Every December/Kislev a great annual debate rages in the august halls of American academia. Intellectuals and students take sides to weigh the pros and cons of two Jewish gastronomical delights as they exchange verbal blows in the crucial “Hamentaschen vs. Latkes Debate.” Votes are taken and learned treaties are published concerning the results. I myself have never participated in any of these debates (one of many momentous opportunities I have evidently missed); however, they bring to mind a different kind of debate which seems to me to have more substance and significance (albeit less calories). And that is the question of Lighting with Oil vs. Lighting with Wax.
As a child, I remember the smooth, thin, tall orange Chanukah candles that were de riguer in every Jewish home. In fact, they were the only candles around. Roshei yeshivos or chassidishe Jews may have used olive oil, but the people I knew did not. In our family and neighborhood, orange candles were the way to go.
When progress hit Chicago, the orange candles ceased to exist. In their place, twisted, colored candles from Israel appeared in the stores. New things always have a certain novel appeal and the fact that they were from Israel made them doubly popular. So we began to light in technicolor. