My first trip to Israel was as a 21 year old to play rugby for the South African Jewish rugby team in the 1985 Maccabi Games. We stayed in the newly built Kfar Maccabiah. We won the gold medal and that experience began a spiritual journey that brought me back to Israel again and again until I moved there in 1992 to go to Ohr Somayach yeshiva. I was at Ohr Somayach for 6 years.
I lived in Israel for 6 years and one of my favorite times of the year was Chanukah. Celebrating chagim while learning in yeshiva was always special because I Iearned so much about each chag in the weeks leading up to it. As the saying goes: “the more you put into something, the more you get out of it.” There is so much to learn about Chanukah – the history, the practical halacha and the philosophy of the holiday.
At Ohr Somayach, a baal teshuva yeshiva, where the students were coming with a very limited Jewish education to learn more about their heritage, there was a particular emphasis on the significance of Chanukah to their lives.
Rabbi Nachman Bulman ztz’l, my rebbe, and who we named our third son after, used a very powerful metaphor. He said that each and every Jew has a small flask of oil inside of them, the ‘pintele Yid,’ the inextinguishable connection to the Torah, the Jewish people, our land, our history and our G-d. For so many, though, that flask lies faintly lit. It is our job in yeshiva to fan that flame inside ourselves and then by example, to teach the beauty of Torah and mitzvot to others, to light that inner flame so that it too will burn brightly and make them feel proud to be Jewish.
Rabbi Bulman would contrast the light of the Torah with the darkness of the Greek view of the world. Their emphasis of the physical over the spiritual was the main battle between them and the Maccabees. They believed the human body was perfect and banned circumcision because it made the body imperfect, while we looked it as a covenant with G-d to be partners in Creation in perfecting ourselves.
The Greeks celebrated this glorification of the human body with the Olympic Games, striving to elevate the physical achievements of athletes and crowning those who would be fastest and strongest. It was the Maccabees, and us their descendants, who rejected that worldview and fought a war to defeat it. It is that victory and the ongoing battle we fight today, that we celebrate every Chanukah.
How ironic, Rav Bulman, would say, that those who brought the Jewish version of the Olympic Games to Israel (then Palestine) , would choose the name Maccabi Games, using the name of those who fought against the very idea!
And yet, even more ironically, it was the Maccabi Games that brought me back to my Jewish roots and ultimately to becoming a rabbi.
Shortly after I moved to Chicago, I was called the Rugby Rabbi. It is not just a cute marketing idea. To me it is an acknowledgement that something very good Jewishly came out of something that is not that Jewish.
That’s an important lesson for every baal teshuva – and maybe everyone else too. Even if our past might not have been ideal, we can make something good out of it.
There’s something deeper too.
Growing up in a sports crazy country that South Africa was, I followed sport religiously. There was the popular culture too – movies, music. Yeshiva gave me the opportunity to focus on my inner self. I was able to see that my true identity was bound to something eternal, not to something temporary. I was very fortunate that there were no smartphones when I was in yeshiva. I had very limited access to the internet. The only time I saw a sports score was an occasional glance at the back page of a Jerusalem Post brought into the dining room. Looking back, it was liberating. [Important note: I’m not talking about playing sport. I’m a big proponent of that, although not in too competitive a way – a discussion for a future article]
I’ll be honest. I still follow sports a little now. I didn’t rid myself of that sports fascination entirely. Although it is 25 years since I left South Africa for yeshiva, I’m still happy when their rugby team wins. I was happy when the Cubs won the World Series.
That’s the Greek that is still in me. I know it. I recognize it. It’s contained.
It’s the pintele Yid inside me that that shines more brightly.
So when I gaze at the menorah at Chanukah, I feel a sense of gratitude to G-d and his messengers who helped fan that flame and for the opportunity I have to light it in others.