Chanukah and the Confrontation with Evil

The holiday of Channukah in both its rituals and its history is a reminder that that reality of evil cannot be denied. Evil cannot be waived away with politically correctness or claims of “fake news”. Just as there is light and darkness, there is good and bad. More importantly, Channukah teaches us that evil must be confronted or it will not end until it has consumed everything in its path.

The first step in confronting evil is being able to label it as such. The Jewish tradition does not shy away from the use of strong moral language, because of the clarity it offers. A clear example of this can be found in the words of the Al HaNisim prayer recited during the holiday:

the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against your people Israel… You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous

Chanukah also teaches us that when evil threatens human lives as it too often does, we must be willing to confront it with the use of force. It should not be taken for granted that this is self-evident. The Book of Macabees describes that in the initial stages of the battle against the Greeks, a group of Jews were slaughtered because they refused to fight on the Shabbat.[1] They believed that preserving the holiness of Shabbat was of even greater importance than preserving human life, and therefore they willingly gave up their lives. In the aftermath of the massacre, Matityahu correctly understood that failing to fight on Shabbat would ultimately lead to evil’s victory, and so he makes the moral choice that evil must be combated even on Shabbat.

A deeper look, though, at the holiday through the lens of Chassidut presents us with a more complicated understanding of the confrontation with evil. Though we may seek to label others as evil because of the horrific nature of their actions, the Jewish mystical tradition teaches that no individual or group of people is absolutely wicked. All human beings are a mixture of light and darkness. Furthermore, while violence may at times be necessary, it should never be viewed as either a desirable outcome or a final solution. Taking the life of another human being leaves spiritual damage that never truly heals[2], and when violence is the only tool available, one has no choice but to eradicate evil in its entirety. Chassidut teaches that there is another way. Evil always contains the potential to be elevated and transformed into good, though this is a difficult path that is strewn with many potential dangers.

Based on the teachings of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, his student Rav Natan writes “we need during the days of Channukah to stand against the wicked kingdom that becomes stronger in every generation… and it is impossible to stand against them except through the power of the tzadik.”[3]  It is the tzadik, a completely righteous individual, who is tasked with confronting evil and ultimately redeeming it. The light of the Channukah candles represents the tzadik’s ability to illuminate the world with righteousness. The most important detail is the physical location of the lights. Jewish law dictates that they should be placed at the front door of the home, which opens up to the public domain, at a height less than ten tephachim (approximately three feet). Just as the lights must be kindled outside the safety of one’s home and in the darkness, so too must the tzadik pursue evil and confront it where it is to be found. Furthermore, the candles must remain close to the ground, because only by descending to the depths of the darkness and confronting evil on its own terms can the tzadik raise it up.

Chassidut refers to this concept as yeridah l’tzorech aliya, going down for the sake of raising up. In his commentary on the teachings of Rebbe Nachman, Rav Shagar explains that

In order to raise up the kelipah (aspect of evil) one must identify with it, and I understand that this identification is necessary on an emotional and spiritual level… In order to confront evil, one must feel that it relevant to them, that you are able at least in a theoretical way to find yourself there.[4]

This process is powerfully illustrated through one of Rav Nachman’s most famous stories. It once happened that a young prince lost his mind and thought he was a turkey. He removed his clothes and sat under the kings’ table eating only oatmeal as turkey’s do. None of the court doctors could heal the son, but one day a wise man came, who claimed he had a cure. Shockingly, he undressed and sat underneath the table along with the prince, claiming that he too was a turkey. Over time, the prince became comfortable with wise man’s presence, and when this occurred, the wise man decided he would put on a robe and encourage the prince to do the same. He said to the prince, “Don’t you think that a turkey is not entitled to wear a robe? It can do so and that does not mean that it stops being a turkey.” The prince agreed to wear the robe and after similar arguments were offered, the prince also agreed to put on pants and eventually eat human food at the king’s table. Over time, the prince became fully human once again.[5]

The central insight of the story is that the wise man does not challenge the prince’s delusion. Rather, he is able to empathize with the prince and descend to his level. He treats him with respect and creates an emotional bond with him. Only by doing so, can the wise man hope to influence the prince and slowly bring him back to society. The tzadik must engage in a similar process when confronting evil. He must descend to its level, identify with it in order to have influence upon it, and carefully elevate it.

As powerful as the story may be, it fails to fully capture the risk that one faces when confronting evil. It is one thing to descend to a person’s level when they think they are a turkey, but it is something else entirely to do so when confronting those who are truly evil. Chassidut has long acknowledged the dangers inherent in such an approach. The Maggid of Koznitch, an older contemporary of Rebbe Nahman, explains the risk as follows:

When the tzadik rebukes the people and draws them close to him, it is impossible for him to avoid the rancid filth of their sins adhering to him. This was compared by our master to one who shovels dung in the market. He can use all the tricks in the world, and it will not be successful in preventing some of the dung from sticking to him.[6]

At the moment when the tzadik descends to the level of evil, he must be deeply wary of the potential consequences. Small compromises on one’s ethics can quickly escalate into sinful behavior that cannot be justified. Even worse, one can come to agree with the distorted narrative that evil presents as truth. In such circumstances, moral confusion reigns and the results can be devastating.

