Q&A : The Miracles of Chanukah – November 2009 – “Jewish Life” magazine
Chief, there have been so many miracles in Jewish history…
It’s true, there have been many miracles. In fact, the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot talks about the many miracles that occurred on a daily basis during the time of the First Temple.
Haven’t there been even greater miracles than that of Chanukah?
Think about the magnitude of the miracles that we as a people have seen – we saw the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, we heard G-d speak at Mt Sinai, the manna fell to us from heaven, Joshua saw the waters of the Jordan split, we saw the walls of Jericho come down… the list is endless. Jewish history is made up of miracles.
Why then has an entire festival been made of this one?
There is a message in Chanukah that goes beyond the technicalities of the miracle. There is the technical miracle, as we all know it to be – that after the Jewish people under the leadership of the Macabees defeated the Greek empire, they came into the temple where everything had been defiled. There was only one jar of the pure oil left to light the menorah, and it burned for eight days instead of for one. But even within the context of that particular event, the military victory was an even greater miracle than that of the oil burning.
Why then don’t we celebrate the military victory?
Think about the military victory. We’re talking about a tiny country defeating a mighty world empire. Even though we focus on the miracle of the oil burning, it does say, “G-d gave the many into the hands of the few”, referring to the military miracle that took place, and even going so far as to say that the existence of the Jews to this day is a miracle in and of itself. Because, as far as the military victory goes, the struggle with the Greek empire was not about the physical control of the land.
What was it about then?
It was about a spiritual and moral struggle.
It was a struggle of values. Between the values of the Greek empire and the hedonism of Greek philosophy of the time, and the physical, versus the philosophy of Judaism.
How does this tie in with the Chanukah lights, and the oil, the miracle we actually celebrate?
In a sense the miracle that took place, the oil and the Chanukah lights, is symbolic of the military victory and what that struggle was about. The fight was really about the pure light of Torah values shining in the world. And the Greeks were defeated.
How can we understand that struggle in less philosophical terms?
The Greek empire wanted the Jews to assimilate. They would have left us in peace and quiet had we rejected Judaism, given up all the Torah laws and values, and lived like the Greeks. For example – they objected to the bris mila, because they worshipped the physical body and how can one do anything to damage the object of their worship. But Judaism represents holiness, and we imprint the body with that holiness through the bris. So essentially, it is that we stood up for the right to spread the light of Torah, our values, into the world.
And assimilation is something we are still struggling with today – does Chanukah have a relevant message to us in light of this?
Chanukah is a festival ordained by our Sages for all future generations (in that unlike the Torah festivals of Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot, it is a rabbinic festival that was added later by the Rabbis). So why did they do this? To impart the message that in every generation there is this same struggle between conflicting values. Where the world, society, seeks to impose its value system on us. Where we as Jews will always be faced with the temptation of assimilation and the danger of the values of Judaism disappearing. The miracle was the platform to achieve this message. That in each generation, the spiritual threat takes on a different form – and the key is the light of the Chanukah candles.
What do the lights represent today?
They remind us of the menorah in the Temple, which represents the light of Hashem’s wisdom as revealed to us in the Torah. When we light the candles, we are recommitting ourselves to illuminating the world with that light. Because the most important way of halting the disappearance of Judaism and assimilation is through Torah learning. Education.
Why is this so paramount?
The single biggest threat to the Jewish people today is ignorance and Jewish illiteracy.
Surely as long as we are observant of the mitzvot, we keep Torah alive…
The fulfilment of mitzvot in a sustainable and inspired manner is dependent on the light of Torah learning. Mitzvot only gain full relevance and power in our lives when we understand the total concept of Hashem’s philosophy on the world, contained in the Torah. The more our community is connected to Torah learning, the more it will live by the mitzvot of Judaism.
So Chanukah is still very relevant today?
Yes. For all the reasons already mentioned. And also because it is about the miraculous dimension of Jewish history and destiny. Chanukah is a time of hope and optimism for us and for the future of our people, and that is a particularly important message for us at this time, when we are faced with so many enemies around the world. As we say on Chanukah that it is a time of G-d’s miracles ‘bayamim hahem, bazman hazeh’ – “in those days, in this time”. It will always be relevant.