In 1952, a young Florence Chadwick stepped into the waters of the Pacific Ocean off Catalina Island, determined to swim to the shore of mainland California. She’d already been the first woman to swim the English Channel both ways. The weather was foggy and chilly; she could hardly see the boats accompanying her. Still, she swam for fifteen hours. When she begged to be taken out of the water along the way, her mother, in a boat alongside, told her she was close and that she could make it. Finally, physically and emotionally exhausted, she stopped swimming and was pulled out- quitting with less than a mile to go.
Afterwards she said, “All I could see was the fog… If I could have seen the shore, I could have made it.” It was not fatigue that defeated her, but the fog that blurred her vision and disoriented her.
As she put it, “Like doubt, confusion or discouragement, the fog alone had no power to stop me. But because I let it blind my heart and reason, as well as my eyes, then it really defeated me.”
Two months later, on September 20, 1952, Chadwick tried again. This time she was prepared to “see” the shore, even if the fog should hide it. Fog did in fact hide it, but in her mind’s eye the shore was there. The shore’s presence became a fact in which she found the courage and strength to persevere until her feet touched the California coast.
Rabbi Simon Eckstein a’h, a cherished member of our community who was born in Jerusalem in 1919, made Aliyah at age 91 and passed away in 2016, utilized this story in a Chanukah sermon to explain the greatness of the Maccabees. He wrote that despite all indications that seemed to point to utter failure, the Maccabees were able to keep their eye on the goal even through the fog and maintain the hope and faith in Hashem that ultimately led to their victory. They may not have always been able to see clearly how a victory would be achieved, but they were always able to vividly imagine and visualize in detail what victory would look like and why it was so important.
Seeing the Chanukah lights is an important element of the mitzvah. As we say in Hanerot Halalu –
V’eyn lanu reshut lihishtamesh lahem, ela lirotam bilvad:
We are only allowed to look at the Chanukah lights.
In an attempt to explain why a Menorah may not be placed higher than 20 cubits, Rashi explains:
“D’lo Shalta bei eina L’Maalah M’ Chof Amah, V’leika Pirsumei Nisa.”
A person (even with 20/20 vision) may not be able to see the Chankuah lights at a height above 20 Amot, and if the lights cannot be seen, then there is no publicity of the miracle, an integral aspect of the Mitzvah. The lesson of this halacha is that success can only be achieved if we see the goal/ light, whether with our physical eyes or in our mind’s eye.
The Talmud records (Shabbat 23): “Rav Huna said: ‘If one is meticulously careful in lighting candles, he will merit to have children who are Torah scholars’.”
A colleague of mine asked: many people are meticulous in their lighting Chanukah candles, so why are there so few Torah scholars? He answered that Rav Huna’s promise is only fulfilled for those parents who sincerely desire that outcome for their children. The bracha will only be fulfilled in those families who include Torah study and spiritual achievement as important, something they see as valuable, a worthwhile and noteworthy achievement. If such ideals remain “Above 20 Amot”, ie outside of their frame of reference, then parents will look to other achievements as fulfilling their dreams for their children.
The battle encountered on Chanukah was a clash of cultures. The question that confronted the Jews at that time was: What is it that you see, what is it that you strive to see? Greek culture or Torah values? Bayamim Hahem ubizman Hazeh. The challenge continues in our day as well. Let us utilize the holiday of Chanukah and the mitzvah of Ner Chanukah to test our vision and adjust when necessary.