Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Meaning of Hanukkah
To dedicate this lesson

Chanukah Present


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Kislev 24 5776
2 min read
The winds of Chanukah always bring change. They sweep in the cold brisk air, and announce that winter has come in earnest. Upon the gusts of the Chanukah breeze one can sense, as well as feel, that a new season has arrived. And yet, as the sturdy traveler puts his shoulder to the wind and his collar to the cold, his step is lightened by warm anticipation. Inside his bones he knows that days of light and fire-glow are just ahead. And it lifts his spirits and lines his too-thin coat to know that Chanukah will soon temper the chill of snowy nights.

The wind rides upon invisible stallions, beginning in some mysterious and unknown corner of the earth, rushing forward in ever-increasing strength on its unceasing journey around the planet. The gust of wind which hits you squarely at the moment may have started a thousand miles away, as a gentle breeze, and it may travel a thousand miles more before it coasts softly back to heaven, where it will await new orders from its cosmic employer.

Upon the winds there comes an ancient journeyman, a traveler of time and space who circles the globe and appears as quickly as a windstorm, as capriciously as the gust which blows your hat down the street. It is Elijah, the rider of the Fiery Chariot, the messenger of hope and redemption, the watchful stranger who faithfully records the world's ebb and flow. In a thousand places, in a hundred centuries, Elijah suddenly appears, as if from nowhere, to see or to speak or to sigh or to celebrate. He might be the elusive minyan-maker, the tenth man; or he might be the soothing voice in times of fear and sorrow. He might be the honored guest at a Brit Milah, or the elusive dinner companion at the Seder. Wherever he appears, in whatever guise or mission, he reminds the world that certain values and ideals are as eternal as the wind, as constant as the breeze which bears him along.

Elijah gazes about as he walks through the streets of Zamoscz, his latest destination. A fine town this is, with paved streets and a dozen inns where a weary traveler might rest his soul, IF, that is, he had the Zlotys to pay for it. But Elijah has no coins in his pockets. In fact, he has no pockets at all! Only a long white robe that scrapes the ground, making sweeping tracks in the snow as he winds through the city, looking for signs of life.

In one hand Elijah carries a burlap sack, slung loosely over his shoulder. In this sack Elijah will collect the treasures he finds: Smiles of little children, songs of praise and glory, words of encouragement and consolation, acts of charity and kindness. He hopes to fill the sack before he departs, so that he will have many shining baubles to admire while he journeys to his next port of call.

In the other hand Elijah holds his staff, his walking stick. Is it fine sculptured wood, or is it black marble? It seems to be an extension of the prophet's arm, as it feels the ground in front of him or touches a branch to let the snow swirl softly to the ground. With a sweep of his staff, Elijah takes in all of the starry sky, surveying the neighborhoods, rich and poor alike, testing the air, it seems, to learn just what kind of place this is. Does he hold Moses' staff of miracles, able to split the sea or bring forth water from the rock? Or is this one of the pillars of the world, which hold the Earth together like nails in a chair? In either case, Elijah looks as regal as a king holding a scepter as he marches about the town.

Tonight is a special night, for it is the fourth night of Chanukah. As Elijah walks through the town, he can see the Menorahs burning in the windows, families gathered about the candles singing or laughing, the smell of freshly-fried latkes gently floating through the air. It does Elijah good to see so many of his people clinging to their traditions, because there was a time that zealous patriarch that he is, he questioned just how steadfast the people would be in their allegiance to the Law. He wondered how any nation could survive the tortuous road that the Jew would be asked to travel. And so, with each new evidence that the eternal people is alive and well, Elijah breaths a sigh of relief and pride.

But all is not totally well this evening, either. For as the venerable old man looks for a place to spend the night, away from the snow and wind, he is met with icy stares and cold shoulders. The townsfolk, busy celebrating Chanukah with their families, have no time for a stranger in their midst. Many pull their shutters closed when they see him approach. Others politely answer the door, but declare their tables full and their spare rooms occupied. They send him continually "down the road," where another kind soul might carry the burden of another guest for the night.

Elijah is not surprised at the reception he finds, for it is, indeed, a very busy evening, with candles to light, and gelt to distribute, and special foods to cook. And he knows that there is a constant stream of needy strangers coming to call, appealing frequently for assistance in these difficult times. Yet, still, the Chacham of the ages is vexed and saddened, for this is his Chanuka, as well, and who wishes to sing Maoz Tzur alone? And is it not written, "Open your hand to the poor man, even many times, for the poor shall not depart from this world?"

