Sunday, December 16, 2007

Derashah: Chanukah 5768: The Day of Small Things

The Derashah:

Zecharyah’s Yom Ketanot
With just four words the prophet Zecharyah summed up a problem which plagued the Jews of his generation - and which persists in plaguing us twenty-five hundred years later.
In Zecharyah’s day, like today, Jews lived in assimilated exile, then gained a homeland due to the mercy of a foreign power - they gained it from the Persian Empire, we gained it from the UN.
In Zecharyah’s day, like today, most Jews opted to remain in exile rather than move to their restored homeland.
In Zecharyah’s day, like today, Jews who did come back to Israel joyfully celebrated their return, but their enthusiasm waned after they encountered practical difficulties
Zecharyah summed up the malaise of his generation with the four words, “מי בז ליום קטנות,” “We degrade the day of small achievement.” The Jews of his day looked at their glorious past, at their memory of the majestic and miraculous first Beis haMikdash, at fire descending from heaven to the altar and the mysteriously spacious room in which they gathered on Yom Kippur, at the Aron holding Moshe’s Luchos, and they contrasted that with the small steps of their own day, at their strife with the Samaritans, at their own spiritual and economic poverty, and said, “We are in a Yom Ketanot, we are accomplishing nothing!”

Our Yom Ketanot
Twenty-five hundred years later, we, too, degrade the Yom Ketanot. We, too, contrast our present with our past and find today’s progress depressingly insufficient.
Last week we marked the 60th anniversary of November 29, 1947, the day the UN approved Partition and the formation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab state.
It’s true, November 29, 1947, was a great day, and it cannot be compared to today’s progress. That day re-wrote the story of Jewish identity, Jewish activity, Jewish learning and Jewish life, entirely transforming what it means to be a Jew.
Just two years earlier Jews had no place to go, no refuge from the Holocaust; now we suddenly had a place to go - and Jews used it, coming from Yemen and Iran and Egypt and Ethopia and the former Soviet Union and Argentina and France.
With the demolition of European Jewry, the Yeshivot died and Torah was adrift - but now the remaining seeds found a place to take hold, sprout and thrive, so that today we have a home for yeshivot and study, and Jews from around the world can go to Israel to spend a month or a year or a lifetime immersed in Torah.
A beaten and downtrodden nation had lost its pride, and the next generation asked itself, “What future can there be for a Jew?” And November 29th answered the question with an emphatic exclamation point - Yes, there is a future for the Jew!
And now, sixty years later, immersed in wars both cold and hot, drowning in intramural religious and political strife, working incrementally on questionable peace treaties and investigating corrupt governments, we, like Zecharyah’s generation, are בז ליום קטנות, we degrade this modern day of small progress.
As Rav Elisha Aviner wrote in Lev Avot, “האידיאלים קטנו, ההנהגה קטנה, החברה הישראלית שפופה, היהדות התגמדה במדינה, הציונות והחלוציות קטנות. יש נסיגה ערכית מתמשכת מכל מה שעורר בעבר התפעלות, יש שחיקה של כל הגדלות.” “Ideals have shrunk, leadership has shrunk, society has become small, Judaism has shriveled in the land, Zionism and Pioneerism have become small. There has been an extended withdrawal from everything that used to inspire, there has been an erosion of greatness.”

The Haftorah of Hope
But Zecharyah, in the Haftorah of this morning, offered a solution for our national Jewish lethargy. Zecharyah taught that for us to hope, to accomplish, to again move mountains, we need to train ourselves to look past small potatoes and eye big things. Zecharyah promoted the idea that the day of Big Things is not over.
In our Haftorah, Zecharyah envisioned Yehoshua, the Kohen Gadol of his day, clad in בגדים צואים, filthy clothing. The filth of Yehoshua’s clothing represented our exile, our sense that we will never cut it, that we will never have a Beis haMikdash.
And in Zecharyah’s vision, HaShem told a malach to remove Yehoshua’s filthy clothing and replace it with resplendent Bigdei Kehunah, the glorious garments of the Kohen Gadol. Stop seeing yourselves as terminally small; you are Bnei Yisrael, and you will have a Beis haMikdash, and a Kohen Gadol, and all of their associated splendor. Just visualize it.
The solution to being בז ליום קטנות, the way to stop degrading the day of small things, is to break away from the everyday and think BIG, to think of BIG ideas and to develop BIG dreams.

