The Miracle of Lights or of Victory?
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin
The festival of Chanukah celebrates the victory of a small band of Hasmonean believers in God. We also celebrate the triumph of Jewish traditions over the massive forces of the Hellinistic ruling class of Judea together with the military might of Greek-Syria, whose misguided goal was to transform Jerusalem into a Greek city-state. As we recite in our Al HaNissim (“for the miracles….”) prayer in each Amidah and Grace After Meals throughout the eight days of the holiday, it was a victory of “the powerful in the hands of the weak, the many in the hands of the few, the impure in the hands of the pure, the wicked in the hands of the righteous, the guilty sinners in the hands of those who were occupied in your Torah….” As such, Chanukah fits perfectly into the rubric of all Jewish holidays: the bad guys wanted to destroy us, God enabled us to beat them, so let’s eat (latkes) and give praise to our Divine Protector.
The question is: Why wasn’t that great military victory sufficient? Why did God have to create yet another miracle — which effectively teaches the same lesson about the small amount that stretches and expands to become a much more significant amount — of the small cruse of pure oil sufficient for one day, which managed to bring light to the menorah for eight days (a period of time necessary for the Judeans to procure more oil, as explained by Maimonides in his “Laws of Chanukah”)? Furthermore, they did find enough oil for one day; hence, if the miracle was only for the requisite seven additional days, why do we celebrate the festival for eight (and not merely) seven days?
The sainted Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (of the 18th century), known as the Vilna Gaon, notes that if one counts from the very first word of the Bible, Bereishit (“In the beginning”), the twenty-fifth word is ohr, “light,” as in the verse, “and the Almighty declared ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3).” When we remember that the military victory — and onset of the festival of Chanukah — takes place on the twenty-fifth of the Hebrew month of Kislev, and that Chanukah is known by the Book of the Maccabees and by the Second Commonwealth historian Josephus as the “Festival of Lights” (Chag HaUrim) after the miracle cruse of oil, the “coincidence” noted by the Vilna Gaon is nothing less than startling. And in order to understand in depth the message of this “coincidence,” we must bring to mind a most profound insight of my teacher and mentor, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik.
“Why does our Bible open with the story of the creation of the cosmos and not with the first of the commandments?” queries our classical commentator Rashi. Answers Rabbi Soloveitchik, the story of the creation of the world includes the very first commandment, as well. After all, the central injunction of our Bible is the command that we “walk in (God’s) ways,” act in accordance with the basic “traits” attributed to the Divine: “Just as He is compassionate, so must we be compassionate; just as He is filled with loving kindness, so must we be filled with loving kindness.”
Similarly, if God created the world, we too must emulate that creativity; we too must become creators. And if the Almighty stood at the abyss of the darkness of the deep and created light — and indeed, that was His first act of creation — so must we enter places of darkness and bring light. This is precisely the meaning of “perfecting the world,” tikkun olam, the God-given task to Israel to be “a light unto the nations.” (See the Aleinu prayer, prescribed to be recited after every statutory prayer.) All it takes is a little bit of light to push aside a great deal of darkness.
Rabbi Prager, sainted editor of the Beit Yaakov magazine and acclaimed witness of the Holocaust, writes of a young boy in Auschwitz whose Bar Mitzvah was the first day of Chanukah. He painstakingly collected scraps of oil to craft a makeshift “candle,” and invited a small group to celebrate with him after midnight in his “bunk.” In the blackness of the night, in the hell-hole of Auschwitz, a small band of wasted, frightened Jews huddled together to watch the Bar Mitzvah boy light the “candle,” intone the blessings, join with him in the traditional Chanukah songs. Just as they were beginning to feel themselves transported to an almost forgotten time of love and light, a Nazi guard entered, shot into the air and barked at the youth at the center of the nocturnal activity to put out the candle. The Bar Mitzvah looked unwaveringly into the eyes of the Nazi.
“We Jews do not extinguish light,” he said. “We make light.”
Inexplicably, the Nazi guard turned and strode out without a word.
The Jewish mission in the world is to add to God’s light and push away the world’s darkness, which, unfortunately, remained from the beginning and threatens to overwhelm creation. That is what it means for us to function as God’s partners. And that was the higher meaning of the miracle of the menorah light; we added our “human” light and our act of “enlightenment” to God’s initial light at the time of creation. And that is likewise the miracle of the first day: our realization that we must add our own light to the already existent Divine light in order to perfect an imperfect (incomplete) world.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the Founder, Chancellor Emeritus and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone