This week, as it is Shabbat Chanukah, I would like to focus on Chanukah itself.
Chanukah is one of the more popular holidays that we have and the background as to why we celebrate it is very well known. Children from a very young age are able to recount the story of the struggle against the Greeks and the miracle of the oil. With all this coverage one would think that the name of our holiday would be simpler than it actually is.
“Chanukah” seems, at first glance, to be one of the last choices that we would have made for naming the chag. In fact a large debate revolves around what the meaning of the name really is. One popular explanation is that it is a combination of “chanu”- they rested or camped and “25” (the numerical value of the letters “caf” and “heh”), signifying a rest from the battle on the 25th of the month which is the date of Chanukah. This reason is already mentioned in the Rishonim and sparked a lively debate as to what the nature of this “resting” was. Did it include prohibitions against doing melacha or was it simply a break in the battle? The implication from these debates is that the actions adopted at that time should indicate what we should be doing to mark the occasion.
The other major group of explanations focuses on the word “chinuch”. The holiday of Chanukah is to celebrate the “chinuch” of the Mizbeach and possibly all of the other vessels in the Mikdash that had been defiled by the Greeks and were reproduced and once again set into action. Indeed it would seem that this is the very theme of “Al Hanissim” where we mention the victory that Hashem helped us achieve in the battle and the ensuing rededication of the Mikdash as the basis for the holiday.
(For more on the name of Chanukah see Moadim Behalacha by R. Zevin)
I would like to share a thought with you concerning the concept of “chinuch” as explained by R. Kalonomus Kalman Shapira (Hashem Yikom Damo) as presented in the introduction to his book “chovat hatalmidim”.
R. Shapira tries to define the word “chinuch”. On the one hand it seems to indicate a beginning or first time use of an item, we are used to hearing about “chanukat hamizbeach” or “chanukat habayit”. Yet we cannot simply see “chinuch” as a synonym for “start” as it simply does not fit into many contexts where the word “start” works, and its use is much more limited. In addition we never find the term being used to describe the actual “building start” of any structure or item, rather it is used to describe the first use of the item.
What then is the meaning of the term “chinuch”? R. Shapira argues that the term describes a process by which we begin to realize the potential of an item. The term “chinuch” is not relevant to the stages of construction of an item as it has no form and therefore has no real potential. Only after an item is completed and ready to be used can we look at it and begin to understand how much potential there is contained within the item. A house at the construction stage is simply a large pile of materials without any real direction or hope. A built house, upon its completion, contains an unlimited amount of potential. One can now turn the structure, the house, into a home. It is in such a context that we refer to a “chanukat habayit”.
The same is true for any time the term “chinuch” is used. (I highly recommend seeing the rest of R. Shapira’s book to see how this applies to the education of people, especially since the way he sees things we are all educators of ourselves and we are required to realize our own potential to its fullest).
Returning to the holiday of “Chanukah” the name signifies not the rebuilding of the Mikdash with all of its components, but rather the renewal of the usage of the Mikdash with all its components. We do not celebrate the building of a new Menorah but rather the lighting of the Menorah. Chanukah is not a holiday marking some event in the past but rather is a celebration of the potential for the future. We are reminded on Chanukah that if we look at the here and now, if we take stock of who we really are, we may well find a very empty flask. The “oil” within us may have been, for the most, part defiled, or used for all kinds of purposes other than the Mikdash within us. However we would be hard pressed to find the Jew without the few drops of pure “oil” in their system that it takes to last for just one day of pure avodat Hashem.
It is not hard to look at the cup as being half if not more than half empty. The challenge of Chanukah is to look at those drops as a super optimist and declare “the cup is potentially full”. This “unrealistic” attitude is exactly what the Maccabem did when they decided to use the small amount of oil that fateful day of the 25th of Kislev. When it comes to physical quantities of combustible materials, it takes a miracle to turn a few drops into a week’s supply of oil, however when it comes to human qualities and willpower a few “drops” can turn into a lifetime supply without any miracle at all —- If we want it to be that way.