This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
The latest article is posted here once a week. You can search the archive for past articles.
Chanukah, the holiday of lights, is probably the most observed of all Jewish holidays.
Even the most non-observant Jews know the blessing (with the accompanying melody of course). And for many it is the only blessing they know.
Yet Chanukah is, paradoxically, the most radically orthodox of all the Jewish holidays; a living testimony to Jewish 'extremism'.
It commemorates a bloody war fought by the Jews against the Greeks over two thousand years ago for the most obscure of religious motives. And it is the only holiday that has become a custom to observe by everyone 'M'hadrin min HaM'hadrin' namely in the strictest of the strict ways.
(It is only necessary to light one candle, even on the last night, for the entire family. The stricter opinion says, one for each person. But the strict of the strict says an increasing number of candles every evening for each person, which is what we all do.)
Let us consider for a moment what really happened on that first Chanukah.
Approximately 2,500 years ago the Greeks, under Alexander the Great, conquered the world and ruled it for several hundred years.
The success of Greek rule lay not only in their superior armed forces, but in their 'superior' culture as well. They were as 'civilized' a bunch of rulers as they come and their ideas of freethinking and free living held them in the throne long after Alexander the Great died.
One of the prime examples of this is the manner in which they dealt with the Jews and their Holy Temple. They did not destroy this center of Jewish identity, as did the barbarian Babylonians or Romans before and after them, rather they cleverly 'defiled' it according to the Torah definition of defilement. The Greeks, you see, did not want to raze the 'Holy House' but rather that the service therein be a bit more Hellenized and less intense; to 'normalize' Judaism.
Similarly, they had no designs to exterminate the Jewish people, (as the evil Haman tried to do some two hundred years earlier), rather they wanted to reeducate them with 'superior' Greek intellect and progressive lifestyle.
In other words the Greeks wanted to do pretty much what most free thinking 'normal' Jews want today: Liberty, Fraternity and Equality. WHAT WAS SO BAD ABOUT THAT??
Suddenly, as if from nowhere, appeared Yehuda 'Maccabee' Chashmonai and his little band of zealot m'shugoyim (according to Rashi, Deut. 33:11, there were only 13 of them) armed to the teeth, and began stabbing, and cutting up the reasonable, civilized, 1000-times-stronger Greek conquerors! And the whole thing caught on!! Suddenly even the most assimilated Jews (the vast majority of the Jews back then) got into the spirit and either helped make war or at least threw away their tickets to the arenas and theaters.
The Greeks soon understood that the times were changing and that they better start packing. They were loosing battle after embarrassing battle, and even worse, the Jews were going berserk! No one wanted to listen to a good rational Greek idea anymore, and the bacchanals were almost completely Juden-rein!
Exit the Greeks.
Next act: Setting: The empty Holy Temple.
Enter a garrison of victorious Jews swords drawn. As they realize there is no enemy, they return them to their sheaths.
Shimon (the commander): Nu, we made it, men; we're back in the Mikdosh again. Wow, the place is in pretty good order, in fact looks like they didn't destroy anything.
Dovid (a soldier): Exactly the opposite, they destroyed everything, it's all defiled! Here, look over here, in this storeroom, have a look at all these vials of oil. Looks perfect, doesn't it, all they did was move or open every bottle, didn't even spill a drop. They have extinguished the Holy Menora and want us to light it with their defiled oil. Those dirty…
Reuvain (a soldier): Hey! watch your language, my friend, remember where you are.
But just a minute...hey...I remember a law that says...well, it's something like the Pesach Offering, if a few people are defiled they have to wait a month and make it up on 'Pesech Sheini' but if everyone is defiled they can all make it in the right time. Same thing here, if we have no other choice we can use defiled oil to light the menorah. We can...
Dovid: Forget it, buddy, if we wanted to start thinking like that we wouldn't have been crazy enough to take on the entire Greek army in the first place, would we? We are using pure oil and that's final. We're not…
Reuvain: O.K. O.K. But meanwhile all that we have is unclean. It seems that we really don't have much of a choice, do we. Maybe we should...
One of the group: (on his knees from the corner of the room, he's been rummaging: through the bottles) Hey, Hey! Look here! It's a miracle! A miracle! Thank G-d! Thank you HaShem! Thank you! Thank you!! (Everyone gathers around him. He is still on his knees looking up and weeping) Thank you G-d! Thank yoooou!
Shimon: What's going on here, why is he crying? What is he pointing at? Good G-d! It's a bottle that they must have missed. Hey don't touch it! It's still sealed with the seal of the Great Cohen, it really is a miracle! Thank G-d!! First, all those months of miraculous victories, and now this…Who is mighty like you G-d!!!
But, to the disappointment of everyone, there was only one such bottle, enough pure oil for only one day, and they needed eight days worth (that is how long it took to purify the workers and to either bring or make new oil).
So oil was not lacking, there was plenty of impure oil, but these fanatics insisted on using only pure oil. Also, there is no logical or perceivable difference between pure and impure oil, the whole thing is only a Torah law that is not even written explicitly in the Torah itself
But the rest is history. The pure oil miraculously burned for eight days and the Jews had their Bait HaMikdosh and their independence for two hundred more years.
So there we have it: There was plenty of oil for the lamp. There was no real danger to anyone's life. The Jews were allowed to worship in the Temple and do all their commandments even without the war. All the Greeks wanted were a few concessions, a few reforms, co-existence; certainly nothing to risk ones life about.
