Shabbat Channukah - Parashat Miketz
To be honest, that year, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Chanukah, and hadn’t really had much time to think about it. Our armoured battalion had recently come down from a few months up in Lebanon, and while I was thankful we would be spending the winter in Israel and not up in the freezing cold mountains of Lebanon, we were still in the process of overhauling the tanks; not a particularly enjoyable task.
We were so involved with the various procedures, lack of sleep, and greasy filth inherently involved with getting our company’s tanks back on alert status on time, that it was only a few hours before Chanukah when I realized that, having given no thought at all to the holiday, I had no menorah and no candles or oil; not even a dreidel.
A wave of depression swept over me, as I realized that I would be celebrating Chanukah all alone, surrounded by dirty, exhausted soldiers who didn’t place much stock in the holiday and at best could be expected to enjoy the movie night that week on the base. Worse, I found myself thinking that this year Chanukah was just going to be a big pain; we were on alert status in the Jordan valley, which was not a tense border, but as our tanks were charged with covering that area of the border I had no hope, as the youngest officer, of getting leave just to get some Chanukah candles, so I knew I would end up having to scrounge around every day for enough candles to light each night.
As the sunset, and the mountains of Jordan changed colors my mood worsened, as I remembered what Chanukah used to feel like, how much I always looked forward to it, and how depressing it was going to be to light a simple white Shabbat candle in a corner of the dining room.
It was at this point that a reserve duty soldier who was helping us overhaul the tanks that week, noticed that I obviously had something on my mind, and, to my surprise, wished me a happy Chanukah.
I guess he could see the surprise on my face, because he smiled and said:
“Mah’ Ha’ba’ayah? Atah Lo Rotzeh’ Chag Sameach?”
“What’s the matter? You don’t want a happy Chanukah?
At which point I must have launched into a long-winded explanation of how depressing it was to be alone on Chanukah, especially since one of the major points of the Chanukah celebration is supposed to be Pirsumah’ de’Nisah’, or publicizing the miracle. At this point, this fellow if my memory serves me, actually got annoyed with me, and said the only line from this entire experience that I remember with absolute clarity:
“Az Efoh Ba’Olam Yesh Makom Yoter Tov Lachgog Et Ha’Nes Ha’Zeh, Me’asher Ha’Makom Ha’Zeh?”
“So where else in the world is there a better place than here to celebrate the miracle of Chanukah?”
The guys were all starting to leave the tanks and head into the dining hall for dinner, and he grabbed me and told me to follow him, and we walked down to the edge of the line of tanks, where some spent 105mm shell casings were lying on the ground, waiting to be taken out to the ammo dump.
He grabbed a couple and gave me one, and started walking to the mess hall. Grabbing a shovel from the emergency fire stand, he started digging a small hole, and then threw me a shovel, and while I did the same, he shoved the empty tank shell casing into the edge of the hole, so I did the same with mine. Then he started shovelling some of the dirt into the shell casing, which was about waist- high, and by this time, I was grinning, having figured it out. When we were done, we had the largest makeshift menorah I had ever lit. We poured gun-oil on top of the dirt that was in each shell casing and then topped it off with some very flammable benzene (gasoline). And I grabbed a lighter and was about to light when he looked at me with horror and said: “what are you doing?”
I guess, again, he saw the confusion on my face, because he said to me:
“Mah’ Karah’ Lecha’? Lech Tikra’ Le'kulam!”
“What’s the matter with you? Go call everyone out here!”
So I went inside and made what I thought was a fairly weak announcement that we were lighting Chanukah candles outside, and that who whoever was interested should come join us. I figured it would actually be nice if a few guys decided to join us, but I never expected what actually happened. The battalion commander got up, looked around the dining hall, and strode outside to join us, at which point the entire base, at least a couple of hundred men, came outside to join us.
And then this fellow hands me a stick with a rag, dipped in some benzene he had put together and says’ go ahead and light’. But I refused to take it, feeling this was really his show, and he should absolutely have the incredible privilege of lighting the menorah he had created.
So he took the stick in his hand, and when everyone got really quiet, announced in a loud voice:
“Lifnei She’nadlik, Bini Yomar Kamah Milim!”
“Before we light, Binny will say a couple of words!”
So what do you say, to two hundred modern day Macabees, defending the borders of Israel, after two thousand years of exile, in a modern Jewish state? Words definitely failed me that night, and to be honest, I don’t really recall what I said, which is probably as it should be, because some experiences are not meant to be put into words.
I do remember looking over at my new-found friend, whose name, to be honest, I cannot even recall, and watching with some surprise, as he took a Kippah (Jewish head covering) out of his pocket and put it on his head, just before he lit the candles. And I remember being even more surprised as he recited all the blessings of the first night’s candle lighting from memory. And then, I will never forget how someone started singing and a few of the guys started dancing, all by the light of the Chanukah ‘candle’ in a 105mm tank shell casing, in the middle of an Israeli Army tank base, near the Jordanian border. Could you ever have a more meaningful Chanukah candle lighting?
And finally, when we were done, I went over to thank this fellow, who proceeded to thank me with the following explanation: He had been one of the original tank crews on the Suez canal, on the infamous Bar Lev line, when thousands of Egyptian tanks and men crossed the canal into Israeli territory. He made it out of the first wave, and found himself, on the third day of the fighting with one of the tank units attempting to counter-attack and regain lost ground.
Deep in the desert, the night turned into day as tanks all around him burst into flames; his unit, he told me, was at the mercy of the newest anti tank missiles being fired by Egyptian Commandoes from amongst the dunes. The whole scène seemed to him like candles burning in the night, and, terrified that his tank was next, he found himself thinking of Chanukah and the menorah lights, which he had lit as a kid a good number of years earlier. And he made a deal with G-d, that if he made it out of that inferno, that year, he would light candles with all the blessings and all the bells and whistles. And indeed, he managed to do just that, and had not missed a night of Chanukah candles ever since.
Deep down, I will always wonder whether he survived his own personal hell only in order to share with a very lonely battalion, as well as a particularly depressed platoon officer, what was absolutely the most incredible Chanukah lighting I have ever had.
One thing I can say with conviction: I have never lit Chanukah candles in quite the same way ever since.
Wishing you all a wonderful Chanukah full of light and joy.