Did you ever come across an idiot? An irredeemable, irrevocable, complete, and total fool? Stupid beyond belief, obtuse as a wall, dumb as a doorknob? Meet Mrs. Mistake.
She just earned the Nobel Prize for stupidity, First Class Award for Blockheads, Championship of Foot in Mouth, Outstanding Award for Idiocy.
And boy does she know it. In fact, she’s the one up on the grandstand offering herself all of these awards.
Here is Mrs. Mistake in the corner. She is kicked away, out of the inner circle, marginalized, left over and left out. She’s busy raking herself over the coals, telling herself that she is evil through and through. A block of ice spreads through her veins, her heart thumps in her ears, blood rushes to her face, as the realization dawns: After what I did, there is no way in, no way out, and certainly no way back to what was.
Except that perhaps there is.
LIGHT AND DARKNESS IN THE CALENDAR
Using the creation of a child as a metaphor, it’s the male force which represents the flash of excitement, the newness and wonder, the burst of potential. The female force represents the slow and steady process of bringing that flash of potential into reality.
If he represents the eureka moment, the clarity and vision, she represents the opposite: the darkness and emptiness that comes when the light fades — as it always does — and then the slow nurturing of the spark until it comes again to life. Because of her receptive qualities, the feminine force is often referred to in the sources as he’eder (lack) or chasheichah (darkness). The male force is power, brightness, the shining glare of the sun; the female force’s playing field is the dark, empty night. The coupling of the two gives us the moon’s light, which starts out as a sliver and slowly expands to light up the darkness. This synthesis between male force and female force, to create a child plays itself over and over in Judaism.
One area where we see this interplay is in the Jewish calendar. The Sfas Emes points out the contrast between the first six months of the year (starting from Pesach), which are crammed full of Yamim Tovim: Pesach, Shavuos, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succos, and Shemini Atzeres, and the next six months which are absolutely silent, offering no biblical holidays at all.
The first six months are the inspiration-on-a-silver-platter months. The second six months, between Succos and Pesach, are an empty space, a dark place — a womb, if you will — ripe with opportunity, pregnant with potential. Within the darkness of those months lies a tiny memory, a refraction of the light, hidden from even the most discerning eye, waiting to either die or to be gently fanned to life. That new light, when it appears, will be infinitely more precious because it will represent the process of growth, and the bulldog-holding-onto-the-bone determination not to be overcome by darkness.
The “children” born from those (male) months of inspiration and the (female) blankness in the calendar are the holidays decreed by the Sages: Chanukah and Purim. They are the moon in the darkness of the winter, refracting the glow from the previous six months of holidays. (The Sfas Emes matches the d’Rabbanan holidays with their “primogenitor” biblical counterparts. While the “sun” of Shavuos produces the “moon” of Purim — when the Jews re-accepted the Torah from love, the “sun” of Succos produces the “moon” of Chanukah. As for Pesach, the Sfas Emes tells us, the “sun” of the holiday of redemption, will, in good time, produce a “moon” holiday, which will only be revealed at the Final Redemption.)
This cycle is folded even more tightly into the three months of Tishrei, Cheshvan, and Kislev. Tishrei is full to the brim with kedushah and towering edifices girded high by the many mitzvos of that month. It overflows with intensity, oscillating between waves of awe and joy, reverence and jubilation. Tishrei builds up to a crescendo on Shemini Atzeres and sails out in shining glory to make way for… Cheshvan. MarCheshvan. The bitter month — called so because it has no days of commemoration at all. The frothing river of Tishrei empties into the gaping blank that is Cheshvan. It is winter. Short days, long nights, chill creeping up our spines as we same-old, same-old back to our regular routines.
But the holiness of Tishrei has branded an impression on our souls, and it takes the barrenness of Cheshvan to awaken our longing for what was. Tishrei and Cheshvan together birth Kisleiv — and Chanukah — to our world.
YOU, ME, US
There’s something beautiful about the ability of the Sages to establish a holiday, and that too can be seen as a manifestation of the male/female dynamic.
Biblical mitzvos come from Above. They are an external imposition of G-d into our lives. The mountain was turned upside down over our heads; we were “forced” by G-d’s overpowering presence to receive the Torah, so overpowered that we actually fainted and had to be revived, the Midrash tells us. This facet of Kabbalas HaTorah was less about our relationship, and more about the overwhelming greatness of G-d.
In essence, all of the Biblical mitzvos carry this imprint. A biblically ordained mitzvah represents fear of G-d, the Maharal tells us. He commanded. You better hop to it.
Rabbinic holidays, on the other hand, represent love of G-d. The Jewish people weren’t commanded to establish those holidays — they aren’t because I have to, but because I choose to. I’m responding to Your overtures with my own. It’s the difference between making sandwiches for lunch because that’s your job and slipping some home-baked chocolate chip cookies into your loved one’s pocket.
With all the glory of the six months of Biblically ordained holidays, they are, in essence, Hashem reaching out to us. Chanukah and Purim, human-generated holidays, are gifts from us to Him. It’s our response to His invitation, our willingly entering into the relationship.
NEAR, YET FAR
Rashi tells us that when Aharon HaKohein saw that he was not on the roster of the nesiim at the Chanukas HaMishkan, he experienced a “weakening of spirit.” The sefarim tell us that this was because Aharon assumed that this was a sign that though he had been forgiven for his part in the Golden Calf, he hadn’t been reinstated to his former stature.
