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Hanukkah's Spiritual Lights
By Yechezkel Gold
The Hanukkah lights' soft glow suffuses the room's atmosphere. A faint fragrance of olive oil, the choicest material used to fuel the delicate little flames, issues from the Hanukkah candelabra and mingles with the robust aroma of the traditional fried latkes (potato pancakes). Hanukkah's genial warmth and beauty are a message exceeding the power of any explanation.
To light the candelabra is the essence of celebrating Hanukkah. Whether one kindles the lamps outside in the doorway or courtyard gate, as originally prescribed in the Talmud, in the window, or ensconced within an inner doorway opposite the mezuza, as the various traditions have evolved, the little flames stand out calmly but pointedly against the outer darkness.
Each of the Jewish holidays is distinct. There are nevertheless some elements they have in common. Regarding the Passover Seder, the Torah instructs the father to tell his son: "for this is the purpose God took me out of Egypt". The purpose of the exodus miracles was for the people of Israel to celebrate the Seder. It seems legitimate also to say that the miracles of triumphing over the oppressive and antagonistic Hellenistic empire, and of the menorah in the holy Temple where a single day's supply of pure oil lasted for eight days, took place in order that we be able to celebrate Hanukkah now.
There are many parallels between the Maccabee's era and our own. Then as now the hope for worldly success, embodied by the Greek ethos, lured many Jews away from the Torah. This split divided our people and our selves. The tragic lack of understanding and ensuing conflict within our people echoes a similar conflict within our personalities. Whether we are Orthodox for whom the benefits of gentile culture beckon strongly, or more secular Jews secretly yearning for a deeper, more meaningful life and harboring a scarcely acknowledged fundamental allegiance to our religion and people, the chasm between these two worlds disturbs our peace.
Usually we try to ignore the discord, internal as well as external, but our ancestors could not avoid the conflict. Those who chose God and Torah then were privileged to witness miracles. In our days, however, particularly for those of little faith, "we did not see signs" (Psalms 74 ). Nevertheless, we suggest the notion that similar to Seder night, celebrating Hanukkah in our days was the purpose of the miracles in the days of the Maccabees.
Chanuka is somewhat different from the other major Jewish festivals. When the sages in the days of Rabbi Akiva compiled a list of sacred works to be included in the Bible, they considered but did not accept the Book of Maccabees. Coming chronologically after the Book of Esther which was included in the Bible, the Book of Maccabees is an authentic Jewish work, but was pointedly excluded from holy scripture. Chanuka is not a scriptural festival.
The Midrash likens the Book of Esther to the Morning Star, last of the stars visible before they vanish in the morning. Indeed, Esther means star. The epoch of prophets and public miracles, indeed, of seeing God's hand directing the course of history, ended with the Bible. Chanuka is post biblical, when the Greek, materialist and essentially secularist ethos came to dominate not only our sense of the events of our lives, but even the course of those events themselves. The Rabbis chose to make Chanuka a non scriptural holiday to highlight its essential meaning and power. It is directed to a time when the hand of God seems hidden.
Actually, Hellenistic culture was pagan. They worshiped idols and believed in a myriad of quasi independent gods or forces. They too viewed their world as living, directly reflecting their gods' direction. However, their conception of God was flawed. They were polytheistic and pantheistic. Polytheism misses the soul's essential grasp of God, which is monotheistic. Pantheism, which blends God with nature, eventually led to materialist secularism. An important further step in the evolution of secularism whose prominence perhaps has increased and matured in modern times, is the notion of an impersonal universe. Whereas in biblical times "God's face was turned toward us", in the golus (diaspora) which began with Greek dominance and continues with its Roman adaptation to this day, God seems to have "hidden his face" from us.
Actually, the notion that God hides his face cannot be understood simply. The Torah tells us that God created the world with his speech. According to mystical literature, this utterance continues in the present throughout the course of creation; therefore creation is ongoing. Thus, the course of history is an ongoing communication from God. While we may conceive of Him speaking kindly or angrily, we must be careful to distinguish between what God says and how we interpret it. For example, someone particularly defensive and set in his ways will resent and feel threatened by a wise person's kindly meant comments intended to help him advance. Someone more open, flexible and favorably disposed, on the other hand, generally welcomes advice and instruction and considers the person giving them friendly.
Similarly, we may tend to feel that God has turned his face away from us when in fact it is we who have turned our face away. A classic illustration of this idea can be found in the Talmud and Midrash. The Talmud (Yoma) states that when the people of Israel are doing God's will, the cherubs that were positioned over the ark in the holy of holies in the Temple faced each other. When they went against God's will, the cherubs turned away from each other. The Midrash recounts that when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, they entered the holy of holies and found the cherubs facing each other. To mock the people of Israel, they threw the cherubs out into the street for all to see. What the people saw, of course, was that even this disastrous event, far from being an impersonal interplay of natural historical forces, was an intimate, personal communication from God.
The sages chose to make Chanuka, a festival not related biblical times, to emphasize that even in the darkness and night of golus, the gentle, intimate light of God's personal communication and contact with the Jewish soul remains, calm and steadfast. Our firm faith in God is fully reciprocated; He has faith in us, in the ability of our souls to bring light into the darkness, too. The miracle in the golus is a reminder that we are really not alone.
A parable may aid us in understanding the purpose of our living through the Hellenistic golus. A king who had three sons determined to test them to find who is most meritorious. He gave each of them a difficult task and was gratified to find that all three fulfilled his mission. He then asked each to say why they had fulfilled their mission. One son said that he imagined the great reward he would receive if he did his generous father's bidding. Another son said he feared his powerful father's wrath should he not comply. The third son said that he did his father's will because he loves his wise and good father, and because he is his father. The king found the third son's reasoning most meritorious.
Similarly, when we feel in the dark as if God has turned his face away, as in the Hellenistic golus, we can make the most meritorious choices, based not on the overwhelming experience of prophecy and miracles, but rather on the deeply felt appreciation of God and His Torah.
Thus, we can eminently assert and believe that the miracles of Chanuka took place so that we in our generation can celebrate the personal miracle of faith and hope represented by the gentle flicker of the Chanuka lights.
from the December 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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