And so Elijah trudges on, seeking some respite from his wandering, looking for the one beckoning hand that will embrace his loneliness. And so he wisely guides his path towards the poorer section of the city, where the fine stone and brick houses turn into ramshackle shanties, where the paved streets end and the dirty cobblestone roads begin. Here, among those who know the bitterness of hunger and loneliness, the prophet is sure he will find a kindred soul.

Elijah spies a little cottage down the road, and heads for its door. The tiny clapboard shack leans drunkenly to one side, its white paint chipped and spotty. Only one lone window peers out from the facade, and even it is half-broken, a piece of bark stuck in the breach to keep some of the chilled air out. "Can anyone live in such a closet?" Elijah ponders, but he smiles when he sees a Mezuza upon the door. He knocks.

From inside two voices call out in unison, "We are coming!" and an elderly couple emerge. They are dressed in torn clothes, the man wearing a tattered woolen coat, and the woman with a patched blanket pulled around her to provide some bit of warmth. Their faces are lined with age, but a bright smile masks the exhaustion.

"Good evening, good friend!" they begin, and Elijah knows instantly he will have a place, such as it is, to escape the biting wind. The couple invites him into their home, which Elijah captures in a quick glance. One room, decorated only with a crickety table and three chairs, a large cot in one corner, covered with a quilt of many fabrics, and a faded picture of a bride and groom upon one wall.

"That is our wedding picture," says the woman, when Elijah glances at the wall. "This was our newlywed palace those many years ago, and it hasn't lost a bit of its charm since!"

The husband places a few branches in the fireplace, and lights a fire. A pot of soup is placed over the fire, a few carrots and onions simmering in water, with salt and pepper added for body. "G-d has been good to us this Chanuka, and we have a few vegetables still left from the garden. They aren't much, but we will share them with you." The woman takes out a half-loaf of bread, and a piece of herring. "When you eat with guests, any meal becomes a feast!" she beams, and she explains what a long time it has been since their table was shared by others.

As Elijah partakes of the banquet, a young girl walks in, carrying a pitcher of water and a little tub of margarine. "This is our daughter," says the husband proudly, "a gift from the Holy One in our old age. Someday, she will marry, also, and be as happy as we are in her own home." Elijah smiles, and notices the girl's cheeks, cold and red with the outdoor chill.

"And where have you been tonight, my dear?" says the prophet.

"I work for a family in the middle of town," replies the girl. "I wash their floors, and keep their place neat and clean. In return, they give me their old clothes, and their leftover food. That is how I received this little cruse of margarine."

"But that is not for eating," interrupts her father. "That is for our Chanukiya. In fact, it is time to kindle the Chanukah lights, now that all of us are together."

Elijah takes a hurried look about the room, but does not see a Menorah. But his host soon answers his unspoken question.

"When you do not have many possessions, you have to use your ingenuity and imagination," he says. And he takes from the window sill a plate containing four hollowed-out potato shells, scooping a bit of the margarine into each one. He then reaches into his pocket, pulling out some strands of thin flax, which he fashions into wicks.

"The potatoes are from last Shabbat's dinner, and the flax I saved from this year's Etrog holder. You see, G-d never wants anything He creates to go to waste!" He is quite satisfied with his Menorah, as happy as the owner of a gold or silver candelabra could ever be.

"And what a happy coincidence we have this night!" he beams. "The fourth night of Chanukah, and we have exactly four members of our family! Each one of us will have honor of lighting a light in the Menorah."

And pronouncing the blessings together, the husband, his wife and daughter, prepare to kindle their little potato lights. The newest candle, the greatest honor each evening, is given to the distinguished guest, and he gratefully begins the ceremony by lighting his flame. The oil burns with a clear, clean glow, its bluish tip rising above the window sill to where it could be seen by the passing citizenry.

After singing for a while in the light of the Menorah, the family begins to discuss the miracle of the oil, and how the little cruse with the official seal still intact managed to be a brave Macabee that long-ago night, battling the odds to give light to the Temple. And for a long time, they talk about the power of fire, and all it has done to help – and hurt - the human race. As they watch the flickering of the flame, they think of the precarious nature of life itself – especially Jewish life - which seems to teeter on the edge of existence sometimes, only to return in a blaze of glory, some new hero or work of scholarship bringing fuel to the fire.

When the last bit of oil had disappeared, it was deep into the night. The silence that enveloped the city gives witness to the lateness of the hour, as all the town has gone to sleep. Elijah rises to depart.

