Rabbi David Walk
It's wonderful to be back in Israel. That sentiment is even more pronounced during holiday seasons. Well, it's beginning to look a lot like Chanuka, everywhere you go. This seasonal madness begins with Rosh Chodesh Mar Cheshvan, when sufganiyot or doughnuts are everywhere, and they're not just jelly doughnuts anymore. It's the crème filled ones that really tempt me. I don't know how long I can hold out. But that's only the frosting on the cake. There are Chanukah themed items on sale all over, and buses wish us a chag sameach. And the best thing is that there isn't a news station named for a small, sneaky predator whining that it's a crime against our nation to wish people Happy Holidays or Season's Greetings. All this means it's time to rediscover the spiritual significance of all this fun.
The Talmudic discussion of Chanukah begins with the question mai chanuka, what is Chanuka. Then, of course, there is a description of the miraculous events. I would prefer that the question were: Why Chanuka? Because there are many momentous events and miracles in our past which have no commemoration, like the conquest of Jericho, the sun standing still or the demise of the Assyrian hordes at the very gates of Jerusalem. So, the question should be: Why Chanuka? Reb Shalom Noach Berezovsky of Slonim (1911-2000), the Netivot Shalom, begins his discussion of this topic by pointing out that Chanuka completes the keter or crown of Torah. By this, the Rebbe means that the mitzva of celebrating Chanuka is the seventh and final rabbinic mitzva (the other six: Hallel, blessings, washing hands before eating, eruv on Shabbat, Shabbat candles, and Purim). When added to the 613 mitzvot contained in the Torah you get 620 or the gematria of keter. It's Chanuka which completes the crown.
Purim and Chanuka are clearly meant to conclude the lessons which the mitzvot are supposed to impart. They represent different threats to Jewish existence. The Purim story has a very straightforward message. The evil forces often want to physically wipe us out without a trace; 'to destroy, kill, and cause to perish all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women (Esther 3:13).' Chanuka, on the other hand, is about an attempt to destroy our people by causing them 'to forget Your Torah and to force them to transgress the statutes of Your will (Al Hanissim prayer),' in other words, a spiritual destruction. So, if these holidays are supposed to complete this mitzva curriculum, what was the beginning of the pedagogic process?
According to Maimonides, 'the first mitzvah is that we are commanded to believe in God's existence, i.e. to understand that He is the Original cause and Source of existence Who brings all creations into being. The source of this commandment is God's statement, 'I am God your Lord, Who took you out of the land of Egypt.' From the Ten Commandments, Maimonides concludes that the beginning of the mitzva process is emunah or belief. What is the end or 'crown' of this process? What do we learn from the Chanuka experience?
We learn bitachon.
What's the difference between emuna and bitachon? Belief is a product of the mind. Faith is a product of the spirit. Rav Herschel Shechter has said that bitachon requires one to act in accordance with one's emunah. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel explains that belief is based upon memory. Many religious Jews reinforce their belief system daily by adding the summary of Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith or reviewing the six obligatory remembrances at the end of morning services. Our emunah obligation in the first commandment is based upon the exodus from Egypt, which we remember in Shema. However, for me, the daily dose of memory based belief emerges from the recital of the Song of the Sea, specifically when our ancestors proclaimed zeh keili v'anveihu (This is my God and I will glorify Divinity, Exodus 15:2). Prof Heschel adds that belief comes from the realm of epistemology; it's about a mental acceptance and conviction that a proposition is true based upon authority or evidence.
But what about bitachon? I already quoted Rav Shechter that bitachon requires action. That's in sharp contrast to the episode at the shores of the Sea, when God didn't require us to do anything. As a matter of fact, once the Jews reach the shores of Yam Suf, God specifically demands of the Jews, 'Stand still in silence (14:14).' Belief belongs to the realm of the brain, but bitachon only exists in the domain of action. Again, I quote Prof Heschel, faith is 'the staking of a whole life on the truth of an invisible reality (Man is not Alone, p. 167).' Our Sages emphasized the importance of bitachon by having us recite three verses about bitachon at the end of the uva L'tziyon prayer before we leave shul for the 'real world' every weekday morning.
This, finally, brings us back to Chanuka. Our lifestyle and belief system was being threatened by the Hellenists, including many Jews. The religious leadership didn't wait for Divine intervention. I'm sure they prayed and fasted, but the major response was action. They had the bitachon to act on their belief that God rules heaven, earth and us. The faith based community acted on this belief.
One's belief may be communicated by word, but one's faith can only be apprehended by observing the faithfuls' behavior. Bitachon requires deeds. The Maccabees taught us this idea by fighting the mighty Seleucid Empire against all odds and reason. They did this because of an awareness that the age of passive observation of God's salvation had passed. The age of Divine partnership had dawned. Later, our Sages enshrined that lesson in our mitzva system.
Now, I think, we can understand why our Sages demanded that we must light Chanuka candles, even if it requires begging for the resources to do it. You can fulfill your obligation to recite and remember the exodus with words, but to recall the Chanuka miracle requires an act. Those little flames speak volumes.