What does Chanukah mean to us?
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
Chanukah has been a beacon of light for the Jewish people throughout the generations. In one historic era after another, we have drawn on its light to lift ourselves up as a nation and infuse ourselves with renewed inspiration and strength. The light and energy of Chanukah is also there for us to draw on in our personal lives. Each one of us goes through times when we start to lose our way, when we feel flat and uninspired, disconnected from the light of Torah. Contained in Chanukah is the power to bounce back, to refresh and reinvigorate ourselves, to rediscover our sense of purpose and reconnect with G-d and His Torah. As human beings, we are susceptible to mistakes. But we have the ability to rededicate ourselves to our task, redouble our efforts, renew our lives. This is the message of Chanukah, and it is this spirit of rededication and renewal that has powered the Jewish people throughout history.
What does Chanukah mean to us?
A name reveals so much, especially the name of a festival. It captures the essence of the message of the holy days. We’re celebrating Chanukah, and so it is worthwhile to embark on a journey of discovery into understanding the name of this festival. What does ‘Chanukah’ actually mean? Why was this name chosen to capture the essence of these holy days? Perhaps, if we understand the origins of the word itself, we can begin to understand the essence of these holy days.
One of our great sages, known as the Maharsha, says the word Chanukah comes from the Hebrew word which means to dedicate, and refers to the dedication of the new altar, which was built after the Maccabees recaptured the Temple. The story of Chanukah is set during the time of the mighty Greek empire that had invaded the land of Israel and imposed not just political dominion over the Jewish people, but cultural and ideological hegemony too. In seeking to impose Hellenistic values and philosophy, and supplant Torah values and a Jewish way of life, the Greeks outlawed the performance of many crucial mitzvot, including Shabbos and circumcision – in an attempt to subvert the entire Jewish value system. Their campaign is captured in the siddur, in a special paragraph we say during Chanukah: “The Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and to remove them from the statutes of Your will.”
The epicentre of this ideological battle was the Beit Hamikdash – the Holy Temple. Unlike the Romans, who came after the Greeks, and who actually burnt the Temple to the ground, the Greeks were more intent on transforming the Temple and redirecting it towards their own pagan, polytheistic rites and rituals. They brought idols into its sacred precinct and used the Temple and its facilities for their pagan worship.
And so when the Jewish people, led by the heroic Maccabees, were able to defeat the Greek empire and restore freedom to the land of Israel, through the miracles of G-d, one of the first things they did was to purify the Temple – as we say in our prayers: “And afterwards Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, cleansed Your Temple and purified Your sanctuary and kindled lights in the courtyards of Your Holy Place, and established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your Great Name.”
The battle itself was miraculous – an ad hoc collection of a small group of amateur soldiers, militarily defeating the mighty Greek empire. But the defining miracle of Chanukah is the oil that burned for eight days. When the victorious Maccabees re-entered the temple, they could only find one small jug of oil that had remained sealed up and uncontaminated, and therefore fit to be used for the menorah in the Temple. And although it only contained enough oil to sustain the menorah for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight days, by which time further oil could be procured.
This action of lighting the menorah and dedicating the newly constructed altar served not just to return the Temple to its sacred service – it also symbolised a complete spiritual rededication of Jewish society at large. And so Chanukah represents rededication after the destruction and a recommitment after a period of spiritual darkness.
This applies no less to today’s times. Today, when we celebrate Chanukah and kindle the lights of our menorah, we are in effect rededicating ourselves to spirituality and living G-dly lives. We see this contemporary relevance in the words we say at this time; we thank G-d for the miracles of Chanukah, “in those days and in this time”. What an interesting phrase.
The Ramchal explains that Jewish time is not linear, but cyclical; that every year, when, for example, Pesach comes around, it’s not that we are remembering an event that happened in the distant past, but rather we cycle back to re-experience the same spiritual energy, the same primordial energy of freedom that was unleashed in the world at the time of the original Pesach.
And so too with Chanukah. The Divine light and energy of renewal and rededication, which led to the miraculous events of Chanukah, returns to the world every year at this time – hence, “in those days and in this time”.
Chanukah has been a beacon of light for the Jewish people throughout the generations. In one historic era after another, we have drawn on its light to rededicate and renew ourselves, to rise up from imposing physical and spiritual challenges and infuse ourselves with renewed inspiration and strength. The remarkable thing about Jewish history is, simply put, that we are still here. We have stood the test of time. No other nation has survived under such difficult circumstances; no other nation has endured such dispersion, with its value system and its identity and its vision for the future intact. The energy of rededication and renewal has powered the Jewish people throughout history.
And the light and energy of Chanukah is there for us to draw on in our personal lives. Each one of us goes through times when we start to lose our way, when we feel flat and uninspired, and disconnected from the light of Torah. Contained in Chanukah is the power to bounce back, to refresh and reinvigorate ourselves, and our connection to G-d and His Torah.
The power to “bounce back” is embodied by G-d Himself. One of the 613 commandments is to “walk in the ways of G-d”. The Gemara explains that one’s purpose in life is to emulate G-d, specifically in terms of His compassion and kindness. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik expands this definition to include the mitzvah of Creation itself. Just as G-d created the world, we are also called on to create the world with flourishing families and societies. Rav Soloveitchik refers to a Midrash, which says that before this world was created, there were many other worlds that G-d created and subsequently destroyed.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that from this Midrash we learn that there is not only a mitzvah to create, but also a mitzvah to recreate after a period of destruction. We “walk in the way of G-d” and rebuild after setbacks and stumbles. We do so on a personal level and we do so on a national level, drawing on the spirit of Chanukah. As human beings, we are susceptible to mistakes. But we have the ability to bounce back – to rededicate ourselves to our task, redouble our efforts, renew our lives. This is the message of Chanukah. It is this spirit of renewal and rededication that has animated so much of Jewish history.
We have seen this particularly in the years since the Holocaust, as the Jewish world, with G-d’s blessings, has renewed and rebuilt itself. There was the miraculous creation of the State of Israel three years after the Holocaust ended, and then the equally miraculous rebuilding of the great citadels of Torah learning – the yeshivot – after they were all but blotted out.
Together, these have led to a rebirth of Jewish life. This is the spirit and the energy of Chanukah made manifest on a national level, and it is the spirit and energy of Chanukah that we can apply on a personal level as well – the spirit to renew, to rebuild, to recreate, to start again – just as our ancestors did when they re-entered the Temple, rebuilt the altar and rekindled the flame of Judaism. “In those days and in this time.”
It happened then and it can happen now.