"Please do not leave!" pleads the good wife. "We shall gladly share our home with you, and our bed is yours to have for the night. We shall use the time to gather wood in the forests near town while you sleep, for now it is not so crowded, and we may cut the branches at our leisure. We can leave our house secure, knowing that while you are here all will be safe while we tend to our task.

And off into the dark night goes the husband, wife and daughter, while Elijah sleeps the sleep of kings. In the morning, when he awakes, there is a bowl of hot meal waiting for him, and an apple in his bag. His hosts urge him to stay on, but it is time for the prophet to depart.

"You have given me many gifts this Chanukah," says Elijah. "Friendship, food for thought and for eating, gracious hospitality, and the gift of peaceful sleep. In return for these precious gifts, I, Elijah the Prophet, wish to give something to you. And so I declare that on this fourth day of Chanukah, you shall have four wishes of your choice."

The couple and their daughter look at each other in amazement. Could this truly be the famous Elijah? Why not? After all, if you can believe in yourself, you can certainly believe in others! And while they did not befriend the prophet for a reward - after all, it made their Chanukah more joyous! - they would never deny anyone the opportunity of giving. And so they accept the prophet's offer.

Of course, choosing the wishes is not so simple a task, although it was quite enjoyable. In the end, the good-hearted nature of the family dictated just what they would select.

"For our first gift, we would like a bigger house," they say. "The kind of place where many guests could stay, with many bedrooms and a large kitchen, so all could eat together. And a garden, perhaps, where we could stroll on nice spring days and grow lots of vegetables. And, of course, lots of windows, all over the house, so we can see the sky, and the rain, and our neighbors coming by."

Without a word, Elijah lifts his staff into the air, stretching it to its full height towards the heavens. Then he begins to swing the rod around, faster and faster, until it makes a "whooshing" sound and swirls the air all about. Suddenly the wind begins to blow around the little cottage, shaking it to its very foundations. It seems to lift the walls right off the ground, and the good family closes their eyes out of fear and trembling.

When they look out again, they have to convince themselves they aren't dreaming. For they stand now atop white marble floors and under gold-inlaid ceilings, in the midst of a palace, a mansion. Tapestries rich in royal color and texture drape the walls, the couple reaching out to feel them with the wonder of a new parent holding their baby for the first time. But there is no time to explore the many hallways, or discover what lay at the end of the spiraling staircases, for the prophet speaks again:

"And what do you desire for your second wish?" he asks.

After much discussion, the family decides that if they are going to live in such a stately home, and entertain many guests and visitors, they would have to look presentable. And so they ask for fine clothes and dresses, the kind that would befit the master and mistress of such a dwelling.

Elijah again raises his staff, and the whirlwind fills the corners of the house, the "whoosh" of the rod filling the family with awe and anticipation. When the wind ceases, there they stand in the most magnificent of trappings. The old rags are gone; in their place are silk and chiffon robes, linen and leather breeches, dresses and shoes and coats of every color. Around their neck each of the family finds a weighty and stylish necklace of pearl or silver. There is a hat for every occasion, too, and belts with gleaming buckles. Suddenly, the mirrors become friends again, and the family marvels at how a person's outside could change so much that they barely recognized their insides anymore.

For their third wish, the family asks for wealth. "After all," they reasone, "we'll need to buy a great deal of food for our many guests, and treat them in a respectable manner. And think of how much charity we could give if we were wealthy!"

Again, Elijah raises his staff to the air, jabbing at invisible forces in the sky as he calls upon heaven and nature to intercede in his behalf. The mighty house rattles and convulses at the strength of the power unleashed, and several windows shatter from the force of the energy. The staff seems to glow with light as it spins furiously over their heads, and they watche, trance-like, as the room begins to fill with gold.

Soon they stand knee-deep in the shiny stuff, running their hands through the coins and nuggets and rings of gold, like a bather splashing about in a pool. A kind of silly delirium overtakes them, as they grow dizzy from imagining all that their new-found riches could buy.

There was, however, still one more wish to be had. "About our fourth wish," the father begins, "I think that. .... "

"Let me stop you for a moment," says the prophet. "You have chosen three grand wishes already, in a very short space of time. Why not think about your final wish for a time. I shall return one year from now, next Chanuka, and you shall receive your fourth wish then."

With that pronouncement, Elijah taps his staff upon the floor several times, and a bright light fills the room. What appeared to be a chariot all of fire descends from the ceiling, and in an instant, Elijah is gone.

The family surveys their blessings, admiring everything around them. They walk the length and breadth of the magnificent mansion, strutting about regally in their new outfits. They fill the home with servants, and soon it becomes the talk of the city. Parties ensue without end, and it was the unfortunate and luckless townsman who did not have a tale to tell about his revelry at the palatial estate stuck strangely in the middle of the poorest part of town.

