What is Chanukah?
Here is how Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov puts it:
The Hasmonean War against the Greeks was unlike the typical revolt of the oppressed against their oppressors…. The Greeks … sought only to subjugate the Jews spiritually…. Their aim was to liberate Israel from her “primitive beliefs” … to impose the spirit of their culture upon Israel, to lead them to believe, as they did, in the reality of man’s prowess, in the beauty of man’s taste and in the reliability of man’s intellect. The cardinal principles of Jewish faith, that God speaks to man and demands that he follow His dictates, laws and service, were to be abandoned, God forbid…. The pure among Israel, led by the Kohanim of the Hasmonean House, saw Greek culture as the source of impurity in this world, the most despicable form of paganism.… When man [himself] is deified and served, when people begin to believe in man’s great power, in the beauty of man’s taste and the reliability of man’s intellect, the damage that can result is limitless. [The Book of Our Heritage, Volume 1, Feldheim Publishers]
Having quoted Rabbi Kitov, I would now like to quote Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon.
America … is a wonderful country, the best Gentile nation in the history of the world. It is a land of freedom, tolerance and kindness, a safe haven for millions of Jews. But … in addition to all its beautiful qualities, [America] … has its sordid sides. One of the prices of freedom is a decadent, lewd culture, which is unfortunate. Another is the overwhelming sense of “kochi ve’otzem yadi asah li es hachayil ha’ze” (my strength and the power of my hand have produced all this affluence for me).
More than any other people on earth, Americans are inclined to consider themselves masters of their own destiny. They believe in unlimited opportunity, that “the sky is the limit,” that “where there is a will there is a way”…. But where is the Creator in this scheme of things?… Where are the rewards of goodness and the consequences of sin … the acknowledgement of the Source of all blessings? There is no faith in this worldview, no humility, only arrogance and conceit…. [With Hearts Full of Faith, ArtScroll/Mesorah]
Chanukah is a very serious holiday. I am aware that we celebrate with games and trips and food and presents, but it is imperative not to lose sight of reality. The very way in which we celebrate Chanukah borrows much from the holiday season of the society in which we find ourselves, so lucidly characterized above by Rabbi Salomon.
The truth is that we are in the grip of a culture not at all unlike the culture of Greece against which the Hasmoneans fought for the survival of Am Yisrael. In fact, Western culture prides itself on its descent from Greece. Look at the influence of sports on our society. Where did that begin if not in the Olympic Games and the glorification of the human body?
The Chofetz Chaim stated that the ability to survive the “Birthpangs of Moshiach” hinges on our willingness to cling to the culture of Torah and dissociate ourselves from the culture of the surrounding nations. The Hasmoneans were in the minority; they were the “zealots,” the “extremists.” Yet without them, we would not exist today as Jews. They saved Am Yisrael. They saved Torah. They saved the world, for without Torah the world does not exist.
Right now we are under dire threat. The world around us is changing. Dark clouds are rolling in. We are now in the days leading up to the Final Redemption, when the nations of the world are making their last-ditch attempt to surround us.
Nevertheless, Am Yisrael Chai – we will live and our enemies will fail, as they always ultimately have. But who will make it through to the end? Who will survive into the Great Days that are coming? It is our urgent and immediate task to examine our lives and ask whether we are acting like Maccabees in our own days.
May we all kindle the pure flame of Torah in our hearts. May the Menorah burn once more in the bais hamikdash. May the pure light of Torah go out from Jerusalem and illuminate the entire world.