Hatred. 

    And if in that place you still have 50, 45, 30, 20 or 10 righteous people, that do not believe all that gossip - contrary to public pressure, then there's still hope that Hashem's fury can be turned away. We should always try to prevent the community from speaking and spreading rumors, using our influence and communal pressure, and squash this type of behavior right from the start. 

    And if not? And the rumors went far - then there's a job to do - he should be cleaning up - when he sees those that heard and those that might have heard, he needs to convince them that this is not true, and ask Hashem for mercy. (Sefer Chafetz Chaim). Otherwise as was said in the previous articles, our Small Batey Mikdashim - homes, synagogues, and social places are at stake.

    Our Chachamim taught, "Any generation in which the Temple is not built, it is as if it had been destroyed in their times" (Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma 1A). Because that generation continues at the footsteps of the one that caused the destruction of the Temple. They are not trying to fix the mistakes of the past generations, but continue doing the same destructive sins in the eyes of Hashem and the nation.

    Our goal - is to build strong families and communities which have to live by Torah laws. Based on our life experience we need to help people, by giving them advice, guiding and encouraging all those that fell in life - and to do this not because we owe them or they owe us, but just like that, as the Gemara says: Loving and helping another Jew without any reason - Achavat Chinam - Baseless Love

    This action alone will grow, multiply and strengthen the Jewish Nation and our communities while doing an unforgettable act of bringing peace between people and families, for which Hashem Himself will repay. This action will be responsible for many that have left to return back to Hashem and to His Torah and mitzvot. And based on everything that is said above, we and our families will merit to see Moshiach, while doing our part to his speedy arrival to free us from this prolonged exile.

    Shmuel Katanov

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