This beautiful essay of my grandfather, Rabbi Bernard Poupko Zt”l was published in 1974 in the RCA Sermon Manual and is a beautiful testimony to who he was and how much he cared for others.
The Halakhah, Jewish Law, is clear and precise on this issue even as it is on any weighty and complex problem in human life. Thus, the Chafetz Chaim in the Mishnah Berurah rules: “And if he has just enough oil for the eight days of Channukah so that he could kindle each night an additional light and his neighbor has none at all, let him share his oil with his neighbor even though as a result of it, he will be able to kindle only one light on each of the eight Channukah days.” The Chofetz Chaim implies that it is preferable to involve another Jew in the performance of a mitzvah even when it will reduce one’s own status from a mehader min hamehadriln, a very scrupulously observant Jew, to a merely mehader, an observant Jew. Here the Sage of Radun by his wise Halakhic ruling offers a desperately needed guideline for those of our generation who are confronted with an agonizing dilemma as to whether one should keep all of the oil for oneself and add another light each night to his Menorah in keeping with his desire to perform the mitzvah to the very best of his ability, or whether he should share the oil with his neighbor and help him banish some of the darkness of religious illiteracy and Jewish complacency from his own home.
Quite understandably and quite naturally those in our ranks who from their very early childhood have been exposed to the majesty of Torah living and Jewish observance are eager not only to preserve their spiritual status quo but even to enhance it by voluntarily insulating themselves from the general community. They have justifiable fears about flirting with a counter-culture and exposing their children and themselves to diluted and minimal standards of Jewish religious commitment.
However justifiable and understandable this attitude may be, one can hardly ignore the extraordinary challenges which confront us Jews of the post-Auschwitz era and the Six-Day War euphoria. On the one hand, we are witnessing one of the greatest miracles in our entire history, the Messianic re-awakening of our Soviet brethren and the impressive inroads which the Torah way of life is making amongst an ever growing number of our youth who rediscovered their people and their heritage. On the other hand, however, we cannot ignore the frightening defection from our ranks of sizeable numbers of the estranged and the culturally disadvantaged amongst us. In alarming numbers they are being attracted to the witchcraft and the pagan sensuousness of the East. These are young people who were denied the precious advantages of the authentic Jewish lifestyle by religiously illiterate and Jewishly indifferent parents-and also by synagogues and temples who paid more attention to memorials and Yahrzeit plaques than to a disowned Jewish child.
When the famed Maggid of Dubno was asked by the Gaon of Vilna: “I am told that you are a famous Maggid who can speak to the very hearts of those who listen. Now from time to time, like anyone else, I am in need of admonition. Therefore, I beg of you, give me a lesson in Musar (ethics) for I need it badly!’ Dumbfounded, the Maggid asked for a few minutes grace. How could he, the country preacher from Dubno, presume to lecture the most eminent scholar of the age? Was it his place to attempt to move the heart of so great a man? In the end he gathered his courage and began: “In this week’s portion of the Torah – it was Vayera, we read that G-d said to Abraham: ‘If there are only fifty righteous men in the midst of the city of Sodom, I will save her.’ Now what does the Torah mean by explicitly mentioning ‘the midst of the city?’ The Lord says: ‘It is not pleasing to Me to see righteous men living in seclusion, and poring over My sacred teachings in the privacy of their homes without taking any notice of the troubles and sorrows of their neighbors. I need men who are outstanding, but who will not stand apart from their neighbors. I need men who will live in the very midst of the city not only in body but also in spirit, who will devote their energies to being a good influence on their fellow-men and who will work to the end that the entire community shall live in keeping with My commandments’.” The Gaon sadly nodded his head for the reprimand had found its mark. He knew that he did not readily mix with others and had taken little interest in the affairs of the community. This was part of his greatness, but it was also a grave weakness for a man of his stature. And the venerable Gaon of Vilna bowed his head and shed tears of genuine repentance. Just imagine if the Gaon of Vilna, a giant among giants, who enriched Torah scholarship with some 70 volumes on the Oral and Written Tradition, the Gaon of Vilna who almost singlehandedly brought about the great renascence of Torah learning in Eastern and Central Europe, if this Gaon shed tears upon the realization of the grave consequences which his withdrawal from the community might have caused, how much more so must we of this generation be concerned when we consider how many golden opportunities we might have missed through our withdrawal and isolation.
