by Rabbi Michael Skobac
Chanukah coincides each year with the reading of the story of Joseph in the cycle of weekly Torah portions. Our sages have discovered numerous connections between this holiday and the Joseph narrative. I’d like to suggest an additional connection to help us appreciate what might be Chanukah’s underlying spiritual motif.
“These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph, at seventeen years of age, was a shepherd with his brothers…” (Genesis 37:2)
The problem with this verse is obvious. Instead of listing the progeny of Jacob, why does the Torah divert to focus on the story of Joseph?
Menachem Mendel of Rimanov (1745-1815) had a wonderful spin on this verse. Taking the word “generations” (toldot) as ‘legacy’ – the verse is telling us that the legacy of Jacob was: ‘Joseph’! The meaning of the name “Joseph” is: increase, add, go beyond. In a word – transcend. (When Rachel gave birth to her first son, she wanted more children so much that she named him Joseph and said, “May the Lord add to me another son!)
The Rimanover tells us that this is the ultimate legacy of Jacob: (and as such, the legacy of the nation that would descend from him) Joseph! – to always transcend. Never to be satisfied with his accomplishments, but always to strive for more, to do more, go beyond.
I believe that the idea of seeking transcendence is the key to understanding Chanukah.
Let’s look at a number of examples to see how this plays out.
1. One of the Chanukah prayers explains that this was a time when the Almighty delivered the “many into the hands of the few”. The Chashmonayim were a small group of guerrilla fighters. They were up against a huge professional army of well trained and well-armed soldiers. The odds of their being victorious were virtually zero. But with God’s help, they went way beyond what would normally be expected of them and they vanquished the Syrian/Greek forces.
2. When the Jews took back control of Jerusalem’s holy Temple from their foes, they found it trashed and desecrated. They cleaned it up, and wanted to light the Menorah that was lit each day as part of the Temple service. But the Syrian/Greeks had defiled all the oil. A search turned up only one small jar of ritually pure oil that had not been defiled – but it would only last for one day. A supply of new oil was a four-day journey away. Miraculously, this tiny amount of oil went beyond it’s normal one-day capacity and remained lit for eight days.
3. The schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed about how, ultimately, we are to perform the lighting of Chanukah candles. The school of Shammai insisted that we light eight candles on the first night of Chanukah, seven on the second night, six on the third, etc. The school of Hillel taught that we are to light one candle on the first night, two on the second night, three on the third and so on. The Talmud concludes that we follow the opinion of the school of Hillel: “Yoseph v’holech” we proceed each night by adding on – increasing, more each night.
4. Actually, the Talmud teaches that there is a basic, minimal way in which we can fulfill our obligation each night of Chanukah. That is for the entire family to light one candle each night. On the first night, one candle is lit. On the second night, one candle is lit, and this can be the procedure for each of Chanukah’s eight nights.
However, all Jewish rituals have a principle of “hiddur mitzvah” – embellishing the mitzvah and doing it in a more beautiful way. The Talmud teaches that to perform the Chanukah ritual on this higher level, each person of the household should light one candle each night.
Chanukah is unique among every ritual in Judaism in that it alone has a level of “m’hadrin min ha’m’hadrin” (beautifying the beautiful) – kicking it up to yet another level! Where the level of “hidur” has each member of the household light one candle each night, the higher level of “m’hadrin min ha’m’hadrin” has each person of the household, following the opinion of the school of Hillel, light one candle on the first night, two on the second night, three on the third, and so on.
5. There is a Torah principle that ritual impurity becomes permissible when the entire Jewish community has become ritually impure. Contact with the dead is the ultimate way of becoming “tameh” (ritually impure). During the long war fought between the Jews and the Syrian/Greeks, there was a presumption that everyone had some contact, directly or indirectly with someone who had died. In that case, the whole community was presumed “impure” and therefore, there would have been no need to use only ritually pure oil. They could have used any oil. There was really no urgency to have the tiny amount of pure oil they found last miraculously for eight days until they could retrieve a new supply of pure oil.
However, Chanukah is the festival of transcendence – going beyond. Even though the Jews didn’t really need pure oil, they were not satisfied in lighting the Menorah in anything less than the most optimal way. They were committed to going beyond the bottom line letter of the law and would only be satisfied with absolutely pure oil that had not been touched by the idolaters who polluted the Temple.
6. According to the Maharal from Prague (1525-1609), the number seven is associated with the formation of our physical world. The number eight corresponds to the realm of the supernatural. Beyond the physical, eight is the realm of the metaphysical. Chanukah is celebrated for eight days – the number of transcendence.
7. The basic ritual of Chanukah is lighting candles each night. The flickering flame that emanates is the most essential symbol of the holiday. Of all the phenomenon of nature, the flame is unique. Everything else is ultimately is pulled down by the force of gravity. The flame, on the other hand, licks upward, striving to go higher and higher. It’s a perfect metaphor for our Chanukah theme – seeking transcendence.
Armed with this understanding of the essential concept of Chanukah, we will now see how this can help us understand the relationship of Chanukah to the other holidays in our calendar as well as how it fits into the entire sweep of Jewish history.
The sequence of holidays in the Jewish calendar actually describes the spiritual journey of the Jewish people through its entire history. Each holiday in the year corresponds to the spiritual level of the Jewish people at a particular stage in history. The holidays at the beginning of the Jewish calendar year correspond to the Jewish people at the beginning of their history. They holidays at the end of the Jewish calendar year describe the Jewish people at the end of history.
PASSOVER CHANUKAH PURIM
Nigleh/Revealed Transition Nistar/Concealed
As we will soon see, Chanukah is the transitional holiday between the holidays that commemorate events that took place at the very beginning of Jewish history, and Purim, which is the last holiday of the year and corresponding to the conclusion of Jewish history with the advent of the Messianic age.
The holidays all mark events when the Almighty revealed Himself to the Jewish people. The Hebrew word for world is “olam” – which is related to the Hebrew word “ne’elam” which means concealed. The relationship here is clear: The world is called “olam” because the Creator’s presence is hidden, concealed in His world. God makes Himself manifest in the world through miracles. The Hebrew word for miracle, “nes” also means banner or flag – because a miracle waves the banner of Divine immanence.
Our sages discussed two kinds of miracles. Supernatural miracles are referred to as revealed miracles (nigleh) and are unmistakable in starkly revealing God’s participation. Other miracles are more subtle and hidden (nistar) and God’s involvement is not as clear.
Passover, which is the holiday that marks the birth of the Jewish people and the beginning of Jewish history, is the holiday par excellence of the revealed, overt supernatural miracle. The ten dramatic plagues that defied the laws of nature, lasting for many months, was an incredibly dramatic display of God’s absolute control over the forces of nature. His involvement was unmistakable and even the Egyptians had to finally admit, “This is the finger of God!” (Exodus 8:15). When the Jewish nation crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land after its waters split, God’s presence was so real that they were virtually able to “point” at God and proclaim, “This is my God and I will glorify Him!” (Exodus 15:2) The Midrash teaches that the splitting of the sea was such a powerful event, that the lowest maidservant going through the experience had a clearer vision of God than the prophet Ezekiel.
When we celebrate Passover each year, the name of Moses is basically absent from the Hagaddah that we recite at the Seder. This is to make it clear that our Exodus from Egypt was all God’s doing. We shouldn’t think for one moment that it was Moses’ exceptional leadership and statesmanship skills that won the day. On Passover, everything was made clear.
These events, coming at the very beginning of Jewish history, relate to the spiritual level of the Jewish people at that time. Indeed, our rabbis teach us that in some ways, they were very spiritually unsophisticated. Living for over 200 years in an idolatrous Egyptian environment, the Jewish people descended to the 49th level of spiritual impurity. That was just about as low as it was possible to sink. As the Egyptians were drowning in the waters of the Reed Sea, the angels protested how unfair it was for God to save the Jews and not the Egyptians since “they are both worshippers of idols!”
Because of their primitive spiritual level, I believe that God needed to make His reality absolutely clear to the Jewish people. He had to totally pull back the curtain and with the most powerful and dramatic “in your face” demonstrations to literally show them He is real. The Torah uses this very language in Deuteronomy 4:35, “You were shown so that you should know that the Lord, He is God! There is none beside Him!
The next two holidays in the calendar which mark events that took place during the first 40 years of our nation’s history, also correspond to the spiritual level of the Jewish people at that stage in time. God still needed to overwhelm them with absolutely clear manifestations of His presence. The holiday of Shavuot marks the revelation of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai seven weeks after they left Egypt. The drama of the event was unparalleled. With the mountain smoking and accompanied by thunder and lightning, over 2 million Jews actually heard God as He spoke the words of the “Ten Commandments” to Moses (Exodus 19:9).
