Characterizing Chanukah

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11 Dec 2020

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Maoz Tzur, the iconic song we sing at the lighting of the Chanukah menorah, chronicles Jewish history through each of our exiles bracketed between the introductory and final stanzas. These stanzas reflect our hope that we will in the near future again be redeemed and sing at the inauguration of the altar in the rebuilt Temple. What in these paragraphs is connected to the Chanukah holiday we celebrate today, and what, in fact, is the essence of the name Chanukah?

There are two classic reasons for celebrating Chanukah specifically as chanukas hamizbeach/the inauguration and dedication of the altar. First, that the Chashmonaim found the cruse of oil and it lasted for eight days, and that the Beit Hamikdosh and the altar itself were purified and rededicated to Hashem’s service. Rabbi Strickoff quotes Chazal that the 25th of Kislev commemorates the actual inauguration of a new altar. When the Chashmonaim returned to the Beit Hamikdosh after defeating the Greeks, the altar and all the vessels had been defiled. The Chashmonaim took apart that defiled altar and buried the stones (as one would bury sheimos today). Then they took new stones and built a new altar, dedicating it on the 25th of Kislev, the date we commemorate each year as Chanukah

The rededication of the altar was only for the year of victory. Yet the following year the Sages established the holiday of Chanukah to be celebrated eternally, anticipating that the light kindled that year would shine forever. However, in that case, asked the Netivot Shalom, why not name the holiday something like Orah/Light or Menorah?

Perhaps if we go back to the original altar in the desert, we can begin a discussion that weaves the various threads together to form the fabric of the essence of the commemoration. While the original altar of the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdosh was indeed completed on the 25th of Kislev, Hashem chose to delay the dedication of the Mishkan until Nissan, the month our forefathers were born. Hashem comforted Kislev and appeased it by the dedication of the new altar on the 25th of Kislev 1172 years later, at the time of the Chashmonaim. But in order for this second dedication to compensate for the original loss, there needs to be some connection between the two inaugurations, a connection that would also explain why we read the offerings the tribal princes brought each day of the inauguration of the Mishkan on the corresponding day of Chanukah.

There is yet another explanation for the name Chanukah, that the Maccabees chanu/rested from the war with the Syrian Greeks on kh”h/chaf-heh/25th day. Celebrating the end of the war, however, seems a more mundane reason for Chanukah than celebrating the dedication of the altar, unless the reason for the battle and its victorious outcome had a spiritual core, reasons the Sifsei Chaim. In fact, the Maccabees’ war against the Syrian Greeks was a battle against spiritual oppression, not for physical survival. We want Moshiach so that we have respite from those who would block us from living a full Jewish life, from those who would prevent us from learning and living Torah. Especially today, we want freedom to serve Hashem without spiritual challenges. During Chanukah, we too should rededicate ourselves to focus on our spiritual lives.

 The Shvilei Pinchas also breaks down the name of the holiday to the same two parts. However, instead of reading khaf-heh as the number 25, the Shvilei Pinchas reads it as koh/thus they rested from the battle). The Shvilei Pinchas then goes back to our prophets. Hashem speaks to all our prophets with, “Koh omar Hashem/Thus spoke Hashem.” However, when speaking with Moshe Rabbenu, the Torah continues with, “Zeh Hadovor/This is the [actual] word,” signifying a clear and supernatural message from Hakodosh Boruch Hu to Moshe, His prophet who led Bnei Yisroel out of Egypt with open, supernatural miracles. In contrast, the other prophets did not receive Hashem’s message in this direct and clear manner, but through visions that often required interpretation.

This difference in communication is also the difference between the Torah mandated holidays and the post Scriptural holidays mandated by our Sages, Purim and Chanukah, continues the Shvilei Pinchas. The holidays Hashem commanded us through Moshe Rabbenu commemorated open miracles, such as the plagues of Egypt that preceded our redemption. In contrast, the holidays of Purim and Chanukah, established by our Sages, commemorate salvation that seems to come about through the natural processes of the world. However, it is our mission to see Hashem’s hand in both the natural and supernatural. Both are indeed miraculous. The Maccabees rested, and saw the koh/thus of Hashem’s miraculous word even when cloaked in the natural events of the world.

The Shvilei Pinchas finds allusions to Chanukah and Purim in the Yosef narrative. From the special garment Yaakov gave to Yosef and not to the other brothers, a garment that weighed two selaim, he quotes the Chatam Sofer that this refers to the two holidays of Chanukah and Purim, holidays whose significance Yosef understood while his brothers did not comprehend their significance. Nevertheless, it was the jealousy engendered by this tunic that was the catalyst for the first galus/exile in Egypt.

This garment was itself an allusion to the Torah shebealPeh/Oral Torah, as the Oral Torah is referred to in the Zohar as “rabbinical garments.” While the brothers studied and understood the written Torah and the miraculous holidays depicted therein, they did not understand the miracles of Purim and Chanukah couched in natural phenomena. We ourselves bear witness to the difference between Pesach, for example, and the holidays of Purim and Chanukah, as we testify to the miracles Hashem performed for us for those holidays with reciting the blessing “…in those days, at this time.” While the other holidays changed the order of nature and of time to realize the miracles, only these two holidays worked within natural time to come about. Therefore, even in our days and times, we are bound to recognize Hashem’s hand through all of nature and in every occurrence of life.

