ColumnDecember 2015/January 2016

Of the Book


By Daniel Bortz

Eight years ago, I was learning in a Yeshiva in Toronto, Canada. That year, before Chankuah, I heard a well-known, true story from my friend Asher Sossonko. He relayed the story as follows:

My grandfather, Asher Sossonkin, was a Jew who practiced real self-sacrifice. Living in Russia, where it was illegal to practice or teach Torah, he nevertheless did his utmost to teach as many children as he could, until he was arrested and sent to a labor camp in Siberia. There my grandfather never gave up, and with his great wisdom and joyful demeanor, he was a beacon of hope to all of the Jews in the camp.

A particular Russian Jew, who was sent to the labor camp for crimes much less noble than spreading Torah, became very close to my grandfather. He learned a lot about his faith that he had never known, and began secretly to observe as much as he could in the camp.

As Chankuah approached, my grandfather taught this man about the holiday and the Menorah.

“But how are we going to light the candles here in the camp?” this man asked.
My grandfather replied: “Well, I will try and scrape together some potatoes and make holes in them. Then I’ll place string inside and light them. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we can do.” But this man would not stand for it. He wanted to do the best for G-d. So he used the connections he had in camp, and in exchange for a large sum, he was able to have a metal menorah constructed in time for the holiday.

On each night of Chankuah, with my grandfather leading the proceedings in the back of their bunkhouse, this menorah was lit, much to the consternation of their non-Jewish bunkmates. One night, on the fifth night of Chankuah, as my grandfather and this man watched the flames flicker, silently singing the Chankuah songs, they suddenly heard a shout: ”The commander’s coming!”

Before having a second to blow out the candles and hide the menorah, the door of the bunk swung open. At the entrance stood the commander. Staring at my grandfather, the commander shouted: ”P’yat!?” (five). My grandfather nodded, “P’yat.” The commander nodded back, and with that, he was gone.

When recounting this story, my grandfather always commented that perhaps this commander was none other than Elijah the prophet. But even if it was, he hadn’t come in his merit. He came because of this simple Jew, who in his great desire to make G-d happy, did his best to commemorate Chankuah in the most beautiful way he could.

The faith of the Jewish people is something very special. 2,154 years ago, the Syrian-Greek Hellenists tried to stamp out Jewish practice and beliefs. Our Sages point out that the aim of Greeks was not simply to uproot our Torah learning or Mitzvah observance. As an enlightened culture, they appreciated the great wisdom found in the Torah. Rather, they despised the spirit behind the practice, attributing the wisdom to G-d. They appreciated commandments that were logical, such as Don’t murder, Don’t steal, Set up courts of justice. But eating kosher? Putting on Tefillin? The Greeks desired to stamp out the G-d behind Torah wisdom and tradition. Jewish mystics liken oil to the essence of the soul, which, like oil when mixed with other substances, pervades all and rises to the top. When the Maccabees were victorious, they miraculously found one jug of undefiled oil to light the Menorah, forever to be lit by Jews around the world every year hence, signifying that the pure faith, the soul of a Jew and its light, will never be extinguished.


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