Occupying Your Soul

The Al Hanisim (literally: “on the miracles”) prayer that is inserted into the silent prayer and into grace after meals on Chanukah tells of the great struggle between the Seleucids (Syrians Greeks led by Antiochus IV) and their Hellenistic sympathizers on the one side and Torah-true Jewish population of Judea on the other. The contrast between the two sides is presented first as a physical and numerical disparity (“(God) delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…”). Then the focus shifts to the spiritual chasm between the invaders and their indigenous supporters and the resistors (“the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with (God’s) Torah.”)

For the first four sets of contrasts, the polarities are clear and straightforward. Strength is the opposite of weakness, many is the opposite of few, impure the reverse of pure, and wicked contrasts with righteous. The fifth and final distinction, however, is less clear. What, exactly, is a “wanton sinner” and how does that designation contrast specifically with occupation with Torah?

Wanton sinners were those who conscientiously sought ways to undermine the study and practice of Torah by verbally demeaning it in the eyes of its adherents (“Willful sinners taunted me exceedingly, but I did not swerve from Your Torah” – Tehillim 119:51). Their “combatants” therefore were those who engaged in regular Torah study and observance despite these verbal missiles. They were “engaged” in study, a deeper level than to simply be “students of Torah.” They invested their every fiber of being into the study of Torah and its adherence, which gave them the strength to resist the taunting directed at them by members of their own tribe.

While all of the negative descriptions listed above underscore the challenge that faced the supporters of Mattisyahu and his sons, none were as threatening as this last one. Collective weakness in strength and size are challenges, no doubt, in the face of a strong, robust enemy. It is also taxing to be surrounded by impurity and wickedness, which present constant reminders of a foreign lifestyle and way of thinking. But when you are forced to respond to wanton mockery that cuts at your essence and makes you feel inferior or foolish, it can be particularly difficult to foster the necessary inner fortitude to resist their arguments and emerge unscathed. This struggle, above all else, was a battle for the Jewish soul. The soul can withstand everything but a deliberate campaign aimed at its sole source of nourishment, namely the study and the fulfillment of mitzvos.

This last point is particularly relevant to all of us. Living in a host society that professes a different, if not contrasting, value set to our own, it can be challenging to hold our heads high and continue to act the way that we know we should. It’s one thing to watch others act in a way that seems so much more fun and free, satisfying their pleasures regularly under the banner of “eat, drink and be merry”. But it’s something entirely different when deprecating messaging resonates early and often through various outlets that the religious life that we’ve chosen in our godless society is backwards, superstitious and an obstacle to progress.

Every holiday has its distinct service and means of connecting us more deeply to God. On Rosh Hashana we focus on coronating our King. On Yom Kippur we engage in deep repentance. Sukkos allows us to remember our true Source of protection and bounty. The service of Chanukah is to shine the light of Torah and adherence on a dark reality that mocks us at our core. Such light can only be generated by a deep engagement that extends well beyond lip service or surface-level devotion.

Where does such depth of commitment come from? How can we genuinely resist all of the pejorative messaging that is constantly broadcast through our soundwaves? Here are some ideas that might help.

  1. Turn off the sound – The easiest way to withstand negative messaging is to not hear it. There is no mitzvah to be a full consumer of all the world has to sell us. Keep in mind that certain industries in particular, such as entertainment and the arts, are populated by those with a particularly strong godless, humanistic vantage point which rejects historical truths and values that can’t be quantified by science. When we invite them into our world we make it doubly difficult on ourselves to filter out that which is harmful.
  2. Fill up on quality – Rabbi Noach Orlowek suggests that the best way to help diabetics who know that they will be attending a lavish affair with a robust dessert buffet is to fill up on proper foods in advance. If you are full, your stomach cannot take on much additional, no matter how delicious and tantalizing. The same holds true for the conceptual. While our brain or senses don’t fill the same way as our abdomen, we can make sure to infuse our down time with spiritual food and inspiration. Recently, after three years of using much of my commute driving time making phone calls and consuming the news and talk radio, I began to listen to Torah recordings on a variety of topics. Not only does this add more learning to my day, but it also cuts down on a variety of unneeded (and perhaps even detrimental) messaging that my mind would otherwise consume.
  3. Get excited – Learn to fight passion with passion. Show yourself and others around you that your commitment is an emotional one, not just behavioral. Of course, this is hard to do if you are not emotionally connected and view your observance as intellectual or even routine-based. There are many ways to develop greater emotional attachment, such as by engaging your various senses (through song and dance, for example), participating in celebratory and inspirational events with likeminded people, and even by reflecting deeply on all that you have to be grateful for. (Rabbi Avigdor Miller used to say, “each day we should do a jig when we say the words, shelo asani goy.”) Each of these can conjure up the excitement to help meet other’s passion at its own level.
  4. Reframe priorities – To “occupy” ourselves in Torah is typically understood as to life a yeshiva/kollel lifestyle and spend every waking hour immersed in study and practice. While this may be a lofty, wonderful goal, it is not the reality for most within the observant community. But that does not mean that the rest of us cannot be immersed qualitatively, if not quantitatively, in a Torah lifestyle. Use the time that you do have available to learn and to grow. Make every moment count and, even more, emphasize to you and to others that this is your preferred state of being. Doing so will help deepen your connection to Torah and strengthen your association with it.