Addressing his discomfiture, Hashem tells him that he has another job: to prepare and light the Menorah, and that lighting the Menorah “will be even greater” than what the nesiim did.
Amidst the blazing glory of the Chanukas HaMishkan, the task of lighting the Menorah certainly did not look that exciting. What was so special about the Menorah that made it greater than what the nesiim had done?
The Ramban famously explains that Aharon’s task was greater because lighting the Menorah did not refer just to the Menorah in the Mishkan, nor just to the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdash, but to the Chanukah menorah that Klal Yisrael would light throughout the dark nights of galus. On humble windowsills and in magnificent mansions, in times of plenty and in times of starvation, with expensive olive oil and with little scraps of margarine, our Chanukah menorahs would be the direct descendant of Aharon’s greater gift.
Apparently, there was something about the future lighting of the Chanukah menorah that was a response to Aharon’s “weakening of spirit.” This is because on Aharon’s exalted level, his “participation” in the Golden Calf caused a distance from Hashem, a winter-like, Cheshvan-like barrenness, an empty space. He had fallen into a gap that felt unbridgeable. While the empty second six months of the year are not directly a result of sin — in fact, they come after a stretch of incredible closeness — the darkness, the lack, and the distance that results from sin creates a similar dynamic to those empty months.
Many years later, when the battered, bedraggled little contingent of faithful Jews finally made it back to the Temple at the time of the Chanukah story and saw the horrendous desecration, they were not feeling triumphant. They knew that the damage done to the Temple was a reflection of their own distance from G-d.
The Temple was a microcosm of humanity’s relationship with G-d. What did it say about themselves and their own spiritual standing if everywhere they looked they saw only desecration, contamination, and profanity? Maybe this was a sign that they, too, were unsalvageable. Could anyone have blamed them for just giving up? There was no pure oil — and wouldn’t be for the next eight days. They couldn’t even light the menorah, so maybe G-d wasn’t interested in their service. And why should He be if they were really that bad?
Distance does that to a person. It saturates one with self-hatred, convinces one that there is no way to wash off the evil that feels branded into one’s very skin, makes one despondent, depressed. The reaction is often to give up and give in. I am what I am, and there is no way to change. I have seen the sun, but now I know only darkness.
The Greek exile is compared to a leopard, whose defining feature is azus (brazenness). The Maharal explains that there was a brazenness in Alexander’s desire to spread his worldview everywhere. His “my-way-or-the-highway” approach was not just about being bigger and stronger and thus able to beat people up. It was more about saying: I know best and everyone else is entitled to my opinion.
That brazenness, like every other negative middah, has its pure counterpart, which is called azus d’kedushah. To understand what this is, imagine a boss who fires his worker but then relents when the worker begs forgiveness. The boss agrees to rehire the former employee, but relegates him to a small office in the back corner instead of his former, spacious front office.
Imagine that instead of gratefully slinking to the back office with his tail between his legs, the worker announces that he isn’t coming back to work until he gets the front office again. There is a word for that kind of behavior in Webster’s dictionary — it’s called chutzpah!
Chutzpah is a Jewish kind of thing and, boy, was it needed during the Chanukah story! In truth, given the context of the event, it wasn’t necessary for the oil to be pure. In times of war, when dead bodies abound, certain levels of purity are waived. But the Jews of Chanukah refused to take the back office. They were determined to come back into G-d’s embrace and to come back full force. They insisted on using pure oil to light the menorah even though there was obviously no point, because by the next day it would burn out and they wouldn’t have any more. But they wouldn’t take no for an answer: Pure oil represented a higher level relationship and they were going for the gold.
Yet as anyone in a relationship knows, brazenness only works up to a point. At the end of the day, you can’t force it; there has to be a willingness on the other side. Holding the mountain over our head was only half the picture. The other half was us willingly saying, “We will do and we will listen.”
How would Hashem respond to them setting up camp in their former “front office”? The Jews waited breathlessly, two days, three days, four, five, six, seven, eight! On the calendar, the eighth day of Chanukah is called “zos Chanukah” — this is Chanukah. A deeper reason for this is because it was only on the eighth day that the message of Chanukah really shone through. When G-d let that little flask of pure oil burn for the eight days necessary to procure pure oil again, it was then that the Jews knew that they had been reinstated to their former standing.
CASCADE OF LOVE
Imagine a most delicious waterfall of forgiveness, cascading over Mrs. Mistake, caressing her wounded, crippled soul, cleansing her open wounds, smoothing out wrinkles of worry and lines of despair, loosening the layers of smallness and pettiness inscribed in her heart, dousing the burning coals over which she has raked herself — and you can easily picture why the Jews of Chanukah burst into song at the miracle of the lights.
What more appropriate response to that avalanche of love that forgiveness signifies than song? As the Sfas Emes points out, it was the bnei binah, the ones steeped in understanding, who knew enough not just to sing but to establish (kavu) this song (shir u’renanim) for all of history. They understood that by reaching up to the heavens and pulling down the fertile lights of the holidays into the barren months of the winter, by refusing to be left in the dark, we could light up the galus. Aharon’s gift would be the gift that keeps giving down through the ages. Strangely, the word galus, exile, is related to the word galui, “revealed.” It is in the he’eder, in the chasheichah, that new life is born, and light shines.
Miriam Kosman is a lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, an outreach organization that teaches Torah to thousands of Israeli university students. Her book, Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism, presents the paradigm on which these columns are based. Parts of this article are based on a shiur given by Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner, zt”l. L’havdil, the title of this article is the first line of a well-known poem by Dylan Thomas