The Jewish world has entered the spiritual energy of the festival of lights. As we have mentioned many times in the past, the festivals are not mere commemorations of past events or miracles. Rather, they are opportunities in time, a revisiting of the spiritual energy that enabled the particular miracle to take place. Each time a chag comes around we must ask what is the unique growth opportunity being offered here and how can I plug into its powerful charge.
Let’s take a deeper look at Chanuka, and draw out some relevant insights to shed some light on our lives.
Our first step has to be one back in history to where the seeds of the battle of Chanuka between the saintly Jewish priests and the Greek Assyrians first takes root. Going back to the 4th Century BCE we find Alexander the ‘Great’ (or Alexander the Mokdon – Macedonean as he is known in Torah sources) in his bid to conquer a large portion of the world. What is fascinating is that this young thirty-something-year-old fierce general, who had laid great empires waste in his tracks, arrives in Israel and instead of conquering with a murderous rampage he instead seeks peace with the Jews.
What happened? Our tradition tells us that upon arrival in Jerusalem, the Cohen Gadol of the time, the great Shimon HaTzadik, left the Temple and went out to greet the Greek leader. When Alexander saw Shimon Ha Tzadik’s face, he immediately dismounted his horse and prostrated himself before the holy Cohen. Alexander’s general’s stood there in puzzlement. What is this out of the ordinary show of honor? Alexander explained that in his dreams before each battle he always sees the holy face of an old man which has come to serve him as a sign that the battle will be a success – ‘this face’, Alexander explained, referring to Shimon Ha tzaddik, ‘is the face that I see’.
As a result, the Greeks initially enter Jerusalem and Israel in relative peace. Jewish children throughout time have been named after Alexander is deference to his kindly treatment of the Jews in his time. Ironically, it is precisely this kindly friendly nature through which the Greeks treated us at first which led to all the issues that brought upon the Chanuka battle. When they are nice to us, and welcome us, we intermingle more, we learn their culture, and some begin to assimilate. This is the silent holocaust that we are experiencing currently as the Jewish people. In a time of (relative) acceptance in some countries like the U.S, Australia and others, the Jewish people have lost more people to assimilation than died at the hands of the murderous Nazis themselves. The statistics are very scary. This is exactly what began to happen with the Greeks. There was a large proportion of Jews who adopted the Hellenistic materialistically focused culture and slowly drifted away from the Torah and its holy path to Hashem.
What happens next?
Well, the pattern of Jewish history which has repeated itself over and over strikes again. The assimilation leads to contempt until the Greeks wish to completely rid us of our Jewish Torah spirit. In Purim it was the Jewish body. At Chanuka time, and throughout much of European history, it was a battle for the soul. Antiochus, the insane Assyrian Greek leader, arises and starts making real trouble for the Jews. He decrees against observance of Shabbat, Brit mila, the monthly calendar and bans Torah learning as well as working to tear away at the basic fabric of marital life. There was no desire to eradicate the Jewish body, only to extinguish the fire of the Jewish soul.
The Torah in Aramaic is called Oraita, the fiery light that guides our way and ignites our Neshama. The Midrash speaks of Yavan, the Greek Empire, as represented by Choshech – darkness. The battle which was now underway was one in which the Greeks sought to smother the fiery light of Torah from the Jewish soul. Specifically, the Greek culture of Hellenism believed in the physical natural world as the be all and end all. They focused on aesthetics, the externals of life, the material, physical, and the measurable. Therefore the Jewish fundamentals of the neshama, being the primary essence of the person, and the body merely a vessel, stood at great odds to the Greek approach and the Greeks began to enforce their beliefs on the Jews. This is what led the small group of faithful Cohanim, untrained in warfare, with nothing but their emunah in G-d and passion for Torah, to take up arms and fight the mighty Greek army – and they won.
But interestingly, it is less the miraculous military victory that the Jewish world focuses on in our celebration. Our focus is the miracle of the oil that lasts eight days allowing the Menorah in the Beit HaMikdash to burn long enough until more pure oil was attained. What is the deeper significance of this miracle?
Let us journey back to the beginning of the world. In the first moments of creation, Hashem created light. But if you look at the text you will notice that the sun is only spoken of as being created on the 4th day. What then was this first creation of light? Rashi explains that this was the supernal spiritual light that Hashem poured into the world at first but later hid away known as the Ohr Ha Ganuz (the Hidden Light). How long did man bask in this supernal light? The Bnei Yissaschar writes that the light shone for man to perceive for only 36 hours due to the sin that was committed. The 36 hours are made up of the 12 hours of Friday (when Man was created) and then 24 hours of Shabbat where even though man had already sinned, the power of Shabbat kept the hidden light alive until Shabbat came out. At this point the world descended into a great spiritual darkness and Adam and Chava panicked. This is when Hashem taught Adam about fire and how he could reignite the flame to light up the world again. This is one reason why we light a Havdala candle when Shabbat comes out each week to distinguish between the light of Shabbat and the spiritual contrast of the mundane week and to remind us that we are able to bring back and reveal some of that hidden light throughout the week depending on how we act.
In the Beit Hamikdash and the earlier Mishkan there was the holy Menorah. The mitzvah was to light the Menorah daily with precious pure olive oil and ensure there was a continuous fire burning without any moment of cessation. We are told that the hidden light of creation mentioned above was kept alive as it shone from the Menorah in the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash (see Netivot Shalom on Chanuka). This light of the Menora, which burnt continuously in the Beit HaMikdash, was the light of the soul, the light of Torah, the Ohr ha Ganuz that shone through the world enlightening the natural, scientific, measurable world with a transcendent heavenly glow.
The Ramban explains that this light of the Menorah was able to radiate continuously for all time even after the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed. How so? He explains that after the destruction of the Temples the Menora’s glow would continue when the Jewish people light the holy lights of our Chanuka candles. This is a profound idea. When you and I light our candles we say “These candles/Nerot are holy”. We are continuing the light of the holy Menorah every time we light our own candles from the Mikdash Me’at (Micro Mikdash) of our own home.
The Bnei Yissaschar points out that this is indeed why we light 36 candles on Chanuka (do the math: 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8) one candle for every hour the Ohr HaGanuz burnt in the world. As such, our little Chanukia that we light is much more than some hollow commemoration. We are literally lighting the Ohr Haganuz, the hidden light of Torah and the soul, the continuation of the Menorah, from our very own homes. This is why we place the Chanukia ideally at the entrance to our homes. It is the light of the soul shining out from the internal (the home) to the outer world (the public thoroughfare) teaching the world of the miracle of the 8th (Shmoneh in Hebrew is made of the same letters as Neshama). This is what Judaism is all about. We are to shed the light of Neshama, G-dliness in the world always reminding ourselves that the inner world is primary and the externals, the material is only a vessel, a secondary (necessary but secondary) outer shell to use as a window through which to shine.
In our day and age we are still completely saturated in Greek culture with the focus on the externals and materialism. Beauty is sold out there on billboards, buses, magazines, in movies on TV in adverts and shop windows as some outer shell of what true beauty really is. You can hardly walk two steps out there without being sent a clear message from the media that what really matters is the externals. This is exactly what the Jews were fighting against. To plug into Chanuka is to light up the world again with the light of Neshama.
May we all be blessed to align ourselves with this lofty pursuit and have a beautiful, light filled Shabbat.