The holiday of Sukkot commemorates the 40 years of miracles through which God sustained his people in the desert after their exodus from Egypt. Their diet consisted of a miraculous heavenly food that fell on the desert floor each morning (except on the Shabbat). A supernatural well travelled with them during their desert wanderings providing water. They were directed when and where to travel by a pillar of fire. Their clothing did not wear out during those forty years and numerous other miracles transpired over this period of time. The weaning process away from the idolatry of Egypt needed to be crystal clear in its demonstration of God’s supernatural power. The revealed miracles of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot were custom designed to leave no doubts during the formative years of Jewish history.
If we jump to the last month of the Jewish calendar, we encounter the last holiday of the year – Purim. According to our thesis, this holiday corresponds to the spiritual level of the Jewish people at the climax of the historical process. The Messianic age will be a time when we’ve reached the very highest spiritual levels. Scripture tells us, “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
The Purim story is recounted in the Scroll of Esther (Megillat Esther). It is an unusual Biblical book in that God’s name never appears in it. This absence of God’s name reflects the fact that His presence seems to be missing from the story. Indeed, the wicked plot to destroy the Jewish people at that time appears to have been thwarted by court intrigue, lucky timing and numerous coincidences. People repeatedly make their appearances into the story just at the right moment. Purim is the holiday of the “nes nistar”, the hidden miracle.
The words “Megillat Esther” can actually be translated as “the revealing of that which is hidden”. The point of Purim is to be able to see past the superficial and recognize that our salvation from destruction was not simply fortuitous – there was much more than luck and timing going on in Persia 2400 years ago. Everything was being orchestrated, behind the scenes, from Above. There were no coincidences, and the salvation of the Jewish people was not just based upon lucky breaks.
Of course, hidden miracles can be easily missed. In 1967, many people simply gave all the credit for Israel’s lightning victory in the spectacular Six Day war to the Israeli Defence Forces. The dramatic rescue of hostages in Entebbe in 1976 was similarly seen as another example of the invincibility of Israel’s Special Forces. Nonetheless, some people realized that something miraculous had indeed taken place.
As the final holiday of the year, Purim reflects the culmination of the spiritual maturation of the Jewish people. When people are on a high spiritual level, God doesn’t have to bloody the rivers or split the sea in order for us to be aware of His reality. They can even perceive God’s presence when sitting by a quietly flowing stream in the forest.
This might be the meaning of the teaching that in the Messianic age, all the holidays will be nullified except for Purim (Midrash Mishlei 9). The point here is not that the other holidays will not be celebrated during the Messianic age. Rather, we’re being taught that at that time, we will no longer need the type of miracles associated with those holidays in order to be aware of God’s presence.
We also see this idea illustrated in a very famous Talmudic passage:
“At the time of the receiving of the Torah, the Jewish people stood at the foot of (Hebrew “tachat” literally means ‘under’) Mt. Sinai. Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says that this teaches that God held the mountain over the Jewish people and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, good. If not, this shall be your burial place’. Rav Acha bar Yaakov says that we see from here that the acceptance of the Torah was coerced (and therefore, should not be binding). Rava says it was reaccepted (willingly) during the days of Achashverosh (the king in the Purim story), as it is written, (Megillat Esther 9:27) ‘Kimu v’kiblu (they established what had been accepted). Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 88a
According to the Maharal, we shouldn’t necessarily understand that God literally held the mountain over their heads. Rather, this is a way of saying that after the incredible supernatural miracles of the ten plagues and splitting of the Sea of Reeds that the Jewish people witnessed, God’s reality was so clear, that it was as if a mountain were being held over their heads. Could they really have had total free choice when God, at that moment, offered them the Torah? This would be similar to a person walking in a department store surrounded by armed security guards. Would shoplifting not be impossible at that time?
However, the Talmud tells us that it was only after the extremely subtle miracles of Purim that the Jewish people finally truly accepted the Torah. Of course! In the Purim story there were no supernatural miracles (God’s name is not even mentioned) and therefore, absolutely no compulsion.
We’ve seen that people who are not yet spiritually advanced often need to see dramatic supernatural proof in order to acknowledge God. (Woody Allen once joked, “If only God would give me a sign – like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank!”)
