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8 Nights, 8 Heroes

May 8, 2009 | by staff

Inspiring stories to share around the Chanukah lights.

Chanukah is the time when we joyously recall the heroic Maccabees and the miracle of the oil that burned for 8 nights. Throughout Jewish history, there have been heroes in every generation. We thought it would be fun to choose 8 Jewish heroes, and each night, as we light the Chanukah candles, to read about a different hero.

How did we choose these 8? We included a variety -- those who demonstrated leadership qualities and others who reached great spiritual heights; young and old, famous and ordinary. The first 4 heroes in our list are historical figures, and the next 4 are alive today.

Each has an interesting story to tell, and each fought to preserve our heritage so that we can continue to live as proud Jews today. Enjoy!

  1. Abraham
  2. The Maccabees
  3. Rebbe Akiva
  4. Rabbi Chiyah
  5. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau
  6. The Chicken Lady
  7. Sherri & Seth Mandell
  8. Shlomo Mulla

 1) Abraham

There was a time when the world looked very different than it does today. People worshipped idols of wood and stone. Many people were illiterate, there was no concept of equal rights, and people abused and enslaved others. That's because people did not know about God.

This is the world that Abraham lived in. When he was three years old, Abraham saw the world of nature with all its beauty and perfection -- and concluded that for a world so perfectly designed, there must be a designer. Abraham had discovered God.

On the surface, this conclusion is not so amazing. If you went to a toy factory and saw the process of design, manufacture and assembly, would you mistakenly think these toys are produced by accident?!

What is so remarkable about Abraham's discovery is that he lived in a world filled with idolatry. His family even owned an idol store! One day, Abraham was asked to watch the store. He took a hammer and smashed all the idols -- except for the largest. His father came home aghast. "What happened?!" he shouted. "It was amazing, Dad," said Abraham. "The idols all got into a fight and the biggest idol won!" There was no way for his father to respond; deep down he knew that Abraham had tuned into a deeper truth.

Abraham wasn't satisfied with just his own understanding. he reached out in an effort to enlighten others. He brought guests into his tent, which was open on all four sides and pitched right in the middle of an inter-city highway. And he endured all types of mockery and persecution for holding beliefs that were politically incorrect.

In fact, the Torah calls him Avraham Ha-Ivri -- Abraham the Hebrew. Ha-Ivri translates literally as "the one who stands on the other side." The entire world stood on one side, with Abraham standing firm on the other. His resolve to do the right thing -- and to reach out to others -- formed the foundation of the Jewish people. And because of this, the majority of the human race today accepts Abraham's concept of a loving God.

2) The Maccabees

The year is 167 BCE and the horrible persecution of Judaism by the Greeks was in full swing. The Greek troops showed up in the town of Modi'in (a site west of Jerusalem which you can visit today off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway) and demanded that the Jews there sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods. The elder of the town, Matityahu the kohen priest, refused.

But there was one Jew in the town who was willing to do what is unspeakable in Jewish eyes. As he's about to sacrifice the pig, Matityahu stabbed him, also killing the Greek official present. He then turned to the crowd and announced: "Follow me, all of you who are for God's law."

Those who joined Matityahu and his five sons head for the hills, expecting that the Greeks would come back and wipe out the whole village as a reprisal. In the hills, they organized a guerilla army, led by the oldest son Judah, nicknamed Maccabee, which means "the Hammer." Maccabee is also an acronym for the Hebrew, "Who is like you among the powers O God" -- the battle cry of the Jewish people.

The Maccabee army was at most 12,000 men, fighting against the Greek army of 40,000 men. Beyond numerical superiority, the Greeks had professional equipment, training, and a herd of war elephants (the tanks of the ancient world). But what the Jews lacked in training and equipment they made up in spirit.

After three years of fighting, the Jews were able re-conquer Jerusalem. They found the Temple defiled and turned into a sanctuary where pigs were sacrificed. When they re-entered the Temple, the first thing they did is to light a make-shift menorah (the real gold one had been melted down by the Greeks). But only one vial of pure lamp oil with the special seal was discovered. They used this vial to light the menorah and miraculously it stayed lit for eight days, by which time fresh pure oil was pressed and delivered to the Temple.

The Maccabees then purified the Temple and rededicated it on the 25th of Kislev, which is the date on the Hebrew calendar when we begin to celebrate the eight days of Chanukah. (The Hebrew word Chanukah means "dedication" or "inauguration.")

More than a military victory, we celebrate the triumph of Jewish ideals which -- as symbolized by the glow of the menorah -- light up the world.

3) Rebbe Akiva

About 2,000 years ago, there lived a man named Akiva, a simple 40-year-old who could not even read the Aleph-Bet. Akiva worked as a shepherd for a wealthy man named Kalba Savua. His daughter Rachel saw that Akiva had a very fine character. She said to him: "If we were to become married, would you promise me to go study jewish wisdom?" He agreed and they secretly got married.

When Kalba Savua heard that his daughter had married the poor shephard Akiva, he sent her out of his house and vowed to disown her. So Akiva and Rachel slept on straw. He would pick the straw out of her hair, and told her: "If I could afford it, I would give you a crown of Jerusalem of Gold."

