This coming Thursday night we will light the first Chanukah candle. We will then celebrate Chanukah for eight days, adding a candle each night until there are eight.
The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) asks, “מאי חנוכה?” What is Chanukah? Rashi explains the question: על איזה נס קבעוה? For which miracle did they (the Sages) establish it?
The Chanukah story comprises two independent miracles. The miracle of the military victory of the few Chashmonaim over the massive Greek army, and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight consecutive days when it should only have burned for one. So, for which miracle was it established?
מאי חנוכה? דתנו רבנן בכ”ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
The Sages taught, the 25th day of Kislev begins the eight days of Chanukah during which one is not allowed to eulogize or fast. For, when the Greeks entered the Temple sanctuary, they deliberately defiled all the oil there. When the Chashmonai kingdom overcame them and were victorious, they searched and found but one flask of pure oil still sealed with the seal of the high priest, but there was only enough in it to light the menorah for one day. A miracle happened, and the candles remained lit from it for eight days (the time needed to produce new oil). The next year, they established those days as a holiday with praise and thanksgiving [to Hashem].
The Talmud teaches us that the Chanukah holiday was established to celebrate the miraculous eight days that the candles of the menorah in the Holy Temple stayed lit. This is why our menorahs have eight arms when the Temple’s menorah had only seven. Our menorah does not symbolize the seven-arm menorah that was lit in the Holy Temple; rather it is to remind us of the eight-day miracle of the oil.
The Sages recognized the oil to be the more important miracle; hence, they established the Chanukah holiday to commemorate it. For eight consecutive days beginning on the 25th day of the month Kislev, it is a mitzvah to light a menorah to commemorate the eight days that the menorah miraculously stayed lit. Although it’s an impressive miracle, why is it the focus of the holiday? The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:5) informs us that 10 miracles transpired daily in the Holy Temple. And, why not the military victory? Shouldn’t a Jewish holiday reflect something of national importance, something that affected the nation’s survival and identity?
In the על הניסים(Al hanissim) prayer that is added to the Amidah and to the Birkat Hamazon, we say:
עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמוֹת שֶׁעָשִֹיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה:
For the miracles and the salvations and the mighty deeds and the victories and the battlesthat you have done for our forefathers in those days and at this time.
From the words “at this time” we see that the miracle of the menorah lights does indeed have a relevance to us, even today. How is that?
My Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Kraisworth זצ”ל (1918-2001), explained this passage of the Talmud in a deeper way.
It is first important to understand the social climate in which the Chanukah miracle occurred.
Alexander the Great had just conquered most of the inhabited world and introduced the Greek culture into those countries. Alexander was not called “the Great” because of his military prowess, although it was great. There were many powerful and victorious warriors before him who did not receive this sobriquet. What made Alexander great was that instead of just ruling the many nations that he conquered, he sought to emancipate and infuse them with Greek education and culture. He wanted to change the world, and he did. He also did not seek to uproot the religions of the people in the countries that he conquered. He permitted them to keep their idols and pagan ways. All that he asked was that they also adopt the Greek way of life. To this end, he built colleges and libraries for education and gymnasiums for perfecting the body. They taught art and culture. He also did not install his own generals and officials to govern the people of the countries that he conquered. Instead, he gave the high positions to the people who most successfully accepted and applied the Greek way of life. This provided added incentive to become Greek, because it could mean receiving a high government position. Greek education and culture represented a great step forward for the common man who, until then, worshipped idols and was uneducated. It didn’t take long for people to see the enlightenment in the Greek way of life and to abandon their pagan ways.
The Greeks believed that the world always existed and had no creator. They began examining and figuring out the world’s various natural systems and how they worked. The entire set of seemingly natural systems that control our world is subject to scientific laws that govern it and dictates how it works. The study of the sciences, such as physics, biology, medicine, and mathematics, attempts to organize and quantify the laws of nature so that they can be understood and manipulated. The scientific method, a system of principles and procedures designed to ascertain accurate data as to the world around us, is used for this task. We are the beneficiaries of centuries of this great work, as we enjoy so many conveniences of scientific discovery. Thanks to the study of aerodynamics, we can travel to the other side of the world in a few hours. Thanks to nanotechnology we tote cell phones with more computing power than early computers that took up entire rooms of buildings. So many once deadly maladies no longer exist thanks to medical research. All of this scientific progress began with the Greeks and their analysis of nature. They worshiped the perfection in nature, and the perfection of the human body and its prowess. Hashem was nowhere in the Greek picture.
This tidal wave of Greek culture swept through Israel also, capturing most of the Jewish people, except for a small handful of Jews who rejected out of hand the Greek way of life. These Jews claimed that they had their own holy lifestyle and a body of wisdom superior to the Greek’s. This was the wisdom of the Torah, wisdom that came straight from the Creator of the Universe. The Torah contains all wisdom, and the Jewish lifestyle is a holy lifestyle based on its teachings. The Jewish people had no need for a new lifestyle or “education” for they had been studying the deepest educational texts for thousands of years!
