(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Festival of Hanukka has always held a special place for the Jewish nation. During high and low tides, during times of glory and times of distress and difficulties, Jews devotedly lit Hanukka candles. This special status of Hanukka is significant. It teaches us that deep ideas act as the foundation for this festival; ideas that empowered many generations of Jews. It is no coincidence that this was chosen as the last commandment set by our sages, Chazal (“Our sages, may their memory be blessed”).
When we look at the story of the festival, we cannot help but wonder. Hanukka was meant to remember and thank G-d for the miracle that happened to the Jewish nation many generations ago, during the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem.
The Greeks who ruled the area, including the Land of Israel, took control over the Temple and changed its character. They made laws that were meant to render the Jewish religion devoid of content and change the Jewish faith-based culture to one that was clearly Hellenistic. The Maccabees, who fought the Greeks, won a huge victory, banished the Greek conqueror from Jerusalem and renewed worship and ritual in the Temple. Hanukka is meant to commemorate this miracle.
Not many years later, however, the Romans conquered Jerusalem and then destroyed the Temple.
The Jewish nation has been celebrating Hanukka for close to 2,000 years, when the reason for this celebration seemingly no longer exists. How can one explain this devotion to Hanukka if when we look closely, perhaps we have nothing to celebrate? The special prayer we recite on Hanukka begins with the words, “In the days of Matityahu the son of Yohanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons...” In the special prayer we recite on Purim, we also begin with, “In the days of Mordechai and Esther, in the capital city of Shushan...” Mentioning the names of the leaders of the nation during the period when the holiday was created is not usual practice. On Passover, for example, the festival meant to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, we do not say, “In the days of Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon the Priest.” The Passover Haggada does not even mention Moshe. There is actually no other festival for which we mention the leaders of the nation in prayer other than these two: Hanukka and Purim. This unusual citing expresses the secret of commemorating Hanukka throughout the generations, and the reason for Jews in all situations viewing candle- lighting on Hanukka as both a privilege and an obligation.
The book The Zohar distinguishes between two kinds of miracles. The first one is called “Etaruta Del’ila,” meaning “Awakening that comes from a lofty place.”
The second is called “Etaruta Deltata,” meaning “Awakening whose source is a low place.”
BOTH HANUKKA and Purim are festivals of awakenings whose source is a low place; national awakenings that stemmed from the nation and its leaders and not from a Divine miracle that changed the laws of nature.
Mention of the Jewish nation’s leaders on Hanukka and Purim expresses the unique concept of these festivals.
On Hanukka, the Maccabee family took courageous initiative and began fearlessly fighting the Greeks. Likewise, on Purim, Mordechai and Esther devised an ingenious plan that brought about the cancellation of the decree to destroy the Jewish nation.
The courage, devotion, and initiative of the Maccabees led them to go to a war that they were expected to lose. They went to war against a huge, strong, powerful and uninhibited army. They were, as we mention in the prayer, “the weak against the strong, the few against the many.” What motivated them to go to such a perilous war? It was only their faith in G-d, strong and courageous faith founded on the idea that G-d did not abandon His nation. And if the situation was bad, the Jewish nation was obligated to call out, “Who is for G-d – Join me!” gather the brave few, banish the foreign conqueror, and renew worship in the Temple.
This is as opposed to the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt when the nation was impure and the Blessed be He held out His hand to redeem them despite the fact that they displayed no act of initiative or devotion. And for this reason, the leader is not noted.
Many years after the Temple was destroyed, the members of the Jewish nation remembered the rare courage of their forefathers. In difficult situations, Hanukka was more relevant than ever. When the Hanukka candles are publicly displayed, they proclaim the tremendous power of faith; power that can be victorious over empires. This strength led the Jewish nation to survive at a time when other nations disappeared from the stage of history. This strength withstood expulsions, destructions, conquests and pogroms. And this is the message that our sages bequeathed to us before the difficult exile we suffered for about 2,000 years.
Now, we must open our hearts and try to absorb the light that the Hanukka candles emit. This is the same light of faith that is intertwined throughout the history of the Jewish nation. This is the same light that illuminates our hearts and reminds us of that brave group that understood the greatness of the moment, took responsibility upon themselves and emerged victorious.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.