And that is how we got the holiday of Chanuka.
There are those who want to say that the Jews fought for independence them and the miraculous victories were more for personal than religious freedom. But if this were the case then why does the holiday stress the 'religious' miracle and center around lighting little candles, (Remember also that the Menorah was located in a room in the Temple that was accessible to only a few priests, so almost no one actually saw the miracle of the oil anyway!) why not more emphasis on the military victories?
The answer is that Chanukah is an 'exile' holiday. It was instituted by the Rabbis when the Jews began suffering the darkness of exile after the destruction of the first Temple in order to celebrate and encourage the victory of Jewish Light over Greek Darkness.
Aristotle, the epitome of Greek thinkers, believed that there was no Creator or beginning to creation. Being just always existed in some form or other. Just as space seems to be infinite and we can't imagine a beginning or end to the sky, so, he said, is true of time and all creation; it had no beginning.
Jewish thought, however, says the opposite: all being including time, space, spirit and consciousness was created. It not only had a beginning but, even more, it is constantly being created anew by G-d.
[The Talmud relates that the Greek ruler Ptolemy put 70 Jewish scholars into 70 separate isolated rooms and commanded each of them to translate the entire five books of Moses into Greek. All 70 independently realized that a literal translation would spell trouble for the Jews and each made miraculously the same ten alterations. The first of these changes was in the first sentence of the Torah; instead of translating "In the beginning, created G-d the heavens and the earth." (Which could be misunderstood to imply that The 'Beginning' created G-d), they wrote "G-d created the beginning etc." so as not to strengthen the Greek position that G-d and all the spiritual powers are but a product of nature. ]
Of course, no one can prove either side of the argument. No Jew observed the creation and no Greek can explain how there was none… but the implications of each belief are overwhelming.
If there is no Creator man is free and alone. There are no moral laws, only natural ones: Pursue pleasure avoid pain.
But if there is a Creator then it could be that He cares. It could be that there is a purpose to creation; perhaps the Torah is ultimate and binding and man can't do whatever he wants.
But one thing for sure; Greek philosophy was a product of their personality. The Greeks loved everything natural, especially the human body and mind. They had their spiritual side and religions, to be sure. But their gods were also a part of nature and were worshiped only for the physical benefits; Luck, Power, Love, Health etc. they hopefully would bring to their worshipers.
But Judaism is in many ways the opposite of Jewish personality. In fact the nature of Jews is not far from that of the Greeks, that is why they welcomed Hellenism.. But the Torah (and the Jewish soul hidden within each Jew) regards Greek wisdom as darkness and selfish small-mindedness: to be a prisoner of ones own mind, emotions and urges and deny the Creator's wisdom is the greatest darkness possible.
And Jews don't like spiritual darkness. That is the Jewish identity. Even the Reform or Reconstuctionist Jews don't want to loose the name 'Jew' or their connection to G-d.
The story is told about a certain Jew by the name of Menashe that lived in the Israeli town of Chevron during the terrible massacre of 1927. One fateful Shabbat all he Arabs living in Chevron and it's surroundings turned on their Jewish neighbors, after living with them in harmony for years, and murdered as many of them as possible.
One of the Jews there, Menasha, was the 'black sheep' of the Jewish community. He would ride his motorcycle through the town on the Shabbat, cigarette between his teeth and his only friends were the local Arabs. As for the Jewish community all he had to say was " I'm as good a Jew as they are, who needs them."
On the terrible day of the massacre, armed Arabs came streaming in from all the surrounding area. After they killed all the Jews in the streets, the synagogues and the shops, they began going from house to house looking for new sacrifices, and eventually they arrived at the house where Menasha was sitting with his friends. "Who is he?" They asked, pointing to Menasha. "Oh, he's one of us" they replied, and the murderers returned to the street and turned to the next house. Suddenly, unexplainably Menasha ran out after them and began screaming, "No, I'm a Jew! I'm a Jew!" They killed him.
The reason he did it is because each Jew has buried deep in his soul a small bottle of pure, undefiled (and undefilable) 'oil'.
This 'oil' is the essence of the Jewish soul and its purpose is to make a miraculous light. That is what we were "chosen" for; to illuminate the entire creation with the awareness of the Oneness of G-d.
Every Jew senses this purpose in some way. Every Jew feels somewhere down deep that he is different, that he somehow has an obligation to make a difference; to bring some sort of good and meaning to the world. It may be that he misinterprets this feeling or totally ignores it. It may take the non-Jews around him to open his eyes or a Chabad house to wake him up but we are promised by G-d that it will happen to every Jew. Every Jew will find this bottle of pure oil and light his 'menorah' to bring blessing and light to the darkness that surrounds us.
In fact this is the job of the Moshiach and the goal of Judaism: To awaken the fire in every Jew and illuminate the world.
This explains, then, what happened on that first Chanukah and what happens every Chanukah when millions of Jews all over the world light their menorahs. Suddenly they feel proud and optimistic. M'hadrin min HaM'hadrin.
In the flames of their Chanuka Menorahs they can see the power of the Jewish soul and the redemption of the Jewish people.
Wishing all our readers a happy, healthy, meaningful Chanukah filled with the light and blessing. This Chanukah may we see the light of the real menorah in the Third Temple built by....
Copyright © 1999-2018 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.