Lasting Lights

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29 Jun 2006

Chanukah is a victory celebration. The emphasis is not on the struggle against tyranny, the land liberated, “religious freedom” or the military victory against overwhelming odds; it is the celebration of a spiritual struggle and a spiritual victory. Despite the Hellenization of a significant number of Jews, the Jewish people refused to surrender to the tidal wave of the dominant Greek culture which proclaimed that it alone was civilized, contemporary and relevant.

LightbulbBy stubbornly insisting on maintaining their own religious values and spiritual way of life, and by forcing that way of life on Jews who had rebelled and succumbed to Greek culture, they not only survived – they also revived Jewish life for all time to come.

The Greeks had no desire to destroy the Jewish land or to spill Jewish blood – their purpose was to defile our spirit, to contaminate the sanctity of Jewish life, to impose their culture, philosophy, values and their corrupt pagan religion. As evidence, we see that they did not destroy the Temple or the Menorah, they were satisfied to allow Jewish life to function so long as it conformed to Greek terms, so long as the Jews marched to the Greek tune, and acknowledged Greek “superiority.”

Further evidence for this is that unlike the other holidays which are rich with mitzvot and a variety of celebrations, Chanukah has but few modest ones; the kindling of the lights of the Menorah and the saying of Hallel and Al Hanisim. There are no parades, fireworks displays or brass bands.

This unique mode of celebrating Chanukah through the kindling of lights and the retelling of the story of the miraculous one day flask of oil which lasted for eight days raises three interesting questions:

1) Why do we celebrate a great military victory by lighting our Menorot?

A flame is fragile; with one flick of a finger it can be extinguished. Victories, especially military ones, are generally celebrated with great monuments, parades and brass bands.

2) Why did the miracle of Chanukah take place retroactively? That is, why did the miracle of the lights occur after the military victory?

Miracles are needed in the midst of crisis, in the thick of battle. The Sea of Reeds split to let the Jews through when they were being pursued by Pharaoh’s army. That is a miracle. Daniel was saved in the lion’s den. That is a miracle. But — why on Chanukah did the Jews need a miracle “after the fact,” — once the battles were over, after they had overcome impossible odds, “the many in the hands of the few,” – once the Temple was recaptured and cleansed? Strange, indeed, for G-d to send a miracle when the time for miracles had passed and the time for celebration had arrived.

3) This brings us to the third and final question: What was G-d’s message to the Jewish people when He caused oil sufficient for one night to remain lit for eight? No miraculous manifestation of G-d’s will is without a message.

The answer to all three: Flame is a physical manifestation of the spiritual. “Ki Ner Elokim Nishmat Adam,” “The candle of G-d is the soul of man.” As is true concerning the human spirit, a flame can die or soar, it can be extinguished with the flick of the finger or it can light up an entire world if provided with sufficient fuel. The essence of the Jew is his spirit. The miracle of Chanukah describes the ability of a tiny people to maintain a Torah life through thousands of years of exile despite the efforts of every major civilization to destroy or convert us. The miracle of Chanukah commemorates the steadfastness and resilience of the Jewish spirit, the stubbornness of a stiff-necked people in the face of fierce opposition, mockery and persecution.

The miracle of the Menorah occurred retroactively as a sign from Heaven to indicate approval of the mode of battle and struggle adopted by the Maccabees. But in its deeper meaning, the miracle of oil sufficient for one day was a reflection, a mirror image of the underlying miracle of Chanukah — the resurrection of the will of the Jewish people to resist the efforts of the Greeks and their Jewish/Greek allies to destroy the Torah way of life.

The loyal Jews were in a state of total collapse and despair. The vials of holy Temple oil which the Greeks had defiled represent the tens of thousands of Judean families that had been Hellenized or intimidated into accepting the decrees of the Greeks which forbade the study of Torah and the observance of the Mitzvot. The Jewish people was all but defiled, its spirit depressed, its hope lost. Just as the holy Temple oil was defiled by the Greeks so, too, was the spirit of the Jewish people defiled. No one possessed the will to wage a battle for Hashem and the Torah. For all intents and purposes the Hellenizers were victorious, the Jewish people had succumbed to superior internal and external forces.

Their lights were out.

In the midst of this hopeless, depressed situation there arose a family of priests, Mattityahu and his four sons, who advocated resistance and rebellion. Not only did they battle the Greeks — they also fought their fellow Jews who had caved in to the pressures of the Greek way of life — which had conquered the entire civilized world of that time. The Hasmoneans – or the Maccabees, as they came to be known, were the only pure, undefiled flask of oil remaining in the Jewish people.

Before they could successfully unfurl the banner of revolt they had to revive the spirit of the Jewish people. They had to infuse the Jew with the will to do battle, they had to awaken their faith in Hashem for them to want to “battle His battles.”

“Ravta et Rivam”, “You, G-d then fought their battle,” when it became the battle of the Jewish People, when we became prepared to go to war on G-d’s behalf.

The war against the Greeks and the ultimate Maccabean victory was the final step in the renaissance of a people. Just as one priest discovered one vial of sacred oil – so, too, one family of priests represented the one residue of sacred undefiled Jewishness. It was that one undefiled family which succeeded in kindling the pure flame of Torah — which in turn revived the spirit of the entire Jewish people. It is this victory, the victory of the spirit — of indomitable faith and loyalty — which we celebrate with the kindling of the Chanukah Menorah. It is the victory of the Maccabees over Jewish depression and despair which G-d acknowledged with the miracle of the flask of oil.

The miracle of Chanukah repeats itself in each generation — “in those days and at this time.” The revival of Torah in our day is no less a miracle, the odds were no less formidable, the faith required of us is no less. Our victory will ultimately end with, “a song of thanks at the dedication of G-d’s altar.” To achieve this victory we must be prepared to recognize and confront our plight.

The forces of Western civilization which place materialism, leisure, relaxation and technology above spiritual Torah values is Greek philosophy in modem dress. This philosophy which denies the supremacy of Torah and the reality of G-d’s will remains our greatest enemy. “Yevanim nikbetsu alay” – “Greeks have overwhelmed me,” this challenge describes the plight of the overwhelming majority of Jews today. They are just overwhelmed by the secular life around them. But, if we can repeat the tactics of the Maccabees and apply them to our day, we too, can succeed in replicating the miracle of Chanukah.

Let us not forget that we are competing with the most alluring, enchanting civilization in history. Modern entertainment and technology have no rival. Nonetheless, when Jews experience the warmth and truth of Torah they are attracted despite the competition of a materialistic, popular and successful culture. The uniqueness of the revival of Torah in our day is the product of a special divine blessing, it has been said that “the Prophet Elijah walks among us” — it is for us to take advantage of this window of opportunity.