Today is July 9, 2020 /

The Other Other Other Hand

Published in Ayeka by Jeff Amshalem, Ayeka Senior Educator
Posted on December 22, 2019

One of my favorite teachings on Hanukkah comes from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Barditshov, known as the Kedushas Levi. Here is a very abridged version.

Unlike the Exodus from Egypt, which God in His great mercy performed without arousal from below, in the case of Hanukkah there was some help from below, in that the Hasmonean and his sons fought the army of Antiochus the wicked. Therefore when we light the Hanukkiah we say “establish the work of our hands for us” to hint that the miracle of Hanukkah was in part the work of our hands (in war), and that indeed God established the work of our hands, and granted us success…[In the Hanukkah addition to the same prayer we say] “You put the mighty into the hands of the weak.” Were not the Hasmonean and his sons very mighty? This is the meaning: They were such tzaddikim that they did not expect their victory to come from their might, but only from God. So they are called “weak,” in that they considered themselves so, because they knew that they would not win on their own, but only because of the help of God… Indeed, in the redemption of the Hasmonean and his sons Israel had a part, in that they made war. In anything that a person does there is a great test to see if he will believe that it is not his own deed that caused the outcome but that it came from God, the true helper. And in this matter we need to watch for the Creator, Blessed Be He, for by always watching for the Lord we can see that everything is from Him. It was by doing this that they merited the miracle of Hanukkah. So we light the Hanukkah candles, for a candle is light, which hints at the need for watching.

The Kedushas Levi seems to be thinking out loud as he works out who deserves credit for the miracle of Hanukkah. I can’t help but think of Tevya: “On the one hand, we helped God by making war…but on the other hand, we never thought we had any part in it, trusting only in God to save us…but on the other hand, that trust itself was a mighty feat, and the true job of a tzaddik is to always watch for God acting in the world…”

The Kedushas Levi’s struggle to articulate exactly who is doing the redemptive work is familiar to me and, if I can speak for them, my fellow Ayeka educators. While there is no such thing as an Ayeka theology we do believe in various ways that God does speak to us through the Torah. We ask questions like “What is God saying to you with this text?” Using the language of Rav Kook, we also talk about letting our souls speak to us as we learn the Torah, and the need for every learner to find his or her own voice. At the same time, we work with a variety of schools, teachers and learners, with very different outlooks and each with their own theology (often still in progress). One of the most powerful questions we are frequently asked – and one of the most difficult to answer – is articulated by versions of “So who is speaking here? Who are we listening for? Is it God or me?” Personally, I often start by saying, “Yes,” and then open up the conversation even wider, rather than trying to provide a narrow answer. Some people love this, and some people, I believe, leave the conversation feeling unsettled or frustrated that I can’t provide a clearer answer. 

To my ear, these questions are not only addressed to Ayeka – they are addressed to God. My response is not only as an Ayeka educator, but it is also as a Jew who lives in this ambiguity literally every moment of the day. I don’t believe it is up to us to answer this question, and I do believe the fact that we wrestle with such an insoluble question in Ayeka conversations shows that we are touching on profundity. We are not skirting the real issues, avoiding the real questions. I am reminded of the statement by the 20th-century theologian Niels Bohr, “The opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.” I will leave it to each learner to articulate his or her own answer, but I feel comfortable, like the Kedushas Levi, saying, “Only you can do this; you have to go it alone,” and “This is God speaking, working wonders.” Both statements are profound and deserve our attention. The most important thing is not to choose between them but to be humble, and to listen.