For all its beauty and profundity, when we study Chazal’s retelling of the
Chanukah story, some of us want to do a reality check. The miracle of the
oil was important, to be sure, but why should it so completely eclipse the
military victory? If not for that victory, not only would there be no
rededication of thebeis hamikdosh to speak of, but as miracles go,
the scale of the miracle on the battlefield was much greater!
Moreover, Chazal have a very different take on the nature of the problem
that the Chashmonaim solved. We would (and do!) point to the terrible
oppression by the Syrian-Greeks, their brutal suppression of mitzvos and
diabolical attempt to snuff out Yiddishkeit by banning some of the pillars
of practice. But this is not the way Chazal describe the run-up to
Chanukah. They note that the second pasuk of Chumash uses four
expressions of somber foreboding: sohu, vahu, choshech, sehom.
Each, they say, 2 alludes to one
of the four successful attempts by an oppressor nation against the Jewish
people. Chazal link the third, choshech/darkness to the Chanukah
period. Why? Because the Syrian-Greeks “darkened the eyes of Yisrael
by telling them to write on the horn of an ox that they did not have a
portion in the G-d of Israel. Is this the worst we can say about our
persecution by the Yevanim?
Rashi 3 puts us on the trail of an
important understanding about Chanukah, although it, too, initially
creates problems of understanding in its wake. The Torah describes the
lighting of the Menorah immediately following the parshah of the
offerings of the nesi’im at the inauguration of the mishkan.
Aharon, it seems, was dejected because he had no role in that event.
The nesi’im had managed to walk away with every important
contributory role. Hashem reassured Aharon by pointing to his role in the
lighting of the Menorah, whose contribution would be greater than that of
Ramban questions why Aharon was appeased by this. Lighting the Menorah is
no different from many other parts of the avodah, which require
a Kohen. Aharon certainly knew about the centrality of the Kohen to
the avodah! Furthermore, a medrash 4puts a slightly different spin on Hashem’s words of
consolation. It has Him telling Aharon that korbanos – such as
those brought by the nesi’im – are limited to the times that the beis
hamikdosh stood; the lighting of the Menorah is forever. Is that
really so, asks the Ramban? The Menorah stood in the beis hamidkosh.
When the latter was destroyed, no one lit the Menorah each day.
What solace could Aharon have found in this?
Ramban explains that Hashem told Aharon about a special lighting that
would take place well into the future. A family of Kohanim – the
descendents of Aharon - would wrest control of Har Habayis from
the enemy, and participate in the rededication of the beis hamikdosh.
This lighting, and the ones that would follow every year on the
anniversary of the original would take the Menorah forward into time
beyond its physical limitations. Alone among all the parts of the
avodah, the lighting of the menorah would live on – not as a
commemoration of things past, but as a continuation of the light of the
actual Menorah of the Temple! (Bnei Yisoschor, citing the
Rokeach, finds yet another allusion to this in parshas Emor.
After visiting all the special days of the year – Shabbos and each of the
holidays – the Torah switches topics 5to the preparation of oil for the menorah. This alludes to yet
another, unnamed, holiday, that of Chanukah, making use of that oil.)
This is all so confusing. If Chanukah continues the light of the Menorah,
why are its halachos so different? The Menorah in the beis hamikdosh
was kindled during the day; not so the Chanukah lights. The Menorah
stood inside the structure of the beis makikdosh; we light the
Chanukiyah outside, at the entrance to our homes. The Menorah required
the purest of oils; the Chanukah lights do not.
The explanation begins with some difficult phraseology. “Toward the face
of the Menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.” 6Rashi takes the face of the Menorah to mean the central
lamp, which was not held atop a branch, but rose from the trunk of the
Menorah itself. This is somewhat unsatisfying, though. Only six lamps
turned towards the central one. Why does the Torah speak of seven lights
turned towards the Menorah’s face?
