The Chabad-Lubavitch public chanukiyah in front of Karlsruhe Palace in Germany. When we light the candles, we are, in effect, praying that the light of renewal, love and peace will break out in the world. (photo by Michael Kauffmann via commons.wikimedia.org)
What is Chanukah about? Dreidels? Latkes? Doughnuts? Candles? All of the above? According to the rabbis of the Talmud, Chanukah is primarily about the remembering of a miracle. But what is the miracle?
Chanukah celebrates the miracle that Hashem did for us in the time of the Seleucids, when the Greek occupying power tried to wipe out Jewish culture and absorb us into the Hellenic world. Some say that the miracle is the oil that burned for eight days after the
Temple was re-consecrated, even though there was only enough for one day. Some say that it was the defeat of the Greek army, as the prayer “Al Hanissim,” recited every day during Chanukah, says. Perhaps it was both – the miraculous salvation of the Jews by a power not their own, which was clearly demonstrated by the oil that burnt for eight days. Perhaps that was Hashem’s way of signing His name.
Throughout Jewish history, many rabbis have pointed out that Chanukah is about chinuch, education. What is the way of education shown in Chanukah? It is the way of light. Each day, we light another candle to illumine the darkness and we place this menorah of lights in the window where we can show it to the world. Why on this holiday do we publicize the miracle? The Mevaser Tov (the Biala Rebbe Shlita) asks this question, pointing out, “We do not read the Megillah out in the street, or pour the four glasses of Pesach on the street corners!” The reason, he says, is that the light of Chanukah is a first dawning of messianic light – the light that has been hidden away since the beginning of the world. When we light the candles, we are letting loose some of this light and we are, in effect, saying a prayer that this light break out en masse in the world.
But what does this mean? What is the light of the Messiah? The Tanach says that the messianic age will be when: “the wolf will dwell with the lamb / and the leopard will lie down with the young goat / and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together / and a small child will lead them. / Also the cow and the bear will graze / their young will lie down together / and the lion will eat straw like the ox. / The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra / and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. / They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain / for the earth will be full of the knowledge of YHVH / as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)
The light of the Messiah is the light of renewal, love and peace. This light that we light both commemorates and anticipates a miracle – the miracle that human beings and God work together to save the world.
Why did Hashem publicly save the Jews fighting the Greek empire? The Aish HaKodesh (Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, died 1942, zt’l) explains by pointing out why the Jews of that time warranted a miracle. Surely Jews of many times and places (and certainly his own!) had suffered great losses at the hands of oppressors, murderers and tyrants. Homes, possessions, families had all been lost. Jews had been maimed, broken, scarred and killed. The reason, the Aish HaKodesh says, is that what most pained the Jews at that time was not the loss of loved ones, possessions or even life and limb. Not that they didn’t grieve for these things, but they were not what caused the Jews to rise up in prayer to God and in rebellion against the Greek empire. What animated the Jews was the threat not to their bodies, but to their spirit. When the Greek empire raised a hand against the values of Israel and threatened to wipe them out, then the Jews rose up. In other words, what provoked the miracle was that the Jewish people cared more about an injury to their spirits than their bodies. Faith like that, love like that, can provoke miracles.
We live in a time of great temptation to forget the spirit of Judaism in our anger and grief. The details are well known and do not need to be repeated here. The Jewish people, and the Jews of the state of Israel in particular, are attacked with lies, with knives, with axes, with stones, guns, bombs, cars, tractors and even buses. The temptation is great to respond with hatred, with violence. We are tempted to give back as we get, and some try to, usually with disastrous consequences. Witness the mob in Israel that attacked a Jew they thought was an Arab, or when another killed an Eritrean man. To lose sight of our highest values at a time like this – values of justice, peace, love for all the nations and unwavering menschlichkeit – is to lose our hope to be a light to the nations. That light is the light of Chanukah. Experience teaches us that only from that light will miracles come. That light itself is a miracle.
Matthew Gindin is a writer, lecturer and holistic therapist. As well as teaching holistic medicine, Gindin regularly lectures on topics in Jewish and world spirituality, and has a particular passion for making ancient wisdom traditions relevant in the modern world. His work has been featured on Elephant Journal, the Zen Site and Wisdom Pills, and he blogs at Talis in Wonderland (mgindin.wordpress.com) and Voices (hashkata.com).