Vayeishev: Chanukah

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30 Nov 2007

In one of the most dramatic passages in the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam tells the story of Chanukah: how we suffered persecution spiritually and religiously (prohibition of Torah and mitzvot), materially (seizing property) and personally (outrages of modesty); and how with God’s help we overcame militarily (the Chashmonaim saved Israel), nationally (they established the kingdom) and spiritually (sanctification of the Sanctuary). (Beginning of Laws of Chanukah, third chapter of Laws of Megillah and Chanukah)

In this description, the victories mentioned correspond to the oppressions – almost. Against the assault on our property and modesty we have “salvation”, and corresponding to the desecration of the sanctuary, we have the rededication of the altar. But what does the re-establishment of the kingdom have to do with anything? After all, the fact that the Greeks were sovereign in the Land of Israel was not mentioned as a reason for the rebellion!

This lack of parallelism points out the ambivalent relation to Jewish sovereignty in the Torah. On the one hand appointing a king is a commandment; on the other hand the commandment is worded in a critical way: “When you come to the land… and you say, I will appoint me a king like all the nations around me; you shall indeed appoint yourself a king, whom HaShem your God will choose… only he should not have too many horses, nor return you to Egypt…” (Devarim 17:14-16). The commandment to appoint a king is prefaced by the assumption that the desire for a king is only in order to imitate the gentile nations; and it is immediately followed by a series of warning of everything the king should not do.

Likewise, the prophet Shemuel is very critical of the nation’s desire for a king. Yet he does accede to this desire, and is even ordered by HaShem to do so (Shmuel I chapter 8).

And so throughout Jewish history. Jewish sovereignty is an important value in our Torah, it is even a commandment, but it needs to be kept in appropriate perspective. After the first conquest of the land it has never been a justification in and of itself for war and rebellion, but when our lives and our ability to observe the Torah depend on armed struggle, then it is appropriate that we carry out such a struggle with our own king, just as other nations do.

This ambivalence is reflected in the observance of the holiday. The main commandment of Chanukah is to praise HaShem for the miraculous victory. Appropriately, the special addition to the Amida prayer and to the grace after meals, “al hanisim” (seif 21), emphasizes primarily the miracle of the victory over the Greeks. However, the most visible symbol of the holiday, the Chanukah lights, are connected in our minds primarily with another miracle – that of the single cruse of oil which miraculously burned for eight full days. This miracle is unrelated to the military aspect of the holiday, and focuses our attention on the spiritual aspect: the consecration of the Temple.

By emphasizing publicly the more spiritual side of the holiday, the side which concentrates on the purification of the sanctuary, we show that while the Jewish people also know how to esteem secular success and we thank HaShem for such success, our ultimate relation to our triumphs in the secular is as a means to spiritual ascent.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.