Yosef’s life in Egypt further reflects his relationship to the unwritten but nevertheless truths of life and of Torah. After interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Yosef is clothed in bigdei sheish/linen garments and driven through the streets in merkavat hamishneh/second chariot of the king. Here too we can hear allusions to the Oral Torah, to the sheish sidrei Misnah, the six volumes of the Mishneh/Oral Torah. And Pharaoh gives Yosef and additional name, Tzofnat Paneach/He who reveals that which is hidden. Yosef in Egypt personifies the miracles which are hidden within nature.

When Yosef’s brothers arrive with Binyamin, Yosef has them eat a meal, a seudat Chanukah, with him. He commands his servants to prepare tevach vehachein/food that is slaughtered and prepared, the Hebrew letters of which form an anagram for Chanukah. Even a meal, totally natural and important for physical survival, must be perceived as a miracle wrought by Hashem. Yosef paved the way for us to see the miraculous in the natural.

Let us now return to another of our original questions. Besides the corresponding dates, how does the establishment of Chanukah compensate Kislev for the omission of the inaugural celebration of the Mishkan? If we understand the word correctly, Chanukah implies completion for a purpose that is to continue forever. The mizbeach/altar in the Mishkan moved from the desert to Shiloh and finally to the Beit Hamikdosh. However, when the Greeks defiled that altar, it could no longer fulfill its purpose. Its original dedication was no longer relevant. Similarly, when Bnei Yisroel sinned, they chased the Shechinah/Hashem’s Presence out of the Temple and abrogated that initial inauguration. To bring Hashem’s Presence back required personal dedication and self sacrifice. When the Chashmonaim demonstrated their dedication to Torah and to the sanctity of the Beit Hamikdosh, writes Rabbi Rothberg in Moda Labinah, they brought that sanctity back to the Beit Hamikdosh and to the mizbeach within it. Although there was much missing in this Second Beit Hamikdosh that was in the First Beit Hamikdosh, like the Aron Kodesh with the Luchot, the Menorah was still here, even if it no longer had the eternal, westernmost light that got its light and spiritual energy from the Luchot in the Aron. The Menorah represents the wisdom hidden in the Torah, still burning brightly through our connection to the Oral Torah. This connection keeps Hashem eternally in our midst, as was the purpose of the Mishkan. The quality of that Shechinah comes from our Rabbis and Talmidei Chachamim, and it is eternal. Ironically, even unaffiliated Jews find some connection to Chanukah, a connection they themselves do not realize comes from the Oral Torah.

Although we light the menorah, the holiday celebrates the inauguration of the altar rather than the candles, writes Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, but how can we be joyous when we no longer have that mizbeach and Beit Hamikdosh? As long as we celebrate the dedication of the Mizbeach so many years ago, we will be aroused to yearn for its rebuilding, as we sing, “Tikon beit tefilati veshom Todah nezabeach/Restore my House of Prayer and there will I bring a thanksgiving offering.” The lighting of the candles should help us focus on our tefillot, for our prayers take the place of the offerings.

As our eyes contemplate the candles, we pray that our eyes will merit seeing the return of Hashem to Zion, and inaugurate a renewal in our lives that will ignite the spark of our personal spirituality, writes the Lekach Vehalebuv. To keep us from depression and to maintain that hope, it is customary to recite Psalm 30, originally composed to be recited at the dedication of the Beit Hamikdosh. The Psalm speaks of hope and faith in Hashem, for I will rejoice even if I am now depressed and in mourning. All I need is the reconnection with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, my savior Who will lead me to rejoice and dance.  Netivot Shalom notes, that this is the calling of Chanukah, rebuilding our personal Mikdash, and rededicating ourselves to Hashem.

This rededication is a challenge, but it starts with one step. Citing the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Biederman notes that in the Yom Kippur Service, the Kohen Gadol, while sprinkling the blood of the offering on the altar, would count in an unusual way: “One. One and two. One and three…” Each time he sprinkled the blood, he would count by repeating, “One,” to signify that as difficult as that first step is, it is most beloved by Hashem, for it allows all the other steps to follow. Start anew and bring the fire back.

Here we can perhaps understand the flaw that led so many of Bnei Yisroel to be seduced by the Greek culture. Jews lost the passion and fire of Yiddishkeit, observing the mitzvoth by rote, each mitzvah as an independent action, but not being inspired by the beauty of a totally Torah lifestyle, writes Rabbi Leff. It is no wonder that they could be lured away by the external beauty of Greek culture. Even though we still had a Beit Hamikdosh and were living in Eretz Yisroel, this era is still referred to as the Greek exile, for our lives were distant from Hashem.

The true beauty of life is in the Torah. Rabbi Pincus compares the beauty of Yavan to beautiful wrapping paper that has no intrinsic value. One can get so distracted by the beautiful wrapping that one ignores the valuable gift within. The outer trappings of our society have blinded us to the beauty and excitement of Yiddishkeit. The gifts and Chanukah gelt that have become ubiquitous in our celebrations should be connected to the excitement of Torah and Yiddishkeit.

Our children have to feel the sweetness of Shabbos and mitzvoth or they will be lured by the superficial joys of the material, mundane world around them warns us Rabbi Avraham Schorr. [Several years ago I was with my son in Israel for Chanukah. After lighting the menorah, he sat the children around in a circle on the floor, asked Torah and Chanukah questions, reserving the very easy ones for the toddler, and rewarded each correct response with a candy or a coin, I don’t remember which. CKS] It is through the tasting of its sweetness that one comes to observe the Torah in its totality, not just as a rote observance of individual laws, adds Rabbi Avraham Schorr.

May we merit to see the light of Chanukah and bring Thanksgiving offerings on a rededicated altar in a rebuilt Beit Hamikdosh, speedily, in our day.

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