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The Light of Chanuka

הרב יניב חניאכו כסליו, תשסד21/12/2003

a shiur for Chanukah in English, our first. Dedicated to our thousand visitor from the English speaking visitors.

The siur for Chanukah is dedicated by Shelly Kass Cutler In loving memory of her father Dr. Donald m.
 kass דוד מנדל בן זאב On his yahrzait. 

As we gather together, every man and his family, for the lighting of the Chanuka candles, we feel that this mitzva, this commandment, is very precious for us and also in the eyes of G-d. The sparkling light of the Chanuka candles rises up and exudes a spiritual quality. The family members a man and his family gathered around the candles feel the light warming and
illuminating their inner-hearts. This family ceremony, this lighting of candles in a visible place, proclaims the miracle to the whole world, the candles should be lit facing outward from the doorway, or in a conspicuous place. These lights fill us with courage and hope rooted in the deeds of the Maccabees a miracle wrought by your holy priests. The Rambam wrote in his Book of Laws (Laws of Chanuka, chap. 4, sect.12) The mitzvah of the Chanuka lights is very precious and should be treated with care and the Shulchan Aruch adds in section 671, paragraph 1: that it should be treated with great care. The commentary Magid Mishne on the Rambam indexed above quotes the Talmud, tractate Shabbat page 23a as follows: Rav Chunah said: he who honors the lighting of Chanuka candles will beget sons Talmidei Chachamim.

This veneration of the Chanuka lights leads to the question why is this mitzvah so special, why do these candles or the oil of the Chanukia get such venerable treatment. Even the Talmud when mentioning Chanuka only talks of the miracle of the canister of oil and ignores the tremendous victory of the Macabees in the war against the Greeks!! It is written in our Holy Books that when oil is mentioned in the Torah or in the later Holy writings in connection with the kindling of the Menorah it indicates wisdom of heart and brain.

When the Greeks barged into the Beit Hamikdash and desecrated it and the pure oil therein they trampled our wisdom and learning and their culture started to supersede Judaism in the pure hearts of some of the Jews. Their war against the Jews was a battle of cultures, of spirit. In the world concept of the Greek culture there are two ways for man to conduct his life: 1. to live with the powers of nature, to develop the powers of nature and improve them (indeed they were the first to develop physical prowess, exercises and sports) or 2. to fight nature, the ways of the stoics, homosexuality, abstinence, relinquishing the natural family life. In contrast to the Greek culture stands Judaism, the culture of the Torah, where G-d said to the Jews, (Exodus 19,verse 6) you shall be unto me a Kingdom of Priests, a Holy people. You shall be a physical Kingdom and rule yourselves, providing industry, economy, hospitals, infrastructure, army and all the trappings of State, and you shall also be a spiritual people and worship me. The State and spirituality must go together, must support and strengthen one another to create a Holy Nation. This attribute of Judaism is indicated in the Menorah of the Beit Hamikdash. The lights burn in a natural way, albeit the Western candle burned miraculously, and was proof that the Shechina (G-d) ruled over Israel and resided in the Beit Hamikdash (Tractate Shabbat p. 22b).

The natural and the miraculous are intertwined, G-dliness resides within a nation of flesh and blood, proof that G-d resides within Israel, rules over Israel. The Greeks were unable or unwilling to accept the beliefs of Judaism, its special view that unifies nature and the miraculous and sees in the physical the base for the spiritual which gives the physical its real meaning. Therefore the Greeks fought the Jewish belief and tried to force their own philosophy on the Jews. This is the wider meaning of  they desecrated the oil and battled against the light of Israel, they fought against the holy Menorah which stood in the Temple, a sure sign that the spiritual resides in a physical structure: the Temple, the light of the world. The Maccabees, holy priests themselves, rose up and led the flag of physical and spiritual resistance against this tyranny.

The pure olive oil used for kindling the lights of the Menorah and the Chanukia does not mix with water and floats on top of it, this also indicates the special standing of the Jewish people which does not assimilate into other peoples, as G-d said ( Exodus 19, verse 5)you shall be special for me of all the peoples and as Bilam the heathen prophet blessed the Jews (Numbers 23, verse 9) the nation dwells apart and is not counted among the other nations.

