Breaking Barriers

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04 Dec 2023

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

We can begin our exploration of Chanukah with the same words the Gemarra  uses, “Miy Chanukah/What is Chanukah?” This simple question generates two different interpretations, notes the Tosher Rebbe zt”l in Avodat Avodah. First, we can ask why we celebrate Chanukah; is it for the victory in battle, or for the miracle of the oil lasting eight days? Alternately, we can ask why the holiday is called Chanukah. Both questions are valid and each lead to deep and significant discussion.

The Shvilei Pinchas quotes the Tikunei Zohar in an unusual citation for the timing of the Chanukah celebration. Rather than saying Chanukah is celebrated on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the Zohar writes that is celebrated after the first twenty-four days of Kislev. This declaration is based on the homiletic and mystical qualities of numbers in Jewish thought.

The Shvilei Pinchas explains that this terminology is based on the number of letters in two seminal verses of our liturgy. The first of these verses, שמע ישראל יקוק אלקינו יקוק אחד /Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One and the Same, according to the medrash was first spoken by the tribal patriarchs in unison, and then Yaakov Avinu responded with,ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד/Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity. If we count the number of letters in each of these statements of faith, we will note that the first verse, the very foundation of our faith, has twenty-five letters, while the second verse, the supporting statement, consists of twenty-four letters.

Citing Rav Tzadok hakohen, the Shvilei Pinchas now explains that during the first twenty-four days of Kislev, the Chashmonaim battled the Greeks and defeated them. This represents the lesser, twenty-four lettered declaration. Then they were able to rest on the twenty fifty, חנו כה, inspiring the stronger declaration of the unity of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

But the roots of the Chanukah story go much further back, continues the Shvilei Pinchas, all the way back to our Patriarch Yaakov. On his journey back to Canaan from his father in law’s home, Yaakov transports his family across the Yabok River. Yaakov is then left alone, when he encounters a “man,” symbolically the guardian angel of Esau, who struggles with him all night until the break of dawn. Homiletically, we are told to read לבדו/alone as לכדו/for his jug [of oil]. While Yaakov Avinu emerges victorious, he is nevertheless injured in the left thigh, the part of the body associated with the mystical attribute of הוד/splendor. Yaakov recovered, and the sun shone לו/ for him. But הוד is also the root of the word להודות/to give thanks. In fact, the primary mitzvah of Chanukah is not lighting the candles, but giving thanks and praise to His great Name. Lighting the candles is meant to be the catalyst for praising Hashem. When the sun shone לו, numerically thirty six, the Torah is alluding to the thirty six candles of the eight days of Chanukah.

Yaakov fought all night, paralleling the dark night of the Greek exile. If not for the war against the darkness of the Greek decrees banning the most important practices of Judaism, there would be no miracle of the oil. The miracle of the oil helps us realize that even the natural order is really all miraculous, hidden within nature.

With this in mind, we can understand that although the “open” miracle of the oil was only seven days, we celebrate Chanukah for eight days, for, in fact, the “natural” burning of oil for one day is also a miracle, writes the Saba of Kelm zt”l. Therefore, we praise Hashem for the miracles, plural, He performed for us. When we are commanded to publicize the miracles, we are meant to publicize and internalize and acknowledge to ourselves, even more than to the public, the daily miracles Hashem does for us, writes Rabbi Friedlander the Sifsei Chaim. When we feel the connection, we are actualizing Hashem’s sovereignty, the message of Shema Yisroel. In a wonderful metaphor, the Saba of Kelm zt”l notes that if the candle lighting and the songs we sing to accompany it do not arouse feelings of appreciation for Hakodosh Boruch Hu, it is like reading a shopping list without going to buy the items on the list.

The Shvilei Pinchas finds further allusions to Chanukah in the narrative of Yaakov’s struggle that night. Yaakov was crossing the יבוק /Yabok River whose numerical equivalent is 112. The numerical equivalent of אלקים is 86, the same number as הטבע/nature; the name י-ק-ו-ק, the name encompassing all of reality, including the supernatural, is equal to 26. Together, they equal 112. Yaakov Avinu, in crossing the Yabok River, was thus symbolically combining these two names.

Yaakov’s battle presages the battle of the Chashmonaim, a battle that can seem natural. By bringing back these small jugs after the battle, Yaakov was combining the “natural” miracle of war with the supernatural miracle of the oil, teaching us that the God of nature and the God of the supernatural are in reality One and the same God.  This is what is alluded to in the ‘Shema Yisrael’ wherein we cite both the name ‘Elokim’ the master of nature, and “Hashem” the master of the Supernatural, and note that really all is ‘Hashem echad’ one and the same force.  This is the message of Chaunkah.

Once we acknowledge Hashem’s chassadim to us and thank Him, we create an ais ratzon/an auspicious time to pray and ask Hashem for further blessings. It is for this reason that some people have the custom to recite chapters of Tehillim immediately after lighting the Chanukah candles, writes Rav Meislish. In fact, in Chassidic circles, it is the eighth day of Chanukah that is considered the day the decrees of Rosh Hashanah are sealed, paralleling the eighth day of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, the traditional day the decree is sealed. Along these lines, Rebbetzin Smiles suggests that during Chanukah we consider doing teshuvah out of love and gratitude to Hashem to counter the evil that befell our people in Eretz Yisroel on this past Shmini Atzeret

Our Sages often compare the two Rabbinic holidays of Purim and Chanukah. They note that while Purim is celebrated physically, with a feast and wine, Chanukah is celebrated spiritually, through lighting the menorah. Each holiday reflects both our shortcomings and the danger we faced. On Purim, we sinned through eating and drinking. As a consequence, we faced physical annihilation. We repented through physical fasting. In contrast, during the Greek era, we served in the Beit Hamikdosh, but we served without feeling, lackadaiscally, without devotion. Therefore we were threatened with spiritual assimilation, a ban on observing the basic practices of our religion. When the Chashmonaim extended themselves beyond normal devotion to fight for our spiritual existence, and then to struggle in the search for the purest oil to rekindle the menorah, even though any olive oil would have sufficed, they rectified the earlier laxity that had opened the gates for the Greeks to enter the Beit Hamikdosh. What we learn is that one must invest himself in his observance of the mitzvoth. Anything short of that personal investment renders the mitzvah incomplete.

As the Sifsei Chaim notes, mesiras nefesh, dedication to a mitzvah, is moving out of your comfort zone. When man pushes beyond his natural inclination for ease and comfort, writes Rabbi Wolbe zt”l, Hashem also goes beyond the rules of nature to bless them for their effort. When the Chashmonaim searched for the most perfect way to rekindle the menorah, Hashem rewarded their effort not only in their finding the small cruise of oil, but in miraculously having it burn for the full eight days, until fresh, pure oil could be produced.

Rabbi Mordechai Schwab zt”l explains that one who is doing more than the requirements, one who is moser nefesh, is in search of sheleimus/perfection. He will do a perfect job, not just a good job. He will add enhancements to a project. He will put in unpaid overtime — anything to ensure the most beautiful and perfect outcome. Rabbi Mendelovich zt”l insists that this is the main mission in the service of our generation.

Indeed, we see evidence of this desire to go above and beyond by so many of us today as we stand beside our brothers in Eretz Yisroel. Those in Eretz Yisroel who are fortunate enough not to be displaced are volunteering to work the fields of the kibbutzim. Women and teenagers are setting up all kinds of programs for the displaced families, besides donations of money, food and clothing from Israel and from all over the world. And to enhance this giving, notes of support are tucked into the pockets of donated clothing or into the donated bag meals. Everyone wants to do more.

When we were dominated by the Greek Empire, although we brought the sacrifices regularly, the Greeks had injected darkness into these offerings, stripping their performance of life and light. In contrast, notes Rabbi Biederman, when the nation dedicated the Mishkan in the desert, although all the tribal leader brought the same material offering, each was personalized with the bearer’s individual, spiritual, heartfelt thoughts.

Rabbi Pincus notes that in Zechariah 9:13 we have the juxtaposition of ציון/Zion/Israel and יון/Greece. Only one letter, צ/צדיק differentiates the two. A tzadik, the righteous person, lives by his faith. How has he become a tzadik? Through investing all of his actions with life, with vibrancy. Otherwise you remain in darkness, like Greece. For 180 years we were under the dark Greek subjugation, and then we broke out of that norm to rise up. Similarly did the oil break out of its nature to go upward, just as we are supposed to do.

The menorah’s flame was lit from the fire of the outer mizbeach/altar. It was commanded to be a constant flame. We are meant to approach all our service with fire and passion, as if we are offering ourselves on the altar, writes Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv. It is this fire that should infuse our recitation of the twenty-five letters of the first line of Shema Yisroel throughout the year, and that burns within me as I light the flames of the Chanukah menorah.

On Chanukah particularly, we must recite Shema fully focused on accepting the yoke of Heaven, because that is the essence of Chanukah itself, writes the Tosher Rebbe zt”l. We are called upon to emulate the dedication of the kohanim not just during our recitation of Shema, but throughout the day.

The Tosher Rebbe zt”l then brings a novel interpretation to Chanukah. He notes that while we often divide Chanukah in two, as חנו/Chanu and כ”ה /25/kah, and translate it as they “rested” on the 25th day, the root of חנו can also be translated as רחמים/mercy. Chanukah brings down much mercy and blessings from Hashem when we go beyond the requirements and push ourselves to do more… and how much more can we accomplish when we extend ourselves.

Rebbetzin Smiles told us of a recent example of this phenomenon. A few months ago a young family were driving when they ran out of gas outside Bnei Brak. A man named Yehudah noticed them on the side of the road. Finding out their problem, he offered to bring them a gas can of gas from the station down the road. He brought it to them, but refused to take any money from them. Instead, he asked for their phone number and later checked that they had arrived at their home in Kibbutz Be’eri safely. Yehudah kept in touch with the family who were overwhelmed by Yehudah’s continuing kindness. When Yehudah invited them to come for a Shabbat, especially since it would also be the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, they decided to accept Yehudah’s invitation. Through extending himself beyond what anyone would have expected, Yehudah merited saving a family from death or abduction.

May we dedicate ourselves to serving Hashem and Am Yisroel with fullness and perfection, and merit feeling the light, joy and salvation of Chanukah within ourselves and over all of Kllal Yisroel.

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