The Chanukah story is a story about persistence in the face of evil—a story of not giving up on your values no matter what. Although the Maccabees were significantly outnumbered they never wavered. They had faith that with Gd’s help anything was possible and miraculously they were rewarded for their faith and prevailed!
I want to share with you today 2 stories about Chanukah that makes the same point. the 1st took place in the Hell that was Bergen Belsen, Rabbi Shraga Shmuel Schnitzler—more commonly known as Reb Shmelke—knew only too well what would happen if he couldn’t find a way to fulfill the mitzvah of the Chanukah menorah. (Libi Astaire www.aish.com):
His fellow prisoners were clinging to life only by a slender thread of hope. Once that thread was snapped, they might succumb to the deep sea of dark despair that threatened to drown them. He had to find some oil—even if only enough for a few seconds on the 1st night.
Reb Shmelke’s job was to remove dead bodies of those who died the previous night from the barracks. A few days before Chanukah, while he walked across a field, his foot got caught in a small hole in the frozen earth and he almost fell. He removed his foot from the hole and noticed that there was something buried inside. After making sure that no guards were watching, he knelt down to see what it was.
He pulled out a small jar from the ground. By some miracle, inside was some congealed liquid—oil, oil for Chanukah! Reb Shmelke then reached his hand inside the hole again and to his delight he discovered a carefully wrapped package. Inside were 8 little cups and 8 thin strands of cotton. It was obvious that a Jewish prisoner had buried this makeshift menorah and the oil.
Although Reb Shmelke desperately wanted this oil for his own barracks, he sincerely hoped that the Jew who had buried these things was still alive and would come back for them to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. So Reb Shmelke carefully reburied everything. For the next few days he asked every Jew that he met the same question: “I found some oil and a menorah. Maybe you were the one who hid them?”
The other prisoners looked at him with sad eyes, certain that at last the horrors of Bergen Belsen had destroyed his mind. “No, Rabbi,” they said, one after another, “I didn’t hide any oil. I didn’t hide a menorah.”
When the 1st night of Chanukah came, however, they saw, to their amazement, a little menorah standing on one of the bunks. To their even greater surprise, one of the cups was filled with oil! Reb Shmelke recited the blessings and lit the light for the 1st night. They all watched in silence while the tiny flame fought its eternal battle against the surrounding darkness. Some smiled, most cried. Everyone felt a sweet spark of hope inside their embattled and embittered hearts. Their own personal miracle was repeated on each night of Chanukah.
Now that you’ve heard the story, as Paul Harvey used to say, now here’s the rest of the story:
Several years after the war Reb Shmelke made a trip to the United States and paid a visit to an old friend, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe. While they reminisced, the Satmar Rebbe mentioned that he too had been in Bergen Belsen. “I escaped Bergen Belsen on the 21st of Kislev, 4 days before Chanukah,” said the Satmar Rebbe. “Before I found out about the rescue plan, I had bribed several camp guards and put together a package of oil, cups, and wicks, which I then buried in a field. I always felt badly that my little menorah was never used.”
Reb Shmelke smiled. “Your menorah was used. In fact, it dispelled the darkness for hundreds of Jews.”
The next story took place in Poland in the winter of 1944. (I’m indebted to Rabbi Jack Reimer who shared this story with me.) The Jews who were not taken by the Nazis went into hiding. Among them was the Shinar family. They found refuge with a neighbor in a 6½ by 8½ft. attic bunker. In that closet-sized bunker, the Shinar family lived for 2½ years! Can you imagine? And in those cramped quarters, they somehow managed to observe some kind of a Shabbat and Jewish holidays:
In the midst of that darkness, how could this family even think of observing Chanukah, the festival of lights? Even normal light was hard to find. There were only 2 tiny peepholes in the outside wall, which enabled them to distinguish night from day. Certainly, there were no latkes—only some scraps of food brought to them.
For 17-year-old Yisrael Shinar, the only thing he had in abundance was time. And so he spent his waking hours, during the fall, trying to figure out some way to improvise some kind of Chanukah. During their 1st Chanukah in the bunker they marked the 8 days by drawing a menorah. Every day of Chanukah, they would pencil in one more flame. That was the best they could do.
But in the 2nd year, Israel came up with an idea. There was a boy in their host’s family who was roughly his age. Israel dared to ask him if he could collect some of the wax left over from the candles in his home. The boy agreed, and for several weeks, he brought tiny bits of wax to the bunker when he came to deliver their meagre food. Yisrael took these bits of wax and a bit of thread to make wicks and that year the family lit candles together in honor of Chanukah.
In January 1945, the family was liberated. The Shinars went to their old home and found a pharmacist living in it. They met soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, who helped them get across Poland, across Czechoslovakia, through Germany, and finally to Palestine. But the story of those Chanukah candles never left him.
And now here’s the rest of this story:
Israel Shinar went on to become the owner of the Menorah Candle Factory in Israel—the largest candle manufacturing company in the world. In the last 50 years, Shinar’s company has manufactured 3.6 billion candles! Millions of Jews now use Israel Shinar’s candles—which come in 8 different colors for the 8 days of Chanukah.
Can you imagine? Someone who started out making candles for Chanukah out of little pieces of wax and thread that he somehow made into wicks in a dark and tiny bunker became the world’s largest manufacturer of Chanukah candles? Is this not a Chanukah miracle?
Is it not a miracle that, even in that deepest darkness of that crowded closet where he and his family lived for more than 2 years, Israel Shinar believed in bringing more light into the world—not in cursing the darkness? Is it not a miracle that when he got out and made his way to Palestine, Israel chose not to wallow in self-pity, and not to brood or fester or seek revenge, but that instead he chose to rebuild his life and bring more light into the world?
May all of us learn from Reb Shmelke and Israel Shinar what a true miracle is. May we, like them, strive to increase the light in this world—especially during Chanukah. And may the Gd who gave them the ability to hope and the courage to try, give us some of these qualities too, so that we can retell the Chanukah story every year—by the lights we kindle in our menorahs, by the lights we kindle in the hearts of others, and by the way we live. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis