A few moments ago, we concluded the holiday Haftarah and read a beautiful verse uttered by the prophet Zechariah (4:6): לֹא בְחַיִל וְלֹא בְכֹחַ כִּי אִם־בְּרוּחִי אָמַר ה’ צְבָאקוֹת — “Not by might and not by strength, but by My spirit, says the L-rd.”
The connection with Chanukah is straightforward: in the times of the Greeks, the Jews fighting for Jerusalem were fewer and weaker, yet they won the battle. It was — as we all know and say in our prayers — the victory of the “few against the many, the weak against the strong, the pure against the impure”. A handful of motivated people, the Maccabim, changed the world as we know it, and wrote the history of our nation. This miracle of our triumph is one that we still celebrate today, for eight days and nights every winter.
But Chanukah is much more than that…
I recently came across a series of very short Chanukah thoughts in the writings of the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And what I would like to do today is to share some of these thoughts with you, as we explore together the very question that the Gemara (Tractate Shabbat 21b) asks in one of the few Talmudic sources we have about this holiday: מאי חנוכה — What is really Chanukah?
It’s a funny question, isn’t it? We don’t ask this about other holidays, because we know the answer already: Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, Pesach is the holiday of our freedom, Shavuot is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai… But the Talmud does ask this question about Chanukah, which must mean that there is something more to this holiday than meets the eye.
In the Talmud, the answer given is simple, though not directly related to the victory against the Greeks: Chanukah is the holiday celebrating the miracle of oil. One jar of oil sufficient for one day burned for eight straight days, until more oil could be produced to keep the Menorah alit.
But if that is the case, what was the miracle on the first day? The oil was indeed supposed to be enough for that day, so what are we celebrating on the first night of Chanukah?
One beautiful answer is that there was actually an additional miracle of Chanukah: the miracle that we would probably call in modern terms “perseverance”. The Maccabim probably had many important things on their mind at the time, other than lighting the Menorah. Even considering that the leaders of the Jewish rebellion were kohanim, the Hasmonean family — who, by their function, were the ones in charge with the ritual of the Temple — I’m quite sure there were more pressing issues to attend to than searching in a desecrated Temple for a jar of pure oil. And yet, they didn’t just say “let’s leave it for when we will have the time or for when circumstances are more favorable”. They rather made time for it, seized the moment, and did not let the opportunity pass. They searched the Temple assiduously and didn’t stop until the light was back on the branches of the Menorah.
There is a very valuable lesson to be learned here… We are busy people today, we live busy lives. If right after a war, the Maccabim found time to חנו כ”ה, to rest on the 25th day of Kislev — an acronym which actually spells the name of the holiday — shouldn’t we follow their example? Shouldn’t we also “rest” from our daily grind and look for the “jars of pure oil” in our lives? Shouldn’t we actively make time in our busy schedules for our kids, our families, our spiritual encounters, our learning, our growth? The story of Chanukah emphatically tells us that we should!
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A second idea originates in what is known as “the clash of civilisations”. The Ancient Greeks — the enemies of the Jews in the Chanukah story — were actually a great people with a great culture. They produced art, architecture, philosophy and mathematics. Also, at one point in history, they were controlling more than half of the known world. However, the ancient Greek civilisation is no longer around, while the Jewish culture is very much alive.
Why? What did we have that the Greeks didn’t? Well, listen closely to Rabbi Sacks’ answer:
“The Greeks, who did not believe in a single, loving G-d, gave the world the concept of tragedy. We strive, we struggle, at times we achieve greatness, but life has no ultimate purpose. The universe neither knows nor cares that we are here. [By contrast], ancient Israel gave the world the idea of hope. We are here because G-d created us in love, and through love we discover the meaning and purpose of life.” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
What an amazing thought! Chanukah is really the victory of hope over despair, of love over indifference, as much as it the miracle of light and of military triumph. Without the concept of G-d and the desire to worship Him and to fulfill His commandments, there would not have been any need for the Maccabim to look for the oil, or to light the Menorah, or even to fight the Greeks altogether. The Greeks were not against the Jews as a people, they were just against us being a different people. They were not Amalek to seek our physical annihilation, nor were they the Pharaoh of Egypt, interested in turning us into slaves. What they were after was much more subtle: they wanted to make us assimilate into their culture and to forget our true raison d’être. They were willing to provide for us and even to welcome us fully into their society… as long as we became them. So, really, the only reason we fought that war against them was to preserve our Jewish identity, our beliefs, our faith.