One day, Akiva came across a stone that had been holed out by a constant drip of water. He concluded: If something as soft as water can carve a hole in solid rock, how much more so can Torah -- which is fire -- make an indelible impression on my heart. Rabbi Akiva committed himself to Torah study, and spent the next 24 years studying. He went on to become the greatest sage of his generation.

When he returned home with his 24,000 students, the entire town flocked to greet him. When Rachel began to approach Akiva, some of the students (not knowing who she was) stepped forward to protect their rabbi. At which point Rabbi Akiva turned to his students and announced: "Everything we have achieved is entirely in her merit. We owe it all to her."

When Kalba Savua heard the news, he came to Rabbi Akiva and revoked his earlier vow. And then, Rebbe Akiva bought his wife a golden crown of Jerusalem.

But these were the days when the land of Israel was ruled by the Romans, who tried to end the practice of Judaism. The Roman authorities eventually arrested Rabbi Akiva for "illegally" teaching Torah. As he was being tortured, Rabbi Akiva rejoiced in fulfilling the biblical command to "love God with all your life." As he died, Rabbi Akiva uttered the words of Shema Yisrael. His self-sacrifice for Torah continues to inspire Jews till today.

4) Rabbi Chiyah

During a time of persecution about 1700 years ago, the great sage Rabbi Chiyah was concerned that the teachings of the Torah might become forgotten by the Jewish people. As a precaution, Rabbi Chiyah captured a deer, slaughtered it, and gave the meat to orphans. Then he tanned the hides and wrote five separate scrolls, one for each of the Five Books of Moses. He took five children, and taught each of them one book. He then took six more children, and taught each of them one of the six orders of Mishnah, the oral law.

Then he told each of the 11 children: "Teach what you've learned to each other." With this, the Talmud says, Rabbi Chiyah ensured that the Torah would never be forgotten by the Jewish people.

This raises a question: 11 children is a pretty small class. Why didn't Rabbi Chiyah simply teach all the children all the books? Why did he teach each child only one book?

The answer is that it was essential to the process for the children to teach each other. To ensure that Torah should not be forgotten, you have to teach what you've learned to others. That's the secret.

So if you know the key to happiness, teach it. (The key to happiness is to appreciate what you have, rather than bemoaning what you don't have.) Is your friend sad or depressed? Give him some joy! If you have the ability, you must help.

This is not about "forcing your opinion" on others. Rather you simply convey information that allows your friend to get in touch with what he already knows -- and re-discover it on his own.

Don't sell yourself short. You have the ability to make a dramatic impact on others. You don't have to be a U.S. Senator to make a difference. With one piece of wisdom you can help humanity.

Rabbi Eliyahu Essas is a former refusenik from the Soviet Union. He lived there at a time when it was totally illegal to study Torah. Consequently, Rabbi Essas secretly got a hold of some Jewish books, hid out from the KGB, and began to teach himself Torah.

After a while, people started coming secretly to study with Rabbi Essas. But of 5 million Soviet Jews, he was one of the few who could teach and his time was in great demand. So he made a rule: "Before I begin teaching you, you must agree to teach over what you've learned to others." In this way, Rabbi Essas was able to multiply his effect.

Although we don't live under an oppressive Soviet regime, the concept still applies today. You learned something precious? Say to yourself: "That was fascinating. What did it teach me about living? How can I transfer this insight to others?"

Teaching benefits you as well. Having to explain an idea to others forces you to clarify it for yourself. You've taken it out of potential and made it a reality.

When you teach someone, make sure they understand how important it is to teach it over to someone else. That's ensuring that Torah will never be forgotten by the Jewish people.

5) Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau

Yisrael Meir Lau was born in 1937 in a Polish town where his father served as the rabbi. At age seven, Yisrael Meir was sent to a Nazi slave labor camp. The Gestapo commander discovered that a few children were in the camp. He believed that children are not productive workers and wanted to eliminate them.

So little Yisrael Meir quietly used his feet to gather some earth and stones into a small mound. Then he stood on this mound to appear a bit taller, and opened his mouth to deliver the first speech of his life:

"I believe there is some misunderstanding. It is a mistake to think that we children cannot work. When I was even younger than I am now, I pushed a wooden cart piled with 60 glass bottles and distributed water to workers. Outside in the snow, I repeatedly filled up the bottles throughout my 12-hour shift. So you cannot say that we children lack working potential."

The Gestapo indicated that along with this nice speech, a hefty bribe will help. So Yisrael Meir's older brother took out a diamond that his mother had given him, which he'd sewed into his clothes. The diamond, along with the speech, saved Yisrael Meir's life.

In 1945, Yisrael Meir became -- at age 8 -- the youngest survivor to be liberated from Buchenwald. Nearly his entire family was murdered. He was for all intents and purposes an orphan.

He was among the first immigrants to arrive in Israel after the Holocaust. His uncle took him home and explained that he had been saved in order to continue the family's rabbinical chain (they were 37 generations of rabbis). Yisrael Meir was told that it is like a relay race, where the torch is passed from hand to hand, and he is not permitted to extinguish the fire.