Those who are more spiritually inclined are less in need of such demonstrations. The Talmud relates a story of a man whose wife passed away leaving him with a nursing child. He was very poor and unable to hire someone to nurse the child. A miracle took place, and the man grew breasts and nursed his son. Rabbi Yosef said: What a great man he must have been that such a miracle was performed for him! Abaye, however, said: On the contrary! Look at how low that man must have been that the order of creation had to be changed for him (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 53b).
Had this person been on a higher spiritual level, God could have arranged for him to find the money to pay someone to nurse the child. Or he could have won the money in a lottery. Unfortunately, such a person would have just chalked it up to good luck and never acknowledge God as his benefactor.
Now we’re in a position to better understand the role of Chanukah in the sequence of holidays. Chanukah is the transition from the holidays that occurred at the beginning of Jewish history typified by supernatural miracles – and Purim, the holiday of concealed miracles coming at the end of the year and corresponding to the Messianic climax of history.
The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication” and the holiday marks the rededication of our Holy Temple after it was liberated and cleansed. Chanukah also has the connotation of training and education. We saw that the essential theme of Chanukah is transcendence. As the holiday of transition, Chanukah comes to educate and train us to rise above and go beyond our early, unsophisticated spiritual level where we required supernatural miracles for God to “prove” Himself – and to reach the more refined and elevated level where we’re able to perceive God even when He is apparently hidden.
How does Chanukah teach us this lesson? Obviously, through its miracles! The Chanukah story featured both revealed and concealed miracles. The military victory of the Jewish people over their Syrian/Greek oppresors did not involve any supernatural intervention. Like the Israeli victory in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the triumph of the Maccabees could have been explained away in numerous ways. There were probably some people who never considered that without God’s assistance, they would never had won.
However, the miracle of the one-day supply of oil lasting for eight days was a clear supernatural miracle. There was no possible natural explanation for what happened. According to the Maharal, the miracle of the oil came to illuminate the military victory. It came to make it clear that their battles were ultimately successful because the Almighty had their backs.
This clarification of how to truly recognize the miraculous is the function of the holiday of Chanukah.
Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) asked an apparently obvious question about Chanukah. We celebrate it for eight days because the jar of pure oil they found in the Temple burned for eight days. However, there was enough oil for one day – it would seem that only the final seven days that it burned were miraculous. So, wondered R’ Karo, why is Chanukah celebrated for eight days?
Rabbi Dovid Feinstein (b.1929) proposed a profound answer to this famous question. Ultimately, he said, the question is based upon a misconception in suggesting that only the final seven days of the oil’s burning was miraculous. We understand that a miracle provokes us to see God’s involvement. If we saw the sea split, or the river turn to blood, we’d realize that God had done something. But who made the sea to begin with? Nature is simply a miracle that happens over and over, and so we begin to take it for granted.
Of course when a one-day supply of oil burns for eight days, we are startled by those last seven days and acknowledge the miracle. Rav Feinstein explained that we celebrate Chanukah for eight days because the first day was a miracle as well! God didn’t only cause the oil to burn for an additional seven days, He enabled it to burn on the first day too! He was involved in the entire eight days: both in the overt supernatural miracle of the last seven days, as well as the covert natural miracle on the first day! This is the deep spiritual lesson of Chanukah – to recognize God’s involvement even when it’s concealed within nature.
A famous Talmudic story illustrates this. Once, on a Friday evening, Rabbi Chanina noticed that his daughter was sad. He asked her, “My daughter, why are you sad?” She replied, “I accidentally exchanged the vinegar jar for the oil jar and I lit the Shabbat lights with vinegar.” So he said to her, “He who commanded the oil to burn will also command the vinegar to burn.” Her light continued to burn until the conclusion of the Sabbath (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 49a).
We’re no longer living at a time when we experience overt supernatural miracles. To some extent, we no longer need them as much as our ancestors did 3300 years ago. However, our nation is not yet on the level where we all see God’s hand operating in everything that happens in our lives. Many still believe that their doctors heal them and that their jobs provide their sustenance. We still need help in seeing God’s hidden hand in our lives and the fate of our nation.
This is where Chanukah, the holiday of education comes in. It beckons us to go beyond, to transcend the naïve spirituality where God has to always step out from behind the curtain and literally reveal Himself. Chanukah is the holiday of transition, training us to finely attune our consciousness to acute awareness of the Divine that will be fully achieved in the Messianic utopia.