Chanukah is the reminder of that battle, and of all the other similar battles we fought and are still fighting today. When the Pew report talks about over 50% assimilation, about dwindling communities and diminished enrollment in our Jewish day schools — the re-celebrated miracle of Chanukah happens when we succeed in our goal to remain Jewish. Our modern challenge is to keep the flame alive, in any way we can, so that generations after us will continue to be Jewish and to celebrate the miracles that G-d did לאבתינו ולנו, בימים ההם בזמן הזה, “for our ancestors and for us, in those days, at this time.”
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Reaching out to the world is yet another message that Chanukah brings.
Unlike the Shabbat or the Yizkor candles, which we light inside our homes, the Chanukah candles are lit outside, for everyone to see. The Talmud rules that the time for lighting the Chanukah menorah extends from sundown עד שתכלה רגל מן השוק — “until all passersby have vanished from the marketplace.” The Talmud doesn’t say “until all Jews go home”, but rather includes Jews and Gentiles alike. The mitzvah of lighting the Menorah is for the benefit of all mankind.
In Judaism, light must be shared with the entire world. In the Midrash, we are told that “when King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he made the windows narrow within and wide without, so that the light should emanate to the outside and illuminate the world.” G-d’s sanctuary did not need the light of the Menorah. The world, however, did need it, as it still does, desperately, to this very day.
In a similar vein, the Talmud records a fascinating argument between two sages, Rav and Shmuel, over the question of whether we can light a Chanukah candle from another Chanukah candle. Rav says no, because the light of the first candle would be “diminished” by the act of taking the flame, as this will likely make us spill a bit of the oil or wax. However, Shmuel says we can, and that is the opinion that is brought down in the Shulchan Aruch as halakhah. (Note: the Rama reminds us that the prevalent custom to be followed is to use a shamash.)
When it comes to sharing light and spirituality, we don’t step back for fear that our own light will be “diminished” or “polluted”. We engage with others who are less observant, less connected, less knowledgeable than us. We give them and we inspire them and, in doing so, we also grow ourselves. “Love is something if you give it away, you’ll end up having more…”
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And one more idea before we conclude. A question is asked implicitly in the Talmud (Shabbat 23b): “If on Friday afternoon before Shabbat Chanukah, a person only has one candle, what should that candle be used as? Should it be lit as a Shabbat candle or as a Chanukah candle?”
Listen to the answer as it was brought down into practical halakhah by the Rambam (Maimonides):
“The Shabbat light takes priority, because it symbolizes shalom bayit, domestic peace. And great is peace because the entire Torah was given in order to make peace in the world.” — Mishneh Torah, Maimonides
Chanukah, with its great military victory against the Greeks, does not compete with a simple Shabbat light, that we kindle anyway every single week. And that is because — in the spirit of what Judaism has brought into the world — peace in the home and in society is much more valuable than the greatest military victory.
We live today in a world full of conflict. As human beings, we have very difficult choices to make and an enormous responsibility in making them. The values that inspire our decisions and actions are shaping the world for our children and grandchildren. Do we choose to live by the sword, to frighten and terrorize others into submission, to celebrate the defeat and destruction of those we consider “our enemies”, or do we light the candle of peace in every place we happen to be? Judaism has already provided the answer and it is, it has always been, the answer of peace. It is time for the world to take heed and follow.
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So here are, in summary, a few “hidden” values of the holiday of Chanukah:
- perseverance in pursuing the worthy goals and causes in our lives;
- living with hope, in the light of G-d’s plan for us and for the world;
- reaching out and sharing the light with others;
- valuing peace in every decision we make and every action we take.
This is a Chanukah dimension that we can all relate to. This is a commitment that we can all make for ourselves, to carry out our lives לֹא בְחַיִל וְלֹא בְכֹחַ כִּי אִם־בְּרוּחִי — “not by might and not by strength, but by the spirit of G-d.”
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach!
— Offered on Shabbat Chanukah at Beth Zion Congregation, Cote St-Luc, QC