He studied hard, stayed focused on the goal, and became a respected rabbi. He served as Chief Rabbi of Netanya, then Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, and in 2003 completed a 10-year term as Chief Rabbi of Israel. In 2005, Rabbi Lau was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement. In November 2008 -- on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht -- he was appointed Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust for future generations.

With his life hanging in the balance, 7-year-old Yisrael Meir Lau mustered all of his courage and stood up to the Nazis. This same determination drove him to great heights, passing the torch of tradition to a generation of Israelis.

Click here for a short film about Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.

6) The Chicken Lady

If you'd meet Clara Hammer on the bus or in the supermarket, you probably would have smiled at her. She's a sweet 93-year-old great-great-grandmother. But you'd never imagine that she is affectionately known as the "Chicken Lady," responsible for feeding hundreds of poor families in Israel.

Clara's kindness campaign began 22 years ago during a routine trip to a kosher butcher shop in Jerusalem. She was standing in line and saw the butcher give a young girl a plastic bag filled with nothing but fat and skin. When Clara got to the front of the line, she asked, "How many cats and dogs does that family have that it needs so many scraps?"

The butcher explained that the family had no pets, but seven children. They used the fat and skin for "chicken soup" and for stew. The words went straight to Clara's heart. She looked across the counter and said: "From now on, give the family a whole chicken and I'll pay for it!"

What motivates Clara to help? Born in a small town in the Ukraine, Clara and her family survived three pogroms before running away to Romania. The Romanian border police refused her family entrance and they were jailed for five months. It was there that she experienced terrible hunger. And Clara decided that she will do whatever she can to alleviate hunger today.

Today, Clara assists over 700 people and pays the butcher a weekly bill of over $1,000. The butcher has an entire computer dedicated to Clara.

Her apartment in Jerusalem is filled with images of little chickens -- stuffed chicken dolls, figurines and mugs. In 2008, Clara Hammer was awarded an honorary "doctorate in kindness" by Yeshiva University. She is a modern-day hero, showing us all what one person can achieve -- with a little imagination and a lot of caring.

Click here for a short film about the Chicken Lady.

7) Sherri & Seth Mandell

Seth and Sherri Mandell moved to Israel from America in 1996 because they loved Israel and wanted to put Judaism in the center of their family's life.

Their lives were devastated in May 2001, when their 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists. Koby went hiking with his friend in a canyon near the Mandell's home. There, in a cave, Arab terrorists stoned the two boys to death.

The Mandells, parents to three other younger children, knew that in order to go on, they needed to take the cruelty of Koby's murder and transform it into kindness. They wanted to help people like themselves, struck by terror, to be able to return to life, with strength, hope, and healing.

For that reason, they created the Koby Mandell Foundation which provides healing programs for families struck by terrorism. Children, whose siblings or parents have been killed in terror attacks, attend week-long camps where they get counseling and bond with other children who share their circumstances. Mothers who have lost children in terror attacks attend 2-day healing retreats. Participants are helped to find meaning in their loss, so that families become stronger rather than weaker from their traumas.

In this way, the Mandells respond to pain and suffering with a Jewish response -- to build, to grow, to make meaning out of suffering, to choose life, and to help others in this mission. The terrorists will not win; a network of love and sharing is created in the wake of the terrorists' attempts to destroy the people of Israel.

And in this way, they keep Koby's spirit alive in the world.

Click here for a short film about Sherri & Seth Mandell.

8) Shlomo Mulla

Shlomo Mulla grew up in a small village in northern Ethiopia. When he was 16 years old, he and a group of friends decided to go to Israel by foot. Their plan was to walk from their village to Sudan, then to Egypt, to the Sinai desert, to Beersheva, and finally to Jerusalem.

They took a guide to show them the first part of their journey. Shlomo's father sold a cow to get the two dollars to pay the guide. They walked barefoot, day and night, with no rest. They saw tigers and lions and snakes. They walked through the desert with no water. They were captured by robbers in the jungle, who took all their food and money.

They walked 780 kilometers in one week. When they got to the border of Ethiopia and Sudan, the border guards shot and killed Shlomo's best friend. They put all the boys in jail and tortured them.

After 91 days, Shlomo and his friends were released. They were taken by truck to a big refugee camp. Soon after, they met a man who told them to get on a truck. They drove for five hours through the desert. Then they stopped and were told to get out of the truck. Then an airplane landed, and everyone was pushed inside. The door was closed and amidst singing and clapping, the crew announced: "Shalom Aleichem" -- Welcome. It was all part of a secret Israeli government operation to rescue Ethiopian Jews.

Shlomo and the other Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel with the goal of helping to build the society. Shlomo learned the language and diligently worked his way up. He gained a reputation for the ability to get things done, with a special sensitivity to the 120,000 Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel. In February 2008, Shlomo became the second Ethiopian ever elected to the Israeli Knesset.

Click here for a short film about Shlomo Mulla.

based on an idea by Flaura Koplin Winston

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