John Stewart’s Cold Potato Latke

This Shabbat, I spoke about the following clip from a recent John Stewart show episode.  It’s really quite funny, I’m sure you’ll agree.  Experience the skit….and then feel free to read on…..

Born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, John Stewart is married to Tracey McShane.  He is not someone who identifies with traditional Jewish views or observances.  John Stewart is really a symbol of the assimilated American Jew, struggling to “sell” his lame customs of potato latkes and wooden sevivonim to his Catholic friend.

The disagreement between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai as to whether one adds an extra candle each night (Bet Hillel) or subtracts (Bet Shammai) has spawned much discussion as to the concepts underlying their respective views.  Rabbi Chaim Friedlander understands Bet Shammai as bemoaning the sad state of the Jewish exile; our declining spiritual state is symbolized by the waning candlelight as Chanukah continues.  Bet Hillel maintains that the very survival in exile, under challenging conditions, is a testament to Jewish endurance.

With all due respect to Bet Hillel’s view (according to this interpretation), what is the great value of endurance of a people with such a shallow relationship to its heritage?

Rashi cites a well-known midrash, in which Aharon, the High Priest, bemoans his exclusion from the dedication of the altar in the Mishkan (tabernacle) in the desert. G-d comforts him, assuring him that his role is greater than theirs, that he and his descendants have a role that is still relevant after the destruction of the Temple…the lighting of the Menorah. Ramban poses the obvious question: with the Temple in ruins, there is no Menorah to light!

Ramban explains that this is a reference to the Chanukah of the Hasmoneans, the Maccabees, who were from the line of Aharon.  The lighting of the Chanukiah for posterity is essentially the continuation of the Menorah of the Temple.

Once again, the theme of endurance….

The Shem Mishmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornzstain, offers a different approach to the Bet Hillel/Bet Shammai dispute. Bet Shammai’s decreasing light reflects the diminishing impact of inspiration over time. Even a miracle such as Chanukah can lose its “magic” over time…Bet Hillel, understanding this dilemma, says that it’s our mandate to capitalize on moments of clarity and inspiration, to “bottle them”, so to speak, use them as a stepping stone for further spiritual growth.  Not endurance for endurance sake, but real growth.


Perashat B’ha’alotcha opens with G-d’s instruction to Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, to light the Menorah in the Bet Hamikdash.   Our sages note that the Torah uses the term b’ha’alotcha in reference to lighting.

Question: What does this term denote?

Answer: G-d is conveying to Aharon that he must hold the fire next to the wick until the flame of the menorah “goes up on its own”.   In other words, until the wick begins to draw oil, fueling itself.

Rav Avigdor Nebenzhal, whose classic shiurim continue to enrapture, raises an obvious question:

Surely, this is the way to light a fire!

What new information is being conveyed by this verb?

If the unique term bha’alotcha had not been used – would we have thought that holding the fire to the wick – without that flame catching and drawing its own oil – would constitute lighting ?

Girded with proofs that our tradition views the menorah’s light as a symbol of Torah knowledge, Rav Nebenzhal offers the following observation:

The Kohen is the paradigm of the Jewish educator, the wick – the student. Fire? Knowledge. The Kohen must hold the fire to that wick until it draws oil on its own.

Translated: A Jewish educator must teach his or her talmid to become independent.

A true indicator of this independence?

When approaching a new text, an authentic talmid will attempt to apply the educator’s system of thinking:

What questions would my teacher pose on this piece?

What categories would he create to make sense of the material?

In recent years, educators have become more sensitive to the need for differentiated learning: some students are more visual, others benefit from “hands-on” art projects to consolidate their grasp of material…

Any one of us, by virtue of our connection to Jewish tradition and observance, represent a very small sliver of the Jewish population.  We have to view ourselves as teachers of not only our children, but our fellow Jews.  As part of that role, we have to decide how to convey that which inspires us ….to others.  How am I going to make sure that another Jew internalizes and experiences the inspiration that we’ve experienced? How do I get someone’s flame to “rise on its own”, to escape the fate of John Stewart and his cold potato latke?

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