Thus, officers of a day school deliberating about the advisability of admitting into their school a group of students from the public school whose Jewish background, knowledge and practice is rather limited cannot ignore the responsibility and the opportunity of exposing more and more of our youth to Torah learning and Torah living. Quite, true, there is an element of risk. The newcomer with his meager knowledge and unJewish lifestyle may even weaken the furm commitment of his classmate who had the advantage of an early start in the yeshivah. The parents of the newly admitted student, with their distorted views of Judaism or no views at all, may not strengthen the spirit and the enthusiasm of the yeshivah PTA. Yet as the Chanukah Halakhah teaches, we must occasionally deny ourselves the understandable sense of security and satisfaction of being a Mehader Min Hamehadrin so that our neighbor may also eventually become involved in and exposed to our Torah way of life. Likewise, the observant businessman or professional with a fine yeshivah background must think twice before he abandons the community Synagogue in favor of the Shtibel as his place of worship. Quite understandably, he may achieve a higher level of Kavanah, of spiritual ecstasy and religious pathos while praying together with people of his own background and outlook with whom he shares his own aspirations and his own goals in life. Yet, if this Ben-Torah would realize how much he could achieve by remaining in the Synagogue and upholding his own standards among his less fortunate, religiously underprivileged brethren, he would think twice before abandoning the shul. Can one possibly assess the potential good which his own background and enthusiasm could cause among the other worshipers?
Elie Wiesel in his Souls On Fire relates how one day the Guerer Rebbe decided to question one of his disciples: “How is Moshe Yaakov doing?” – The disciple didn’t know. – “What!” shouted the Rebbe, “you don’t know? You pray under the same roof with him, you study the same texts, you serve the same G-d, you sing the same songs, and you dare tell me you don’t know whether Moshe Yaakov is in good health, whether he needs help, advice or comforting ?” More than this. Rabbi Judah states: “He who deprives a student even from one single Halakhah, from a single Torah law or a Torah insight is compared to one who robs him of his ancestral possession as it is stated: ‘Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob’ implying that the Torah is an inheritance for all Jews from the early dawn of the six days of creation.” Clearly, it means that when I, the more privileged, do not share any Torah knowledge with my fellowman, I rob him of his portion.
This notion is substantiated by the Halakhic ruling that a person who has been banished for accidental murder to one of the designated Cities of Refuge, Arey Miklat, had to be accompanied by his Torah instructor because of the Biblical stipulation vechay, which implies that he shall live even while banished from the city, and life without Torah is virtual death. The very origin of Chanukah, historical and religious, pleads with us for an involvement with maximum effort for the minimum chance. Rabim b’yad me’atim, u’tmeim b’yad te’horim – “The many in the hands of the few and the contaminated in the hands of the pure” is indicative of the fact that, however serious the obstacle may be and however remote the chance for achievement, yet as long as there is left even one small can of oil within the sanctuary of the Jewish heart, we can kindle a new light which will last beyond the meager supply of that which is pure and that which has the stamp of the High Priest. In other words, Chanukah is an optimistic and resolute call to us not to be swayed by facts and statistics, but rather by the intrinsic value and the timeless truth and relevance of the heritage which has been entrusted to us for transmission to others. The very concept of the mitzvah of Pirsume Nissa – publicizing the miracle is a plea for more and more involvement into the life of our neighbor and a wholehearted identification with his spiritual needs and religious yearning. Thus, especially in the case of Chanukah, the Halakhah demands that we deny ourselves the prestige and the joy of mehadrin min hamehadrin – of being the super observant Jew in order to upgrade the level of observance of our neighbor and our fellow Jew. Chanukah demands that we share our oil with those who have none even at the cost of demoting ourselves to the category of a mehader from that of mehader min hamehadrin.