The Greeks vehemently opposed both of these ideas. They claimed, “our wisdom is superior, and there is no such thing as ’holy.’ There is only a material existence which has persisted from the beginning of time.”
Our Sages teach us that a flame is symbolic of a Jewish soul. This is based on the verse (Proverbs 20:27),
(כז) נֵר יְדֹוָד נִשְׁמַת אָדָם
27) Hashem’s lamp is a man’s soul
In this context, the defiled oil in the Holy Temple represents the souls of the Jewish people. The Greeks had successfully contaminated the souls of almost all the Jewish people and they were incapable of serving Hashem properly. Moreover, as they accepted the Greek ideas, their minds became tainted by their atheistic philosophy. There was but one small bottle of oil that was still pure with the Seal of the High Priest to verify it. That one bottle of pure oil is symbolic of small a handful of people, Mattityahu and his 12 sons, whose souls were still pure and uncontaminated by the Greeks. The Seal of the High Priest represents the approval of the great and holy Sages of old. Their minds were pure of any Greek influence and contained only true Torah information and values. However, they were actually not sure that they themselves had escaped free of any external influences.
This was the significance of the miracle of the oil. By making it miraculously last a full eight days until pure oil could be produced, when it should have lasted only one, Hashem indicated to them that they were indeed pure and would merit to bring the pure and holy light of the Torah to the coming generations. They needed to know this because the Torah was created such that if it is not pure, it will self-destruct. The Torah is eternal only when it is complete, with all its essential components intact. When attempts are made to modify it by adding or leaving essential pieces out, the Torah cannot endure. We have seen this throughout Jewish History. Any offshoot of Judaism has dissolved over time and is no more.
This idea provides an answer to a strong question that the Sages ask. The rule of the Holy Temple is that when there is no pure oil, it is permitted to use contaminated oil. Indeed, it is better to use contaminated oil than to not light the menorah at all. This being the case, why did Hashem make the miracle? The menorah would have been lit anyway?
The answer is that Hashem needed to show the Chashmonaim that they were pure and, hence, suitable to transmit the Torah to future generations. Without this information, they could not be sure they would be able to pass the torch of the Torah forward.
We can thus understand why the miracle of the candle was the reason for the celebration rather than the military victory. It revealed that the victory over the Greeks was a real and everlasting victory. For had the Greeks succeeded in contaminating the minds of all the Jewish people, leaving not even a small handful remaining pure, then despite the stunning military victories of the Chashmonaim, ultimately the Greeks would have succeeded in killing the Jewish nation. This is because without the pure and unadulterated Torah, the Jewish nation would have been doomed to fail. Without the complete holy Torah, the Jewish nation cannot exist. Through the miracle of the oil, Hashem validated the Chashmonaim and gave them the inspiration they needed to carry on.
The rest is history. Here we are in the year 5781, a full 2,169 years after the story of Chanukah, and we are still learning the Torah from our teachers, who learned it from theirs, all the way back to the story of Chanukah and from there back to Sinai. The chain was never broken, and our very existence proves that the Torah we have is the real thing.
Chanukah comes in the middle of the dark days of winter. Dark overcast days yield to an early nightfall. In the cold of winter, it is hard not to feel chilly and alone. The light of the menorah shining from the window sill into the night does much to dispel the darkness. Its light penetrates the greatest strongholds of despair and creates hope. There was no bleaker time than at the time of the Chashmonaim. They were outnumbered many thousands to one and logically stood no chance of winning, yet win they did. There wasn’t enough pure oil to last for more than one day, and miraculously it did. This is the signature of the Jewish people. By the numbers, the Jewish nation represent .22 of 1% of the human beings on the face of our planet. By all logic, we should not exist, especially after so many attempts to obliterate us! After being scattered over the four corners of the earth without a common homeland, we should not be here at all. But we are.
The Chanukah menorah teaches us that the Jewish nation is not subject to the laws of nature. Just as the oil did not follow the laws of nature and miraculously burned many times its natural ability, so, too, the Jewish nation continues to exist and will always exist against all odds.
There is one condition, though. We must adhere to the Holy Torah in its pure form, without additions, subtractions, or adulterations. The light of the menorah, lit with pure oil, represents the holy light of the Torah. The light of the true Torah has the power to illuminate even the darkest places. It removes the darkness of this world, which obscures and distorts reality. If we allow the light of the Torah to enter our souls, it will illuminate our lives as well.
When we light the menorah this year, let’s open our hearts to its message and seek to bring more Torah into our lives. This will be sure to brighten our lives!