Chanukah is a tough Yom Tov, perhaps the toughest.
Tough? What in the world is tough about Chanukah? Why, it is so geshmak (enjoyable)! I mean, come on —dreidel, latkes, sufganiyot… maybe even some singing. Thant doesn’t sound tough to me!
Yes, but what do I gain from Chanukah (besides a few pounds)? I know that I will walk away from Pesach with a renewed feeling of the importance of the nes of yetzias Mitzrayim to whatever degree I’ve prepared and studied about the Yom Tov, the seder experience, the matzo, cleaning and searching for chametz; these all work their magic, and zeman cheiruseinu means something to me. The same goes for Shavuos, and it being zeman mattan Toraseinu. This is certainly true of Sukkos. I sit in the sukkah for seven days, through the heat, through the cold, through the bees —something is going to rub off on me and enhance my spiritual benefit from that Yom Tov. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, even Purim —they all have their rituals, their experiences, their aura, their ambience, their atmosphere—and that, at the very least by osmosis, has its effect upon me and changes me in some way, however small. (Certainly, the degree to which one studies about and prepares for each Yom Tov will enhance and increase that which he or she walks away from a Yom Tov with. But there’s always something).
But Chanukah? To paraphrase the Gemara’s famous question (although the context is different) —“Mai Chanukah?” —What is Chanukah? Chanukah is eight days, I light the Menorah, I don’t even have a reading of the story to go to (a la Purim), I have no mishloach manos to keep me busy —there’s not even a seudah to prepare for. Indeed, everybody is going to work as usual, maybe they’re rushing home for the five or ten —perhaps even twenty— minutes to light Chanukah candles, and then what’s left? What is the unique ambience of Chanukah? Does your house have one? What do you walk away from Chanukah with? Or do you really just end up “sleeping through Chanukah?” Would you accept sleeping through the Yom Kippur ne’ilah prayer? Would you sleep through the seder, through the Purim seudah? Yet many of us do just that —we sleep through Chanukah!
This issue becomes even more important —even vital— when we consider the Gemara in Yoma (29a), which essentially calls Purim and Chanukah ‘the end of all miracles,’ meaning that these two ‘minor’ rabbinically ordained Yamim Tovim celebrate the end of clearly seeing Hashem’s (virtually) open intervention to bring about the salvation of the Bnei Yisrael until Mashiach’s times. This means that Purim, with its salvation from physical annihilation, and Chanukah, with its salvation from spiritual decimation, are meant to carry us, the Jewish people, through this long and bitter galus (exile). Their stories will repeat themselves in various forms throughout our history, with these two menaces and attacks on Bnei Yisrael. This is true of the physical threats, as our history has unfortunately shows and the spiritual threats, whose narrative is much the same. There is a message here, a challenge to each and every Jew.
So what exactly does Chanukah teach us? What threats are we dealing with —is it only coercion of shemad (forced assimilation)? The roots of the peril in which the Jewish people found themselves in the Chanukah story can actually be found years earlier, when the Torah was translated into Greek by the insistence of King Ptolemy of Egypt, under whose dominion Eretz Yisrael fell after the death of Alexander the Great. [The Persian Empire had crumbled before the Greek Alexander’s conquests, and in fact most of Europe, wide parts of Africa, and Asia came under his rule. With the death of Alexander, the empire was divided.] Because of the seminal event of that translation, which gave the Greeks access to our written Torah, the Greeks now understood that the Jews were a real threat to the Greek desire for world domination, including the spreading of their cultural and intellectual influences. This brought on an assault on Jewish spirituality, on Torah and its mitzvos, which was the force that the Greeks saw as vying with them for worldwide influence. Today as well, we too live in a world of Greek oriented ideology in terms of the clash as to the meaning of life, the goals of humanity. The ultimate existential issue of what should be at the center of humanity’s aspirations and toil, this world in which we live? Should one succumb to the siren song of its intellect and culture? Alternatively, should one conduct one’s life in subservience to G-d, accepting wholeheartedly the view that this world is but a vestibule to another, eternal, spiritual world, a world where the only currency is the morality and loyalty to a Supreme Power, who created and rules all. What are life’s goals and values, how do we define what is important and meaningful?
Sadly, a chief component of the enemy in the Chanukah story came from within. Chazal often allude to the pervasive corrupting influence of the Misyavnim —the Jewish Hellenists who, over the course of time, slowly and subtly adopted the values and world-view of the “sophisticated” Greeks. The goal of this enemy was to desecrate the holiness of the Jewish people, to introduce chillul and tumah. We know to whom we refer when we speak of the deliverance of the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few. Yet the phrases that follow, “the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous and those who would rebel into the hands of those who studied Your Torah” are a bit more puzzling. Is that part of the nes? Indeed it is, for these phrases obliquely refer to those Jews who were Hellenized and were working on permeating the Jewish world with their newfound values and attitudes.
We know that Yavan is referred to as ‘choshech,’ darkness, with the light of the menorah, and all of our collective menorahs combating that darkness. Never forget how the Mesillas Yesharim speaks of two types of darkness. One kind of darkness completely obscures one’s vision, causing a pillar to appear as a person and a person as a pillar. Where one cannot see the pitfalls, and thus falls into them. However, the Mesillas Yesharim says, there is another, more harmful form of darkness; a darkness that distorts people’s perceptions to the point that they regard good as evil and evil as good. This deception is a great evil, which brings those who have fallen into that darkness to the pit of destruction (i.e., Gehinnom).
Think! What is your everyday code of ethics and values? We are unwittingly inundated with Greek ideas of sympathy and cruelty that are antithetical to Torah values. Want some examples? What are your thoughts about killing a murderer, prolonging a life of a breathing individual (even if that is all that the individual is still doing), killing children before they are even born when there is a suspicion of physical or mental defects, a couple divorcing because “they are no longer in love,” entertaining oneself during one’s “spare time,” the pursuit of happiness (with happiness, of course, meaning material wealth). I could go on and on and so can you dear readers. What do your children see as your primary goals in life? (Not what you say they are what they see)? What gets you upset and what doesn’t bother you? What gets you up early in the morning and what just doesn’t? What causes your eyelids to droop and what causes you to perk up suddenly?
Think about these things, think about the victory of the Chashmonaim in their battle, and let us move forward together to greet the light of the Mashiach!