In order to combat this, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov proposes the following safeguard for the tzadik. One must study the halakha and have a firm commitment to it.

The study of torah means dwelling in the depths of halacha and learning the rulings of the halachic authorities. Torah grasps good and evil according to the aspects of forbidden and permitted, impure and pure, kosher and pasul. As long as one has not clarified the halacha one is mixed up with both good and evil.[7]

Rebbe Nachman understood that the study of halakha grounds one in a moral language that is essential when confronting evil. Through creating separations between right and wrong, halakha establishes clear distinctions and protective boundaries. It enables one to hold on to a sense of order even when faced with chaos. It provides a constant reminder that there is always a difference between darkness and light. In the words of Rav Shagar:

It is important to pay attention to this point, the way in which the world of halakha assists the tzadik… The world of halakha grants me a clear perspective that has a powerful influence- it brings about a sense of inner peace and along with it the ability to confront the other who is different from me without feeling threatened. This is because there exists a specific way of life to which I am connected with any doubt or hesitation.[8]

Halakha prevents the moral confusion that is so often a result of the confrontation with evil. It secures one’s identity and allows one to face that which is different without becoming intimidated or corrupted by it. Without the moral grounding offered by halakha, the tzadik’s descent into confronting evil can become a slippery slope without any hope of return.

While most of us do not view ourselves as tzadikim, there is no question that Rebbe Nachman’s insights about confronting evil can still inform our own lives. It may only be the responsibility of the tzadik to delve into the depths of the darkness in order to pursue evil. However, even those who refrain from lighting their Chanukah candles outside their homes still light them inside. We must all find opportunities to illuminate the world around us. Chassidut warns against pursuing evil on its own terms but acknowledges that there will always be moments when evil finds us and we will have no choice but to act.[9] In those instances we will have a choice. There are times when violence may be necessary, but there also remains the harder but profoundly holy work of confronting evil and finding a way to raise it up.

For those who don’t believe such things are possible, they would be well advised to read “Not by the Sword: How the Love of a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman.” The book documents the story of Cantor Michael Weisser and his unique relationship with Larry Trapp, a former Grand Wizard of the Klu Klan Klan. Not long after moving to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1991, Cantor Weisser and his family received threatening letters and messages from Larry Trapp attempting to run him out of town. After finding out who was behind the barrage of hate, Cantor Weisser decided to call him directly, but instead of returning the threats with anger, he told him, “Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?” When he discovered that Larry was disabled, he called him again and offered him a ride to the grocery store. Eventually, the two developed a relationship and Larry confessed that he wanted out of his life of hatred. The Cantor became one of his closest friends and Larry would eventually end up renouncing the Klan and converting to Judaism.

This is what the Chanukah candles are all about; bringing light to the darkest of places.

[1]  Book of Macabees 1 (2:29-41)

[2] God tells King David “You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a warrior and have shed blood” (1 Divrei HaYamim 28:3). Additionally, a kohen is not able to offer the priestly blessing if he has shed blood. (Berachot 32a, Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 128)

[3] Likkutei Halachot, Hilchot Channukah, Halacha Bet

[4] Shiurim al Likutei Moharan, Chelek Aleph, Siman Chet, Rav Shagar, p. 105.

[5] Adapted from The Psychology of Tzimtzum, p. 29-30, E. Steinman which translates the story from Kitvei Rabbi Nachman MiBratslav (Tel Aviv, 1951) p. 157.

[6] Avodat Yisrael, Parshat Para, d”h shehatzadik yireh

[7] Likkutei Moharan 8:6

[8] Shiurim al Likutei Moharan, Chelek Aleph, Siman Chet, Rav Shagar, p. 105

[9] “A person should not say I will go and fix others and when they honor me it will be for the honor of torah and I will fix many more. On the contrary, it is possible that this will lead to great corruption like the example of one who bleaches wool in the sun. The wool becomes bleached but the one who does it becomes blackened and burnt from the son… it is better for a person to dwell in their home and serve God, and if someone comes to your home, you can fix them but not that you should travel to find people in order to fix.” (Or HaEmet, p. 83)

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff recently made aliyah and moved with his family to Jerusalem. He is the director of the English speaking program at Bina L'Itim, a project of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and an educator for the Hartman Institute. For nearly a decade, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Syagogue in Cleveland, OH. He is an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He has a passion for using Jewish texts and ideas along with contemporary thought to address important issues of the day.
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