Though the festival of Chanukah was just completed with the arrival of Shabbat, we are still, no doubt, basking in the radiance of the menorah, which glowed so brightly these past eight days. Therefore, some reflection on the holiday is in order.
The Gemara poses the famous query, "Me'ei Chanukah?" What is Chanukah? The Gemara goes on to relate the basic outline of the story: the victory of the Maccabees, culminating in the public lighting of the seven-branched menorah in the Beit Hamikdash.
"Naaseh bo neis," the Gemara exclaims, a miracle happened and the small flask of oil kept the menorah burning for eight full days. The following year, on the first anniversary of the event, the festival of Chanukah was formally instituted by the Rabbis.
But why institute a holiday just because of a miracle? Since when were Jews so impressed by miracles that they responded by instituting holidays? To those who don't see G-d as actively involved in the goings-on of the world, a miracle is imposing. But to the Jewish people? Our perspective is that both miracles and nature are equal revelations of G-d's mastery over the world. Every day Hashem renews the creative process. The sun rises; a baby is born. There are constant daily(miraculous(reminders of the ongoing creative forces of Hashem.
Furthermore, miracles happened regularly in Temple times. Pirkei Avot enumerates the ten miracles that occurred daily in the Beit Hamikdash, yet no holiday was ever established to commemorate them. Why Chanukah? Me'ei Chanukah?
My rebbe, Rav Moshe Tendler, shlit"a, explains that the message of Chanukah is to live up to our potential. The Chanukah miracle shows us that a little oil had more in it than we had suspected. So too, every Jew, even the smallest "flask" contains the energy to give more light than one might imagine.
This message is reflected in the singular halachic measures that the Rabbis instituted for this holiday. According to halachah, a pauper must even sell the shirt off his back to purchase oil for the menorah.
Why this requirement? Someone who is destitute is exempt from other mitzvot; he does not have to place a mezuzah on his door or buy a pair of tefillin. But for the sake of the Chanukah lights he has no excuse. He must fulfill the mitzvah of hadlakat neirot no matter what. Why such a demand?
Because the Chanukah flame exhorts us to have no small dreams. Mediocrity is the antithesis of the Chanukah obligation. We have no excuses. Sell the shirt off your back if necessary, but proclaim to all that the Chanukah lights burn bright, that we believe Hashem expects us to live up to our full potential.
That full potential is realized by Yosef in Egypt. From the dungeons of a foreign country he rises to the second-highest position in the land.
Likewise, in this week's haftorah, Shlomo Hamelech decides the fate of a baby whom two women are claiming as their child. The Tanach tells us: "And all Israel heard the judgment that the king had judged and they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of G-d was in him, to do justice." The people saw the greatness imbued in Shlomo as he too realized his full potential.
May the lesson of Chanukah lead us to great accomplishments and the realization of our potential as the Am Hanivchar.
Rabbi Harold Wolk
Rabbi Wolk is Rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefilla, Dallas,Texas.
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