A year's time passes. Elijah, man of truth that he is, returns exactly as he promised, on the fourth night of Chanukah. Walking up the beautiful rose-trimmed path to the door of the mansion, he knocks at the great brass ring on the door. There is no sound from within. After several more minutes of knocking and calling, Elijah uses some of the prerogatives at his disposal and slips airily into the house. Searching through the many rooms, he finally locates the family, huddled unceremoniously around a small table in the servants' quarters. Still dressed in their splendid clothes, the three nevertheless look downtrodden, tired and listless, almost as if they were trapped within their velvet and furs.

At the sight of Elijah, the family bolts from their seats, greeting the prophet with the embrace of a long-lost friend. "Thank G-D you are here," cries the wife, "we prayed you had not forgotten us."

"And how has your year been?" asks Elijah. "I have been so busy on my travels I haven't had even a moment to look in on you."

A kind of sadness seems to envelop the family as they sit down and begin to recount all that has transpired since they last saw Elijah.

"At first," says the father, "it was a dream come true. Everything we saw, or desired, or imagined, we came to possess. There was nothing out of our reach, nothing that the world could deny us. Or so we thought."

His wife continues the story. "This is an amazing house you granted to us. But after several weeks of partying and eating, of revelry and indulgence, we came to a bitter realization. None of our old and dear friends, who had meant so much to us, came to visit us anymore. They were much too embarrassed to be seen here, in their old clothes, coming from such poor hovels and shacks. They just didn‘t feel as if they fit in with the new people who were constantly our guests, and so they stopped coming."

"And our new ‘friends’ were hardly the treasures we thought they would be. Oh, they were refined and educated, of course. But all they seemed to care about was having a good time, about accumulating things and comparing their things to our things. Most of them were snobbish and shallow, and didn‘t care a whit about us as people. They just came to browse through our lives, like fancy shoppers at an exclusive shop."

"And these clothes!" chimes in the daughter. "They're elegant and handsome, but there is no end to them! We must match every outfit just so, spending hours choosing just the right hat to go with just the right bow. And of course, we must never wear the same outfit twice, for then we would be the subject of ridicule at the parties. How I long to wear my old clothes, so simple and comfortable, and not be on parade each time I emerge from my dressing room."

"And what of the wealth you now own?" says Elijah. "What of the gold and riches at your disposal?"

The husband draws a long breath, and sighs with weariness. "The money bought us beautiful objects, and a great deal of expensive food, which has fattened us up considerably." He laughs a bit as he pats his ample stomach. "But the money also brought a certain curse with it. Once the word spread that we had all this wealth, there was never a moment's peace for us. Every cause in town, every beggar and his rich brother, would appeal to us for help. It got to where we had to stop helping anyone because of the avalanche of commotion it invariably caused."

"And every group in town wanted us as part of their team. We were pulled in a thousand different directions, until we begged for the chance to just be alone. We had no time for the things we loved so much before, the singing and the story-telling, the sitting at leisure to read and share one another's lives. We stopped being a family, and we became a community function. The money bought us fame and prestige, but we paid dearly for it in time and simple pleasure. Like most people, we were blinded by the gold's luster, to where we couldn't see what was important and what was a worthless use of life."

Elijah looked at the family and smiled his wise little smile. "It seems you have gained an additional wish this past year," he said. "You have learned some-thing that very few ever learn. But tell me, have you decided upon your fourth wish? It is still coming to you, and I am here to grant it."

"We have long ago decided what our fourth wish would be," said the mother. "We wish to be happy."

Elijah’s face lit up with a special glow. And without a word, he lifted up that magnificent staff of his and began to strike about the sky. In a moment the ground began to tremble, and the room lit up in bright flashes of color. A dense smoke filled the air, and suddenly it was cold and clammy. A familiar smell filled the room, like the aroma of simple, root vegetables cooking in soup.

When the haze had cleared, the family looked about them. Gone was the palace, and in its place was the little shack with the chipped paint and cracked walls. Looking down at themselves, they saw that their fancy clothes had disappeared, and their old shirts and tattered dresses had returned. Nowhere to be seen were the mountains of gold, and only the broken-down little table and chairs and the cot with the patchwork quilt remained. In the air was a feeling of relief that only comes when you have gone home again.

As Elijah taps his rod upon the cold floor, he looks deep into the eyes of his friends. "Your fourth wish has been granted," he says, "and my mission is now at an end." And with that the prophet moves on to seek the truth in yet another locale.
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