There is a wonderful Midrash which shows, by the use of a parable, how the Menorah expresses the specialty of the Jewish people and their relationship with G-d: There was a great King who had a good friend he loved, the friend was an ordinary, poor man. The King said to his friend that he wanted to visit and dine by him. The friend started fussing. He bought a new couch and lamp and all sort of foods for the expected visit. On the day the King came he was preceded by his retinue bearing all sort of grand furnishings and foods. When the friend perceived the oncoming procession, he was embarrassed, all the furnishings he had bought were simple and cheap looking while the King’s retinue bore royal furnishings and foods. He hid all he had purchased and the King arrived to an empty looking house. He asked his friend where are all your furnishings. The friend told of his embarrassment, he admitted to hiding his shabby looking furnishings and apologized for being unable to provide an abode fitting royalty. The King laughed, didn’t I say I wanted to visit you and dine with you? I can always stay in my palace if I want splendor, but my love for you elevates your house and I want to dine with you of your food.

Thus G-d says to Israel (in Exodus 25) make me a Temple and I shall dwell among you, (and continues) make me a golden Menorah and light its lamps every day. Am Yisrael saw that G-d created the sun and the moon to light the world but because He loved us and chose us for His nation He desired that we, Am Yisrael, light the special, pure lights of the Menorah. The Greeks made war against this Jewish belief, this belief that we are a special people, G-d’s chosen people, a people that dwells apart in purity. The Greek leader Antiochus said to his armies the Jews have one mitzvah, if you can eradicate it they will lose their life-power.

Which mitzvah was he referring to? This was the mitzvah of kindling the lights of the Menorah for it says every day should you light the Menorah, if the Jews light it they hold their life-power.... Antiochus was smart, he understood that the campaign against the Jews was against their beliefs, against their spirit, and if he should succeed to wean them, or force them, from their beliefs he will defeat them. Indeed there were many Jews who were won over to the Greek culture and were willing to abandon their Jewish beliefs, these Jews were called mityavnim, people becoming Greek-like, from the root of Yavan, Greece in Hebrew, they were blinded by the Greek culture and opted for it willingly. Now the importance of the oil canister should be clear, this small canister of pure olive oil burning for eight days enabled the Maccabees to rekindle the Jewish spirit in the time of the first Chanukah. This small, pure canister that survived the Greek persecution enabled the Jewish spirit to revive and continue to spread its light in the world.

From those days to the present: Several Years ago, when I was a Yeshiva student, we invited an anti-religious former Member of Knesset to lecture in our Yeshiva. I remember his declaration  we will no longer be a nation apart, we will be as all nations, there are the English, Japanese, Swedish, so there will be also the Jewish nation how my heart ached at his short-sighted words. Sadly, there are many Jews who do not see our distinction in being G-d’s chosen people, they see it as a racist belief, not as G-d’s choice to illuminate the world through us. Sadly, this view that we have to be a nation as all nations is gaining sway and is evident in the politics, culture, and social responsibility in Israel even as a large part of the Jews remain in the Diaspora, hiding their heads in the sands of foreign countries. They do not see the anti-Semitism directed against them, while the host-nations understand the distinction of the Jews and want to be rid of them. Another View of the Chanuka Lights Another aspect of the Chanuka lights is offered by the Mahral of Prague in his book Netzach Yisrael chap. 13. He explains the discourse in the Talmud (tractate Brachot p.4b) discussing the reason for the absence of the letter nun in the daily prayer of Ashrei, (psalm 145, this psalm is ordered according to the alef-bet). The Talmud says: Rabbi Yochanan said the letter nun is missing because it indicates the downfall of Judaism in line with the verse which also starts with the letter nun Judaism fell, or as others interpret it, Judaism fell but will fall no more. Rav Nachman the son of Rav Yitzhok added that King David, who wrote the psalms, saw the possible downfall of Judaism therefore his next verse after the missing nun ensures that G-d supports those fallen by inserting the verse G-d supports the fallen.

The Mahral discussing this topic agrees that the letter nun indeed indicates downfall based on a mystic calculation of letters. The Mahral explains, continuing the hope offered by Rav Nachman the son of Rav Yitzhok that G-d, abbreviated by the letter hey, supports the fallen. He shows that the letter hey similarly to the letter nun has special mystical qualities and when they are joined hey-nun as in the verse heyn Am levadod yishkon (the Nation dwells separately) the letter hey (abbreviation of G-d’s name) supports the letter nun and avoids the downfall. The Mahral now explains that the function of the Jewish people rests on this word heyn, when the Jews are prepared to be G-d’s people and dwell apart G-d will support them but if they try to be a nation as all nations then they will fall.

The words of the Mahral, who lived two hundred years ago in Europa, concerning the destiny of the Jews are more actual than ever today. If the Jews will be aware of their holy task and be G-d’s people then they will live in peace, but if they try to escape their task then a downfall awaits them. The Menorah and Chanukah have the function to remind us of who we are, and of our task in the world. May G-d give us the strength to be true to our destiny and to see the Beit Hamikdash rebuilt in our lifetime.
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