On Shabbat, December 5th, the 19th of Kislev, Chabad and others in the Chassidic community celebrate the holiday of Yud-Tes Kislev. It is a momentous day that has been celebrated with joy and reverence for over 200 years. It is the most important day on the Chassidic calendar, the “Rosh HaShana of Chassidism.”
In the fall of 1798, on the day after Sukkot, Russian soldiers arrested Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi on charges of treason. Reb Shneur Zalman was famous as the author of the Tanya and the founder of the Chabad movement, his new approach to the relationship between man and God had inspired thousands, but now he was being held as a political prisoner in The Peter and Paul Fortress, the “Russian Bastille” which would hold the Decembrists and Dostoyevsky, Trotsky and Tito.
Reb Shneur Zalman was interrogated day and night. They demanded to know what his “revolutionary” movement was all about, what Chassidism was, and why he and his followers were sending money to the Ottoman Empire, an enemy of the Czar. Of course, they were misinformed. Chabad was not a political “revolutionary” movement and the money he was supposedly sending to the Ottoman Empire was actually being sent to poor Jews living in Israel who happened to live under Ottoman rule. But in a dark prison fortress in Czarist Russia, the truth could be of little use, especially for a Jew. Execution seemed imminent.
When he was suddenly released by order of Paul I on the 19th of Kislev, a storm of euphoria and relief swept over the Jewish community. They celebrated for days. But for Reb Shneur Zalman and his followers, this was much more than just a close call or a narrow escape, this was divine vindication.
What happens in this world is a reflection of what goes on in heaven. Reb Shneur Zalman’s arrest was a reflection of the uproar in heaven he had caused when he began teaching the secrets of the Torah to the common man. The angels in heaven cried out that these secrets were too holy and precious to be spread on earth. They cried out that Reb Shneur Zalman must be stopped. Reb Shneur Zalman’s release was a reflection of the heavenly court’s verdict that he should be allowed to go on teaching the secrets of the Torah.
Today the 19th of Kislev is celebrated all over the world because it made the availability of these secrets possible for all.
But God doesn’t have secrets like a spy or a politician have secrets. He doesn’t have some dangerous deep dark secrets that he is forced to hide. Most human beings don’t even have those kinds of secrets. If one of those secrets leak out and become widely known, then they are no longer secret, but a true secret will always be secret, even if everyone knows. A true secret means the personal and intimate part of ourselves that are too personal to be exposed, not because it’s embarrassing or damaging in any way, but because it simply doesn’t belong in public. It is secret because we reserve it for our inner life and not for our social life.
There are some things we don’t share simply because the outside world won’t appreciate the beauty of it. That is why it hurts when you tell a friend something personal, and they then share it with others. It is your secret. It’s not just a piece of information, it’s a part of you that must be treated with sensitivity and modesty. Some things don’t belong in the cold, uncaring light.
This kind of secret isn’t defined by how many people know it. The whole world knows what happens when the bride and groom go to their room on their wedding night. But we don’t mention it because it’s still a secret.
But sometimes we must reveal.
As parents, we don’t tell our children how desperately we need them to be good people. We tell them all kinds of reasons why they should be good, but we never tell them how much it means to us. We don’t tell them because we don’t know how they will treat such a revelation of vulnerability. What if they laugh? What if they lose respect for us? But when we have tried every argument and still our children are slipping away, then we open up. When we have tried everything, when we are desperate, then we show our children how vulnerable we are. Then we tell them, with tears in our eyes, how much we need them.
That’s why the secrets of the Torah were not revealed until about 250 years ago. Down through the ages Jews were holy and wise men and women. They understood the Torah’s wisdom, the appreciated holiness and godliness. And so there was no need for God to reveal his own vulnerability, how much he needs us to be good, how desperate he is for us to be his. But as the wise and the holy passed away, and new generations of Jews came who did not appreciate holiness and godliness, who could not see the wisdom of the Torah, then God felt the need to tell us his secrets.
Especially today, most Jews don’t respond to righteousness and spirituality. The only thing left is to tell them the secret: God needs you. Desperately.
That is what we celebrate on the 19th of Kislev.
And then we get Channukah