Updated: Mar 9, 2020
Torah is living wisdom – it’s a wisdom that doesn’t sit stagnant in books and libraries and ivory towers. It’s a wisdom we live with each day of our lives. It’s not just an intellectual curiosity, it’s a transformative experience. And it’s this transformational wisdom for life that we bring into our homes – the places where we live, where Torah comes alive. This is what we celebrate on Chanukah.
Bringing Chanukah home
Where is the centre of Jewish life? Is it the shul or Jewish day school? Or the Jewish home? The teachings of a great Jewish hero can guide us. He lived during the events that led up to the miracles of Chanukah, and his teachings connect with the festival.
The story of Chanukah takes place during a dramatic period of Jewish history. The ancient Greek Empire conquered and occupied Israel, and proclaimed various laws prohibiting the practice of Torah. There were many brave people who defied these laws and fought for their religious rights and freedoms – who continued to live in accordance with sacred Jewish values and practices. Through the bravery of the Maccabees, blessed by the miracles of G-d, Israel was eventually liberated from the Greek occupation and tyranny.
But before that victory many suffered at the hands of the Greeks. One such hero was the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer, whose teachings are recorded in Pirkei Avot. He lived and taught Torah, and was captured and sentenced to death for his defiance. The Talmud recounts the devastating moment, as Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer is being led out to his execution, when his own nephew – who had aligned himself with the Greeks, mocks him for his loyalty and faith. A painful, highly charged exchange ensues between them, which culminates in the heart-wrenching repentance of the nephew.
This episode is a microcosm of the epic battle of ideas between Judaism and Hellenism. Both systems valued wisdom and knowledge and learning, yet they were fundamentally different. The ancient Greek worldview prized the pursuit of intellectual greatness but in secular academic terms, disconnected from G-d and from His values. Torah has awesome intellectual power, but it’s a wisdom not removed from the human experience. It is a system of laws and ethics, given by G-d at Sinai, with the express purpose of integrating them into our lives; the Divine blueprint for how to live ethically, morally and spiritually, and enrich and inspire every facet of human experience. In essence, Torah is a formula for translating Divine wisdom into a way of life, and in so doing, transforming ourselves as people and elevating the world in which we live. The pursuit of this Divine wisdom is what Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer lived for, and in the end, died for.
It is the triumph of the Jewish worldview that we celebrate on Chanukah. Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer was brutally executed – yet the mighty Greek Empire is no more. Its philosophy, culture, language and infrastructure are no longer a living part of any society. And we, the children of Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer, are here learning Torah the way he did, in the same Hebrew language, observing the same mitzvot, living the same Sinai values and vision. Every aspect of Jewish life as it was then remains intact.
It is a remarkable story. At the time when the Greek Empire was in control of the land of Israel (and much of the known world), who would have thought it would be Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer and his legacy and ideals that would outlast them? But here we are today, more than 2 000 later, with a deep, enduring connection to the proud legacy of our people.
Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer captures the vision and values of Sinai in one concise statement recorded in Pirkei Avot: “Let your home be a meeting place for the sages.” (Chapter 1, Mishna 4) What he is advocating is something quite radical: the reimagining of a home not merely as a place of residence, but as a place of Torah learning.
Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer is telling us that Torah learning should not be limited to official institutions – shuls and schools and yeshivot (which, of course, are important places to express our Jewish identity). He is telling us that every Jewish home can be a Beit Midrash, a house of learning, bustling with the energy and inspiration of Torah study. Torah learning begins at home.
The home is the heart of Jewish life. It’s the place where history is made, where a new generation is raised with Jewish values. And the values that our children grow up with at home are the values they naturally live by as they chart their own course in life.
A Jewish home has a number of pillars – the beauty and harmony of Shabbos, the positivity of a loving marriage and nurturing parenting, the values of kindness and integrity, a kosher kitchen – and together with these, Torah learning is central to creating a genuine Jewish atmosphere in the home, an environment in harmony with G-d’s values and vision. It’s a platform for families to engage with each other on an emotional, intellectual and spiritual level. The phrase used by the mishna, “meeting place”, implies a space of robust discussion and debate, of real conversations between people. It is an opportunity to come closer to one another and to connect with each other across the generation gap through our Torah legacy.
It is also an opportunity to enter into conversation with the generations that have come before us. Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes that “a meeting place for the sages” refers also to the great sages of Jewish history – that as we study their words and engage with their ideas, we enter their world.
A page of Talmud spans centuries and continents as we encounter its great sages. And when we learn Torah at home, we are, in a sense, inviting them in. Open up a Chumash with Rashi, and suddenly you have the great French medieval commentator on the couch beside you, walking you through the simple meaning of the verse. Delve into a page of Mishna, and Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir walk through the door. By establishing our homes as places of Torah learning, they become animated with the thoughts and teachings of our great sages. They become a meeting place for their words and ideas.
When we learn the teachings of our great sages, we enter into a global cross-generational conversation that began 3 300 years ago at Mount Sinai, when G-d initiated the conversation. That’s really what Torah learning is about – a dynamic conversation with the great sages of Jewish history.
And so, as we light our Chanukah candles, we reflect on the heroism of Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer, and those like him, who fought bravely for Torah values, taking on a great empire. We celebrate the fact that we continue their awesome legacy. And we remember that his call to make our homes places of Torah learning reflects his struggle with the ancient Greek Empire.
Torah is living wisdom – it’s a wisdom that doesn’t sit stagnant in books and libraries and ivory towers. It’s a wisdom we live with each day of our lives. It’s not just an intellectual curiosity, it’s a transformative experience. And it’s this transformational wisdom for life that we bring into our homes – the places where we live, where Torah comes alive. This is Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer’s vision. This is his legacy. And we are here to continue it.