The Hanukkah You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School

by Rabbi Jacob Rupp November 27, 2018


kid-lighting-menorahFar from our version of Xmas with eight crazy nights of fun and presents, the story of Hanukkah is by far one of the most compelling and most modern of Jewish celebrations. It is important to note that this holiday does not appear in the Torah, but rather it is mentioned in the Talmud and was established by the rabbis as a contemporary lesson to an ancient struggle.

The great irony of the holiday is the actual message it stands for; and perhaps if we knew what it was all about, it would not only fundamentally change how we relate to the season, but how we relate to America and our world as a whole.

The protagonists in the story are the Seleucid Greeks, one of the three successors to Alexander the Great who conquered much of the ancient world. From the beginning, this conquest was not military in its roots but philosophical and political. The Greeks sought to promote Greek culture through the city-states, which stressed the assimilation of the different nations and people into a pan-Greek identity. The focus was not to make the Jews abandon their religion at the outset, but to see themselves as effectively another sect in the Greek kingdom.

As such, the Greeks sought to Hellenize us by launching a full-scale assault on that which made us separate. The famous decrees against the Jewish people were: the outlawing of the study of the oral tradition, celebrating Shabbat, the New Month (Rosh Chodesh), circumcision, the laws relating to Jewish marriage and the decree that we must write on our money, “We do not have a share in the G-d of Israel.”  The Greeks also sought to put idols in our temple and level tremendous taxes.

Naturally, the saying two Jews, three opinions held up in those days as well and, as such, the Jewish community was split on how to respond to the new decrees. Many of the Jews loved the Greeks and longed to become Hellenized. To them, the Greeks were seen as the liberators of mankind, celebrating the beauty and function of the human body and the tremendous logical and philosophic development of the mind. Many Jews were attracted to their sports, their beauty, their fashion and their lifestyle.

Then there were some Jews, specifically under the auspices of Mattisyahu and his five sons, who saw the Greek threat differently. This family was of the priestly caste (the Kohanim) who were tasked with the mission of maintaining the ritualistic integrity of Judaism.  And while we may be, thank G-d, used to the modern Israeli soldier who is capable and powerful on the battlefield, these people were, in all likelihood, not warriors – their lives had been dedicated to serving G-d in the Temple.

Now of course, we know the end of the story; for a brief period the Maccabees were successful in repelling the Greeks and pushing them from our land, but the story of Hanukkah is hardly celebrated as a military victory, despite the fact that it certainly was. What truly set the stage for the holiday was the miracle after the holiday.

When the Temple stood, there were many laws that dealt with spiritual purity and impurity. These laws extended to people, garments, liquids and much more. In the Temple, there was a menorah, which was a seven-stemmed golden candelabra crafted and designed through G-d’s instruction, which symbolized spiritual wisdom. In deciding to restore and rededicate the lighting of the menorah with pure oil, they were acknowledging that there are times we need to strive to be pure, despite the fact that we don’t have the wherewithal to ensure we will stay that way or whether we will be able to sustain it.

Thus, the Kohanim lit the menorah with the faith of today, and didn’t concern themselves with tomorrow. The miracle that ensued – that the menorah burned for eight nights instead of one – was symbolic of the tremendous symbolic battle that had been waged.

When the Greeks outlawed the various practices, they sought to destroy the inner essence of Judaism and leave us only with externals. They sought to make us ‘human’ and hollow of our Divine spirituality. The Oral Torah is the soul of the Torah; it is the thing that explains and makes relevant all the teachings in the Five Books of Moses. Without it, we are left with just another book!

Shabbat symbolizes the soul of time, that each week we can desist from work and focus on our spiritual essence. Rosh Chodesh symbolizes the Jew’s ability to infuse the calendar with sanctity, the same way circumcision infuses the body with sanctity and the Jewish laws of marriage infuse sanctity into our intimate lives. Jews are also taught, that even our worldly possessions and our money are part of our Divine tools to express ourselves in the world.

The Greeks sought to make us human, so they sought to destroy the elements of our Jewish lives that make us Divine. When we fought against their superior battle force to protect our spiritual essence, we saw the Divine hand manifest. Military prowess and battlefield strength alone does not guarantee success when it comes to the Jewish people (study the wars fought by the modern state of Israel for more evidence of this).

When we extended ourselves in faith to protect our spiritual uniqueness, G-d gave us a ‘kiss’ that was more powerful than the military victory. The number seven represents physicality: there are seven seas, seven colors in the rainbow, seven days to the week, etc. Eight is the number that extends beyond spiritual and speaks to the Divine within our physical midst (think: 8th day for circumcision).

Hanukkah was the ultimate showdown between physicality and spirituality. A person needs both a body and soul to live, but the order in which they are manifest is crucial. When the body leads, the soul is weakened. When the soul is primary and the body is a vessel that serves the soul, we have sanctified ourselves and defeated the ominous ‘darkness’ of a world void of spirituality.

The modern centuries can attest to what a world without the morality of spirituality can become – dark, deep and painful.  Like the dark of a winter night, the pain subjugated on the world by the nations that reject light and decency is profound.  But a still small candle can dispel even the deepest darkness.  Our jobs in this season, and always, is to strive to be the candle and expect the miracles to transpire once we do.

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