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Happy Hanukah!

To celebrate the first night of Hanukah we have excerpted a tale from Howard Schwartz’s Gabriel’s Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales. In this magical book Schwartz has collected the greatest tales, of mystical experiences among the rabbis, which can be found in the Talmud, the Zohar, Jewish folktales, and Hasidic lore. Below is one tale from the collection, which happens to tell a Hanukah story. Not to be too cheesy, but isn’t a good story the best gift of all?

The Blind Angel

Among the Hasidim of Reb Mordecai of Chernobyl was Rabbi Eliakim, a merchant of great wealth and Hanukah
a collector of rare and precious religious objects. So wealthy was Reb Eliakim that he even owned his own scroll of the Torah, which was prominently displayed in an Ark that had been built into one wall of his living room.

Once Reb Mordecai came to pay him a visit, and Reb Eliakim was beside himself with joy, proudly showing off his precious objects to his rabbi. And each time Reb Mordecai seemed pleased by a particular object, Reb Eliakim had it wrapped and placed in a crate for the rabbi to take back with him.

Before long the crate was almost filled with silver goblets, embroidered matzah and challah covers, and other precious treasures of Reb Eliakim, and at last the rabbi rose to take his leave, thanking Reb Eliakim for his generosity. At that moment the rabbi’s eye fell on a beautiful antique silver menorah, which was one of Reb Eliakim’s most prized possessions. For a long time the rabbi stared at that menorah, and Reb Eliakim and everyone else clearly saw that he desired it, yet Reb Eliakim could not bring himself to offer it, for it was a priceless heirloom.

Finally it was the Rabbi of Chernobyl who broke the silence, asking, as a special favor, for the silver menorah. Everyone watched Reb Eliakim closely, for they knew how much he prized that menorah, and they saw that he was struggling with himself. At last Reb Eliakim ordered his servant to wrap the menorah, place it with the other gifts, and carry the crate to the rabbi’s carriage.

When they returned home, the rabbi had the crate opened, and displayed all of the gifts he had received from Reb Eliakim except for the silver menorah, which was kept in storage. His Hasidim did not understand why he had asked for it or why he did not display it, but they dared not question the rabbi.

Time passed, and Reb Eliakim took his leave of this world, and eventually the episode of the silver menorah was forgotten. Ten years later, on the eve of Hanukah, Reb Mordecai had the menorah brought out of storage and prepared for lighting. As the flames burned brightly, reflected in the polished silver of the menorah, Reb Mordecai told his Hasidim a tale.

“This menorah once belonged to Reb Yosef David, who was a rich man for most of his life but then fell upon hard times. Reb Eliakim desired this menorah for many years and often tried to purchase it, but no matter how much he offered, Reb Yosef David refused to sell it, for this menorah had been in his family for many generations. However, when his situation grew desperate, Reb Yosef David went to Reb Eliakim for a loan. Reb Eliakim agreed to give him a generous loan, with the silver menorah to serve as security. But when the loan was due, Reb Yosef David could not repay it, and thus he had to relinquish the menorah to Reb Eliakim.

“Now, as we know from Reb Pinhas of Koretz, every good deed creates an angel. But if a deed is imperfect, it produces an imperfect angel. In giving Reb Yosef David a loan, Reb Eliakim did a good deed, and therefore an angel came into being. However, because his intentions were not completely pure, Reb Eliakim’s angel was blind.

“After his death, Reb Eliakim was brought before the heavenly court. His good deeds and bad deeds were weighed, and they balanced exactly. All at once the blind angel took its place on the right side of the scale, and it tipped in Reb Eliakim’s favor. Seeing this, the heavenly court ruled that Reb Eliakim might be permitted to enter Paradise, but since his margin was so narrow, he would have to be led there by the blind angel.

“Ever since, Reb Eliakim and the blind angel have wandered, and his soul has found no rest. For the blind angel could not find the way to Paradise. And without some special merit, he would have remained a wandering soul for many years to come. But tonight the light of this menorah reached all the way to the upper world, restoring the angel’s sight. Now, at last, the angel has been able to lead the soul of Reb Eliakim to his resting place in Paradise.

“Now you know why, long ago, I asked Reb Eliakim for his menorah. For it was the merit of this gift that he needed in order to repair the eyesight of the angel. I never used it until now, as I was waiting for the right moment. Last night, I saw Reb Eliakim, led by the blind angel, in a dream. From this I knew that they were close, and tonight, as the flames ascended, that they were passing over. And now Reb Eliakim is basking in the sacred light of Paradise.”

Eastern Europe: Nineteenth Century

From Admorei Chernobyl edited by Yisrael Yakov Klapholtz (B’nai Brak: 1971)’ This tale grows out of the period of Hasidic decadence, when the transmission of the Hasidic masters was determined on the basis of family rather than knowledge and leadership. At this time many rebbes became very affluent. Rabbi Mordecai of Chernobyl was a son of Rabbi Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl, the founder of the Twersky dynasty. This tale was clearly intended to justify Rabbi Mordecai’s wealthy lifestyle, and to refute the appearance of avarice by demonstrating that the silver menorah was not really of material importance to the rabbi but had deeper spiritual meaning. Note that Rabbi Mordecai has been able to see into the future, learning that the rich man will need the merit of giving away his precious silver menorah in order to guide his blind angel into Paradise. Because Rabbi Mordecai lights the Menorah on Hanukah, it can be assumed to have been a Hanukiah, a modified menorah for use during Hanukah. For another tale of future vision, see “The Tale of the Kugel,” p. 268. The notion of the imperfect angel is found in the tales and writings of Reb Pinhas of Koretz. See “The Angel of Friendship,” p. 213, and the accompanying note. The mystical aspects of the menorah in this tale suggest the even more symbolic interpretation of the menorah found in Reb Nachman of Bratslav’s tale of “The Menorah of Defects,” from Sipurei Ma’aysiot Hadasfjim (Warsaw: 1909) as follows:

Once a young man left his home and traveled for several years. After he returned, he proudly told his father that he had become a master in the craft of making menorahs. He asked his father to call together all the townsmen who practiced this craft, that he might demonstrate his unrivaled skill for them. That is what his father did, inviting them to his home. But when his son presented them with the menorah he had made, not everyone found it pleasing. Then his father begged each and every one to tell him the truth about what they thought of it. And at last each one admitted that he had found a defect in the menorah. When the father told his son that many of the craftsmen had noted a defect, the son asked what the defect was, and it emerged that each of them had noted something different. hat one craftsman had praised, another had found defective. And the son said to his father: “By this have I shown my great skill. For I have revealed to each one his own defect, since each of these defects was actually in he who perceived it. It was these defects that I incorporated into my creation, for I made this rnenorah only from defects. Now I will begin its restoration.”

The commandment to use a menorah is found in Numbers 8: i: And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto Aaron, and say unto him: When thou lightest the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the candlestick.'” This parable of Rabbi Nachman’s has been subjected to various interpretations. Since the menorah is a traditional symbol of the creation of the world in seven days, with the center light representing the Sabbath, the craftsman in the tale may be seen to represent God, and the defects those of the world, with all its imperfections. The craftsman may also be seen to represent the rebbe, who must reveal the defects of his Hasidim to them, so that they may begin the process of tikkun or restoration.

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