We find an allusion here to the very nature of the Menorah’s light, whose
source was the Ohr Haganuz, the original light of the first day of
Creation. This was no ordinary light with conventional physical
properties, but the ohr of Elokus. Too powerful for Man to
use, it was therefore hidden away for some future time when it will be
appropriate for him. What we translate as “face of the Menorah” – pnei
hamenorah - can be taken as the penimiyus, the inner essence of
the Menorah. That inner essence is the Shechinah, in the form of
Binah, shining through to the seven lower sefiros. TheKohen
kindles the lamps, and draws down some of this light from its source,
illuminating our world with Divinity.
Maharal explained the significance of the number “eight.” Seven (the
number of days it took to create the world and all things in it, including
the spirituality of Shabbos) sums up all things that are part of this
world, including the spirituality inherent in it. Eight signifies what is
beyond and above the natural. We circumcise on the eighth day,
proclaiming the child’s duty to add more kedushah to the world than
what is already there. The eighth day of the inauguration of the
mishkan distinguished itself in ten different manners. We received
the Torah on an eighth day of sorts – not the eight that is one more than
seven, but the eight that is one more than seven squared. Despite the fact
that the miraculous part of the oil’s burning was that it burned seven
days beyond its natural capacity, we celebrate Chanukah for eight, in
recognition of the nature of its special ohr and its lofty, transcendent
plane. In a word, that ohr can be identified with the continuation of the
supernal ohr of the Menorah, continuing to be available to us even
in the absence of the beis hamikdosh.
In a sense, there is nothing more precious to a Jew than that ohr. What
possibly could be more valuable than the light of Divinity that
illuminates the Jewish soul? For that matter, what could be more
devastating to a Jew than to be told that the light had been extinguished,
that the Shechinah had permanently departed from the community? But that
is precisely what the Syrian-Greeks attempted to beat into the Jewish
psyche – the sense that the Shechinah had abandoned them, plunging them
into permanent spiritual darkness.
It makes perfect sense, then, that we should mark the defeat of that plan
through a holiday of illumination. How wonderful it is that we do so not
by simply commemorating our past glory, but by partially restoring it,
through revitalizing the light of the Menorah.
It could not have happened at a more opportune time. The Chanukah events
took place at the nadir of Jewish spirituality – even more so than Purim.
From the time of the giving of the Torah, Bnei Yisrael were used
to an ongoing association with the Divine through the phenomenon of
prophecy. Nevuah, however, came to an end just before the Chanukah era.
The cessation of the sweet voice of Divine communication plunged our
people into darkness. (This is the reason that the details of Chanukah are
not discussed in the Mishnah, and the holiday itself if mentioned only
once, obliquely and in passing. Similarly, Chanukah is mentioned but once
in all of the Zohar. Chanukah symbolizes a profound hiddeness, not
emerging even in words of Torah.)
All of the Menorah was made from a single piece of gold, 7from the bottom of its base to the ends of its
branches, and including all its decorations and embellishments. This is
meant to teach us that the ohr Elokus illuminates all spiritual levels,
from lowest to highest. Although the Shechinah never descended below
ten tefachim, its ohr suffuses all places and levels. Similarly,
Chanukah continues that illumination into the most inhospitable places and
times of our exile. Chazal fixed this holiday to light up our galus
in the worst of times. Therefore, they deliberately placed the
Chanukah lights within ten tefachim of the ground, and outside our
homes, casting its light on the entirety of the world.
The Menorah in the beis hamikdosh required oil that was “pressed.”
8 The ohr Elokus is generally incapable
of entering and penetrating our coarse, unrefined natures. We must
first “press” out the dross; only then will we yield the clear, refined
oil within. We are required to negate our physical selves to Hashem before
we can contain His light.
The oil we use each year at Chanukah is not subject to any similar
requirement. Part of Chanukah’s specialness is its ability to reach all
Jews, at all levels. Chanukah is relevant to all of us, wherever we may be
situated on our spiritual journeys.
We could not continue the long, arduous path of galus without it. It comes
down to this: without the ohr Elokus in our lives, we are nothing.
With it, we can survive anything.