Rabbi David Walk
There's a great irony in our celebration of Chanukah. This festival is a celebration of our great victory over an alien culture attempting to adulterate our pristine faith. We overthrew those agents of darkness and, in response, we light a little candle to remember how we retained our purity. This is a modest affair compared to our other festivals, like Pesach, Sukkot, Shavuot or even Purim. However, in these United States, Chanukah has become our most celebrated and noticeable holiday. We can't turn on TV or go to the mall without seeing references and symbols of this holiday. No other Jewish holiday is as publicized to the world at large. Might that have something to do with another holiday occurring around this same season? Has another culture affected our commemoration of this humble festival, turning it into a marketing bonanza for every retailer in sight? Yes, and yes. I'm not making any judgments. I'm just mentioning this reality. It may not be a bad thing at all. It helps the economy, and many of these retailers are Jewish. Plus, the Sages wanted us to publicize the miracle, and Oh boy, are we publicizing the miracle! The Chanukiot are bigger and more obvious every year, because of that other jolly man with a beard, the Rebbe, black is the new red. Ironic, isn't it?
But what are we supposed to learn from this celebration? This holiday must be a teaching opportunity, because otherwise the Rabbis wouldn't have instituted it. There are many ways of looking at this question and I'd like to share one based on the writings of the Maharal m'Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Lowe, 1540-1608). He wrote a short book on Chanukah called Ner Mitzva (The Mitzva Candle), and his analysis is very historical in its outlook. He bases his presentation on some very esoteric visions from the book of Daniel. The presentations in Daniel are very difficult to understand, but it does seem clear that this prophet was looking at the Jewish experience through the lens of world history. Many of the apparitions in the book are based on the number four (specifically 7:3-7, the four animals are lion, bear, leopard and 'beast') and, generally, we assume that the quartet that he has in mind are the four empires which ruled our people, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. The Maharal espouses a very healthy view of Jewish history. He avers that our sojourns in strange lands shouldn't only be seen as punishments for disloyalty to God, but as essential experiences which shaped the Jewish national psyche. Starting with bondage in Egypt the Jewish people was forged in the furnace of adversity. So, the question arises in each of these exiles: What was the substantive lesson of the Greek experience?
First of all we must state that the Maharal doesn't see the Gentile nations as peripheral or incidental to the process of bringing meaning and completeness to the world. They each embodied an issue which the Jewish nation had to address. This idea is expressed in a famous Midrash from the beginning of Genesis: 'The world was formless and void, and darkness over the surface of the deep; the spirit of God hovered over the waters.' Reish Lakish explained that this refers to the four empires: 'formless' refers to Babylonia, 'void' refers to Persia, 'darkness' refers to Greece, and 'deep' refers to Rome (Breishit Raba 2:5). In other words, the world started broken, but will become complete when we have passed through the challenges presented by each of these great civilizations. Greece is the stage of human development when the darkness will be dispersed.
It's easy to assume that Greek civilization represents enlightenment and not the darkness mentioned in the Midrash. The Maharal dismisses that idea by suggesting that many Greek intellectual innovations actually originated with Judaism. The Maharal bases this position on numerous Midrashim which talk of our Sages meeting with the great Greek philosophers and scientists. So, the Maharal describes how the Greeks helped our cause by spreading the groundbreaking ideas of Jewish scholars, and making them the world's heritage. That explains why our later struggle with Greek ideology was so fierce. Since many of these ideas originated with us, our ancestors were naturally drawn to them. But when these fabulous ideas were wedded to the Greek pagan life style, we had a problem which evolved from partnership -- to competition -- to war. And this brings us to the special nature of the Chanukah miracle.
We had many war time miracles (Joshua, Gidon, Devora, David, et al.), and none of them resulted in a holiday. So, it's the miracle of the oil which precipitated the festival. What's so special about this little light? That single sealed cruse of oil represented the pure ideas not corrupted by the Greek ideology. This miraculous light represents the ultimate victory of the Jewish approach which will pierce the darkness of the debasement of our heritage. That's why the candle must stay lit ad sh'tichle regel min ha'shuk (until the customers have left the market place), the Hebrew regel really means 'leg'. Based on that same noun we have the expression hergal, which means habit. Habit and rote are the enemies of religious zeal. So, we keep that candle lit until we have broken the hold of habit over our behavior. The candle reminds us to let the inner fire gleam through our actions. We don't allow ourselves to just go along with the crowd; we proclaim our enthusiasm for the true purity of our inheritance. Normally we place that candle for all to see, because we are so proud of our loyalty to our way of life. However, in times of danger we place it inside, behind closed curtains, and we are satisfied with just proclaiming our dedication to ourselves. But the candle carries the true message of this holiday.
So, we're lucky and proud that we can light our candles for all to see in our modern world, because we aren't satisfied just to celebrate a victory on the battlefield. We feel the need to commemorate the victory of the spirit. Our goal is to show the world that blazing fire burning brightly within our souls. We're happy to see that massive Chanukiah at the mall. It expresses our aspirations and reminds us to do a little shopping. Chanukah Sameach!