Chanukah | Part II
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
Last week we began discussing what Chanukah is all about, based on the writings of one of the great rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner. We discussed that Chanukah is really about the ideological struggle between Torah Judaism and the ancient Greek Empire which sought to eradicate Torah Judaism from the Jewish people. When we light our Chanukah candles we are not just commemorating the military battles; the military victory is merely a side point. Rather, what the candles really represent is the light of Torah learning and what Torah Judaism is all about.
We discussed how Rav Hutner explains that this clash was about how we understand wisdom. The difference between the ancient Greek’s approach to wisdom and that of Torah Judaism is that although both value the pursuit of wisdom, the former is about understanding the physical world and the latter is about understanding G-d’s will for us and how we should live in accordance with His moral and spiritual vision for the world as contained in the Torah laws.
Now, let us take Rav Hutner’s ideas one step further and gain a deeper understanding of what is at the heart of this clash. To do so, we must first understand a general concept from the Chumash, and then apply it to Chanukah.
The essence of the Torah
Rav Hutner brings that the Talmud raises the following fundamental question regarding word length in the Chumash: in the sections of the Torah which deal with the commandments, the Torah is often very terse; many commandments and their accompanying laws are deduced from just one letter, based on the oral tradition. And yet, there are whole sections – indeed, the whole book of Genesis – which go into great detail and there the Torah is quite verbose. For example, when Abraham sends his trusted servant, Eliezer, to go and find a wife for his son, Yitzchak, the Torah tells us at great length about his experiences and what he did, how he arrived at the well and waited for Rivka. Then, when he meets Rivka’s family, he tells it all over again – the whole story is repeated. The Midrash asks why it is that we have reams of text regarding Eliezer’s experiences and yet, regarding the commandment-related aspects of the Torah, we are meant to learn all kinds of laws from a letter here and a letter there. It would seem that the commandments should hold more weight and be far wordier than the narrative aspects of the Torah. Why, then, is so much space given to the historical events of the Torah?
The Midrash answers that these narrative portions are actually more precious to G-d. At first glance, this seems very strange: we would think G-d’s commandments and how He wants us to live is the essence of the Torah. How, then, do we understand the words of the Midrash? Rav Hutner adds to this another question: the authority of all of the commandments comes from the revelation at Mount Sinai; even commandments that were given beforehand – for example, the mitzvah of circumcision, given to Abraham – only got their legal, halachic power once G-d gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai. Given that the Torah is a book of instruction from Hashem, why do we need the book of Genesis, which is essentially about the history our forefathers?
Rav Hutner explains that the book of Genesis is about our relationship and connection to Hashem, and that comes through our forefathers and –mothers, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, who established the spiritual DNA for the Jewish people. They established the framework for our connection to Hashem, which gives the context and meaning for the content – namely, the Torah and the mitzvot. Hence, when we talk about our relationship with G-d we refer to the forefathers; we say in our prayers Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak Elokei Yaakov, “the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d Jacob.” The content is important, but only if it is within the framework and context established by our relationship with G-d.
To use a mundane example from the world of computers, we have the software and we have the content. The software is the framework for managing and processing all the content in our computer. The content is very important, but without the software, we cannot work with it. Our forefathers and –mothers established and bequeathed to us the spiritual and emotional context for what it means to be part of the Jewish people. Within the context of being part of the Jewish people, the Torah and mitzvot operate as the intellectual, practical content. Torah Judaism is not just about content but also about our bond with Hashem and our spiritual essence, which comes from the forefathers and –mothers, as laid out in the book of Genesis. This is what it means, says Rav Hutner, when the Midrash says that so much time and space was given to the book of Genesis: although it does not have the practical content – the commandments – it does give us the context, the crucial connection to Hashem.
The content and context of Torah Judaism
Coming back to the fundamental clash between the ancient Greek Empire and the Jewish people of that time – and indeed of all generations: the clash was that the ancient Greek Empire viewed wisdom as being solely about content. What the Maccabees were fighting for was to declare that wisdom is not just about content but about context, about a connection with G-d. Judaism has an awesome intellectual system – anyone who has learned Gemara, Mishnah or the commentaries on the Chumash knows the intellectual depth of it is staggering and requires many years of learning to master; it is indeed fascinating, stimulating and so powerful from an intellectual point of view. But Judaism is not only an intellectual, academic pursuit; it is about the spiritual bond between us and Hashem. The content – the Torah and the mitzvot – must be within the context of our spiritual connection to G-d and our relationship with Him. This is the software, the spiritual DNA that we have inherited from generations of Jews before us, going all the way back to our forefathers and –mothers.
This was the ideological struggle between the ancient Greek Empire and the Maccabees, and this is what the Chanukah candles symbolise – not just wisdom and intellectualism, but wisdom and intellectualism rooted in a very deep spiritual context – a connection to G-d Himself. It is the emotional and spiritual component which frames everything and within which the wisdom is contained.
This is why the Greek Empire tried to get the Jewish people to say, “We have no portion in the G-d of Israel.” Rav Hutner says, note what they were trying to get people to sign on – that “we have no portion in the G-d of Israel.” They were not saying, disconnect yourself from the Torah alone, from the content; they were saying, disconnect yourself from the whole spiritual infrastructure of what it means to be a Jew – the spiritual connection to Hashem which comes with the legacy of being the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.
The oral tradition symbolises our connection to our spiritual legacy
When we light the Chanukah candles we are connecting ourselves with generations who have come before us. This is why, says Rav Hutner, although Chanukah is a rabbinically instituted festival, it symbolizes very powerfully what it means to be a Jew. Rav Shlomo Wolbe explains Rav Hutner’s words further and says this concept is best exemplified by the oral tradition, the Torah sheb’al peh, as opposed to the written Torah, the Torah shebichtav. The oral tradition is linked to the generations that came before us, and so although it is also about content, it is about content which is linked to the tradition and context of the generations before, even more so than the written Torah. The written Torah is the dictated word of G-d, to which the whole world has access. But the oral tradition – which we have today, codified in the Talmud – is the lifeblood of the Jewish people.
This is what is meant by the bracha of thanksgiving for the Torah, when we say asher natan lanu torat emet vechayay olam nata betocheinu, “Who has given us a Torah of truth and has planted within us eternal life.” The commentaries explain that “Torah of truth” refers to the written Torah, and “eternal life” refers to the oral Torah. The oral tradition encompasses not only the content but the connection to the overall framework and the link from one generation to the next. This is why it is so powerful that although Chanukah is a rabbinic commandment, we say in the blessing on the Chanukah candles asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu, “G-d Who has sanctified us with His commandments.” The Gemara asks, where in the Torah were we commanded regarding Chanukah, and answers that we were commanded to listen to the decrees of the rabbis of the Sanhedrin, as codified in the Talmud; thus, it is all interwoven.
There are many other commandments where we use the same formula of the blessing, even though they are rabbinic commandments. Rav Hutner says the Gemara analyses the formula of this blessing specifically in the context of Chanukah because Chanukah is about the bond to the generations of Jews that came before, all the way back to our spiritual forefathers and mothers. This is why the Gemara says further that the basis for the blessing is she’al avicha veyagedcha, “go ask you father and he will tell you.” This is the spiritual root of the Jewish people.
This relates to what we discussed last week, about the Torah being a system of freedom – the freedom to rise above the physical world. We do so with the content of the mitzvot which command us on all practical matters. When we light the Chanukah candles we are connecting to the spiritual context – to Hashem himself – saying the content is so important to us but if it is not within the context of a spiritual connection to G-d and to the generations of Jews that came before us, it loses its meaning. The two, together, illuminate our lives.