Understanding Chanukah for Today


Understanding Chanukah for Today


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Chanuka Ecstasy

By Yechezkel Gold

Chanuka's warm, glad glow transforms winter's dark night and chill into mellow contentment. Chanuka's lights affect us that way spontaneously. If we meditate on the experience and come to greater awareness, the mellow contentment deepens, becoming ecstasy.

We light the candles, of course, to celebrate our victory, spiritual and military, over the darkness of Hellenistic tyranny and the miracle of a single canister's one day supply of pure, undefiled olive oil burning for eight days in the Temple menorah.

Hellenistic tyranny differed from the Egyptian bondage at the dawn of our history, and from the Babylonian oppression and Persian dominance immediately preceding Hellenistic times. Earlier conquerors unabashedly applied "might makes right". They did not care if we thought like them or agreed with them. We merely had to comply. Hellenistic government, though, coupled a seditious ideology with practical compulsion.

Earlier forms of idol worship now seem to us bizarre, primitive and simplistic. Greek mythology, on the other hand, has an alluring sophistication. Alexander's conquests drew lands and peoples not only into the Hellenic empire, but also into Greek culture. Hellenistic philosophy pervaded life, seeming to mesh almost seamlessly with nature and life's realities. Its hidden assumptions, though spiritually superficial and barren, reduced the challenge of living to a complacent egoism and materialism.

Hellenistic culture was a bed of Sodom. In ancient Sodom, wayfarers might be caught and strapped onto an iron bed and their height adjusted: either they were pulled and extended on the rack or they were made shorter. Similarly, Hellenistic culture set narrow standards of proper attitudes and feelings. Under the guise of a covertly truncated, artificially reduced Reason, they attacked and attempted to discredit any awareness, any way of thinking different from or larger than their own. Their utter denial of monotheism and of a selfless reality beyond nature, egoism and materialism brought conflict with Torah and their Jewish subjects' soulful spirituality, which was cognizant of and focused on the realm the Hellenists denied. The ensuing uprising ended when the Jews expelled their spiritual oppressors from Israel.

The military contest ended long ago, but the spiritual and cultural struggle remains. We still inhabit a world pervaded by the Greek ethos. Our souls, like our forefathers', strive desperately to live and express the Godly reality central to our being. Our culture rooted in the Greek, even our own minds, painstakingly thwart our efforts, labeling our spiritual discomfort deviant and blocking our awareness of its true character.

Now, just as then, true victory over the Hellenists is no easy matter. Military triumph enabled the Jews to resume authentic Jewish practice. However, the Greek influence remained in their minds, in Hellenistic thinking. Today, living according to the commandments is a privilege we all can enjoy and, after our history of oppression and suffering, is certainly a victory. But Hanukkah celebrates a fuller victory, as well, the victory of the soul and the mind over materialism and egoism. That spiritual victory brings ecstasy.

That spiritual victory is more subtle, and to understand it we need to bring an idea from the Cabala. The Tanya, core book of Hasidic mysticism, tells us in chapter 40 that a great difference exists between learning Torah for its own sake and learning Torah with ulterior motivation. Torah study for its own sake ascends aloft, merging with the pure sanctity of the Godly realm. Ulterior motivation though, holds the Torah learning down, preventing its attachment to the sublime upper worlds.

In Chapter 8, a similar but more puzzling idea is expressed: "... one who has unwittingly eaten a forbidden food intending it to give him strength to serve God by the energy of it, and has, moreover, actually carried out his intention, having both studied and prayed with the energy of that food, nevertheless the vitality contained therein does not ascend and become clothed in the words of the Torah or prayer, as is the case with permitted foods, by reason of its (the forbidden food's) being held captive in the power of the other side, of the three unclean husks." How can we understand that the energy of the forbidden food was used for study and prayer, which certainly are activities intrinsically holy and fit to ascend aloft, but the vitality contained therein does not ascend aloft, although the vitality does ascend aloft when derived from permitted foods?

Our answer is that the vitality that is or is not expressed in the study or prayer is not formless and without an identity. The vitality that comes from forbidden foods has a pernicious and corrupting essence, incompatible with the essence of Torah study, prayer and performing the Commandments. Therefore, though energy derived from the forbidden foods may go into those holy activities, the essence of that food is not expressed in those activities. The sacred deed remains separate from the pernicious and corrupting energy providing its vitality. The vitality does not elevate the Torah study, nor does the Torah study elevate this vitality. In the same manner, ulterior motives are incompatible with Torah study and therefore Torah study for selfish motives does not ascend aloft.

The question remains: Since energy provided by the forbidden food produced a holy deed, why does it matter that the forbidden food itself is not elevated? Is the holy action, itself, not sufficient?

The answer is that although the holy deed was performed, it is very incomplete. One important purpose of Torah study and performing holy deeds is to elevate the person engaged in these activities and the energy he puts into them. This can occur only when that person's motivation is pure, compatible with the character of these holy activities. When this is the case, the holy activities bring the individual close to God because he/she means what he/she is doing. Ascending aloft and coming close to God, the person is truly loved and fully accepted. His or her faculties and very being are elevated and freed as he joyfully emerges from the spiritual exile preceding that holy activity.

Like forbidden food and ulterior motivations, the Greek ethos of materialism and egoism is incompatible with the pure and sacred character of Torah and the commandments. Hellenistic culture and its contemporary expression accept and understand only selfish activity; it does not make sense for that culture, it is unreasonable, to be selflessly altruistic, to long for and live in a world in which the One God is the very meaning of reality and one's private life is totally devoted to God. Those impulses, that Jewish need to live a life attached to the One God at the expense of all other considerations, are labeled deviant and crazy. This Hellenistic/contemporary cultural and philosophical milieu is the darkness of the exile, of the millennia of night.

For the Jewish soul, clinging to God and selfless altruism are the epitome of pleasure. For the Hellenistic psyche, it seems, they are not. The reflection of Hellenistic culture in the Jewish mind still oppresses the soul, demanding egoism and deriding selflessness .

Miracles do happen though. From deep within, a Jew may grasp the incomplete vision and fallacy of Hellenistic ethos. He/she may consciously accept and embrace the truer reality his inner being already intuits. He/she may study Torah, surround themselves with a life and community of God's commandments, and learn to really think like a Jew. When that happens, the dark no longer matters. The soul is mellow and content. Consciously realizing this redemption from the forces of darkness brings exultant ecstasy. And being a selfless Jewish soul, one is even happier to be able to light up some of the darkness. Speedily and in our days, Amen!


from the November 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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