"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

The Festival of Chanukah

December 23, 2011

in Judaism vs. Christianity,Judaism:,Noahide - The Ancient Path

The festival of Chanukah commemorates the extraordinary victory of the Maccabees, a relatively small and dedicated force of fighters, against one of the great imperial powers of classical antiquity, the Seleucid Greek empire.

This story takes us back over 2100 years ago, to the year 164 BCE, two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Israel was then under the rule of the empire of Alexander the Great. A Syrian ruler Antiochus the 5th ascended to the throne and was determined to impose his way of life on the Jewish people. He forbade the practice of Judaism, set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple, and systematically desecrated Jerusalem’s holy sites. Jews who were caught practicing Judaism were tortutred to death. This was tyranny on a grand scale. Sadly, he was helped in this endeavour by two Jewish high priests, Jason and Menelaus, who assisted him in banning the Jewish lifestyle and turning the Temple into a house of worship along Greek lines and, to put these events into historical perspective, had Antiochus succeeded, Judaism would have ceased to exist.

A small group of Jews led by the elderly priest Matisyahu and his sons, rose in revolt. They fought a brilliant campaign, and within three years had recaptured Jerusalem, removed sacrilegious objects from the Temple and restored Jewish autonomy. It was, as we say in the Chanukah prayers, a victory for ‘the weak against the strong’, and ‘the few against the many.’ Religious liberty was established and the Temple was rededicated. Chanukah means “dedication.”

This was a remarkable event and an extraordinary triumph. We, the Jewish people, are here today only because of the courage and vision of this small group of determined Jews who would not allow their G-d and their Torah to be suppressed by the Syrian-Greek tyrant.

Yet astonishingly, the Talmud, the classical text of Jewish law and literature, gives us a very different perspective on the Chanukah festival.

“What is Chanukah?” asks the Talmud (Talmud, Shabbat 21b.) The answer given is this:

“When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all of its oil. Then, when the Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over them, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the High Priest—enough to light the menorah (candelabra) for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established these eight days as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving for G-d.”

So it seems that, according to the Talmud, the festival of Chanukah is less about the military victory of a small band of Jews against one of the mightiest armies on earth, and more about the miracle of the oil. The Talmud makes only a passing reference to the military victory (“when the Hasmoneans overpowered and were victorious”), and focuses almost exclusively on the miracle of the oil, as if this were the most significant event commemorated by the festival of Chanukah.

This is strange. The miracle of the oil, it would seem, was of minor significance relative to the military victory. Besides the fact that this was a miracle that occurred behind the closed doors of the Temple with only a few priests to behold it, it was an event concerning a religious symbol without any material consequences on life, death and liberty. If the Jews would have been defeated by the Greeks, there would be no Jews today; would it have made a difference if the oil had not burned for eight days?

What is more, the miracle with the oil is the only element of the Chanukah events that we commemorate to this very day. We have no custom or ritual commemorating a miraculous military triumph. What we do have is the kindling of a menorah for eight days, commemorating the fact that the oil in the Temple menorah lasted for eight days. How are we to understand this?

The answer allows us to appreciate the essential ingredient that has defined 4,000 years of Jewish history. The military victory was extraordinary; yet it didn’t last. The dynasty of the Hasmonean family became entrenched in civil war and corruption. Some 200 years after Chanukah, in 68 CE, the Temple was destroyed, this time by the Romans. Jerusalem was plundered, Israel was decimated and the Jewish people exiled. It was the beginning of a period of Jewish powerlessness, dispersion and persecution which has lasted almost two thousand years.

Unfortunately, the political and military victory of Chanukah did not last. What lasted was the miracle of the light — the spiritual strength within us which, like the oil, is inextinguishable. Strength that is founded on military power alone is temporary. It may endure for long periods of time, but ultimately its might will wane and it will be defeated by another power. Strength that is derived from an Infinite source of spiritual light can never be destroyed.

The sages who instituted the Chanukah festival keenly understood this truth. With their eyes focused on eternity, the rabbis of the Second Temple era grasped that the timeless core of Chanukah was not the victory on the battlefield alone, but rather the fact that this military triumph led to the re-kindling of the sacred light. What makes Chanukah a vibrant and heart-stirring celebration thousands of years later across the globe is the story of a single cruse of oil that could not be corrupted or contaminated, and would not cease to cast its brightness even in the darkest of places.

The mighty empires of Greece and Rome have long since disappeared. Civilizations built on power have never lasted. What matters in the long run is not simply political, military or economic strength but how we light the flame of the human spirit.

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe would tell his Chassidim: “We must listen carefully to what the lights are saying.” Lingering near the kindled Chanukah lights and looking into their flames allows us to ‘hear’ their message and let it burn into our hearts.

A happy Chanukah and good Shabbos!



Rabbi Dovid Usiskin


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