(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The message of Hanukka is more relevant than ever before as the Jewish people struggles to find its way in a world often filled with hostility on the one hand, and rampant assimilation on the other.
Hanukka presents an opportunity to reflect on the last 12 months, during which Israel and world Jewry have experienced traumatic times – the Gaza war, a rise in global anti-Semitism, and most recently savage terrorist attacks. Hanukka is a time to regroup and refresh ourselves with who we are, where we come from and with our vision for the future.
And yet, Hanukka is enigmatic. On the one hand it is so deeply familiar to all of us, and forms a part of many childhood memories for Jews across the world. But, even a cursory glance at its meaning can cause bewilderment.
The miracles of Hanukka refer to a time when the brave Maccabees and a small army defeated the mighty Greek empire which bestrode the known world. Surely that’s the headline? And yet, the emphasis is on the miracle of the jar of pure oil which should only have burnt in the menorah for one day, and lasted for eight, giving sufficient time to prepare new oil. Why the emphasis on the miracle of the oil rather than that of the military victory? And even more puzzling, why the name Hanukka, which means dedication and doesn’t refer directly to either miracle? The key to understanding Hanukka lies in Chapter 30 of the Book of Psalms, composed by King David. He introduces the chapter with the words “A psalm to the dedication [‘hanukka’] of the Temple by David.” The commentators are puzzled by these words.
King David never even saw the Temple, which was built by his son, King Solomon. So how could he write a psalm in dedication to the Temple? Furthermore, a cursory glance at the psalm reveals that it doesn’t refer to the Temple at all, but rather to the travails and redemptions of the turbulent life of King David. It is a psalm about his faith in G-d through his tribulations and triumphs.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the Book of Psalms, explains that indeed the ultimate Temple is not a building, but a life of holiness, morality and spirituality that a Jew lives in accordance with the values that G-d gave us. King David through his life, especially as leader of Israel, showed how Torah values are lived in a real way every single day. The ultimate Temple dedicated to the service of G-d was the very life that King David lived. This, explains Rabbi Hirsch, was always the vision of what the Temple was meant to achieve. When G-d commanded the Jewish people to build a sanctuary in the desert, He said, “Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.” It was never about the institution as the ultimate goal – but rather about how that institution would affect the lives of the people.
This tension between the institution per se and the values it seeks to inspire is the root of many of the great struggles of Jewish history.
Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary on the Book of Isaiah, says that the First Temple was destroyed by G-d because people treated it as an institution rather than making it a living part of their lives. The ultimate home of G-d we need to build is within our own lives rather than in a building alone. In the generations leading up to its destruction, the Temple had become a place where people “visited” G-d in His “home” but never invited Him into their homes and lives; a place where people came to discharge ceremonial duties, instead of a place to become inspired to permeate their daily lives with Torah values and principles.
Similarly, explains Rabbi Hirsch, the synagogue as an institution is extremely important in Jewish life, and yet if it is the sole arena where Jewish values are expressed, it has failed in its mission. The synagogue is there to inspire us on how we live our lives outside of it. It is there to guide and inspire us on how to live lives as good Jews in our families, in our homes, at work, in society and through every activity of life in accordance with Torah values.
When the brave Maccabees stood up to the Greek empire they were on a mission not merely to regain Jewish freedom and independence, but to restore Jewish values to Israel, and not just to the institutions, but to the people. The struggle was not merely political and military. It was about Torah values. Many Jews had become assimilated into the value system and worldview of Greek philosophy and culture. Through persuasion and, sometimes, brute force, Hellenistic values entered not only into the Temple, but also into the hearts and homes of Jews across Israel. The victorious Maccabees, relighting the Menorah with pure olive oil which had the seal of the high priest, became the symbol of the battle for Jewish values and the restoration of those values to the people. When establishing Hanukka, our sages did not emphasize the miracle of the battle, because the military victory was only about the ultimate aim of restoring Jewish values to the society. It was a means to an end rather than the ultimate goal. The Menorah itself represents Jewish values and that is why the focus was on that miracle. Our sages decreed that every year during Hanukka every Jewish home light a Menorah, which had always been the preserve of the Temple. The message is clear and powerful: Every Jewish home can and should be a Beit Hamikdash – a Temple – where our Jewish values can become a daily part of our lives and that of our children. That is why this festival has the name Hanukka – because it was about the rededication of the Temple, and also about the rededication of every Jewish home and heart across Israel to our ultimate Jewish values. That explains why the mitzva to light Hanukka candles can only be properly fulfilled at home. Even though we are required to publicize the miracle as much as possible, the menorah stands in the home and sheds its light outwards. It has to begin inside the home and heart of every individual.
The message of Hanukka is more relevant than ever before as the Jewish people struggles to find its way in a world often filled with hostility on the one hand, and rampant assimilation on the other. The message of Hanukka is clear – to build a strong and vibrant Jewish people we need to be inspired by the lights of the Hanukka candles and what they represent. The Menorah is the official symbol of the State of Israel. It represents the values that are so crucial for our moral clarity and national inspiration. Hanukka teaches us that these values cannot be institutionalized merely as a symbol of the state and remain there. If the only focus of Jewish life is institutional, not matter how holy and important, then Judaism will wither.
For Torah values to thrive in this world they need to live in the actions of every Jew. It is through the Hanukka lights burning in every home that we are reminded that it is the Jewish family that is the greatest institution of our people, and that the greatest Temple we build to G-d is in our hearts, homes and daily lives.
South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein has prepared multi-media learning material for a family to enjoy around the Hanukka candles. To learn more go to www.generationsinai.com.