The lesson is as true today as it was in Zecharyah’s day, and it is as applicable for personal lives as it is on the national scene. When we are forced to spend our time on picayune duties when we find our horizon reduced to the few feet in front of our faces, when we become בז ליום קטנות, it’s time to retrain our vision on Big things, to realize that Yehoshua does not have to wear בגדים צואים, filthy clothes, but instead he wears the uniform of the Kohen Gadol.
When the emotionally eroding tasks of parenting children through sibling squabbles, homework hassles and bedtime battles take their toll, we can turn our eyes to the Big picture, to their ultimate health and spirituality and happiness, realizing that if they are learning, if they are healthy, if they are happy, then these little day-to-day specifics are all adding up to something great, and we are accomplishing something big.
When the small defeats in our spiritual growth wear us down, when we grow tired of the challenge of getting up and davening daily or watching every word for lashon hara, we can turn to the canvas of our big achievements - keeping kosher, keeping Shabbos, performing acts of Chesed for each other.
Yosef, day-to-day slave and prisoner, understood he could channel Divine wisdom, and so he got out of jail.
The Chashmonaim, contending with day-to-day internal strife and intimidating odds, envisioned themselves battling the Greek empire, and created the Nes Chanukah.
And Zecharyah, and his partner navi Chaggai, dealing with day-to-day poverty and ignorance and logistics, convinced the Jews they could restore the Beis haMikdash. What it took was that vision of Yehoshua shedding his filthy clothes, and donning the grandeur of the Kohen Gadol.

HaShem will help us achieve those big goals
We might ask: When we turn from everyday smallness to the Big picture, what guarantee do we have that we will succeed in reaching that great goal?
This was the second part of Zecharyah’s vision of Yehoshua Kohen Gadol.
The filth of Yehoshua’s clothing represented the message of every prophet the Jews have ever known - the criticisms of Moshe and Eliyahu, of Yeshayah and Yirmiyah, of Amos and Micha - the message that we, as a nation, don’t measure up, that we, as a nation, are immersed in sin and have lost our worth.
But after HaShem removed the filthy clothing from Yehoshua, He told Zecharyah to tell the people, ראה העברתי מעליך עוניך, behold, I have removed your sins from you. You are worthy, and I will help you. The Big things will come, לא בחיל ולא בכח, not through wealth and strength, כי אם ברוחי, but rather through HaShem’s assistance.
This is why I can turn my attention from day-to-day smallness, why I can believe in the Big Picture - Because I believe in Zecharyah promise that Gd will help me achieve those Big goals.
The Gemara (Sotah 48b) conveys the same message through another take on Zecharyah’s line, מי בז ליום קטנות. The Gemara reads it homiletically as מי בז ליום? What caused our day to be degraded? What caused us to lose our strength? קטנות, a smallness, a lack of belief that we deserve HaShem’s help. The answer to our question is that HaShem will help us reach those Big goals.

Closer: Rav Elisha Aviner
To quote Rav Elisha Aviner again, in the context of the situation in Israel, לא עת להפנות עורף למדינה, לא עת לסלוד מהחברה הישראלית - It is not the time to turn our backs on the state, it is not the time to step back from the community.
The same message applies to us here. The יום קטנות is not a day to become depressed and cowed. Rather, this is a day to think Big, to plan Big, and to trust Zecharyah’s promise of כי אם ברוחי, that HaShem will bring us the rest of the way.

Further thoughts:
1. Rav Elisha Aviner's essay is available on-line at
2. Surely the mishnah in Pirkei Avos, אל תהי רשע בפני עצמך, fits into this theme.
3. When do we look at our poverty and say "We can make this big," and when do we say, "We're on the wrong path?"

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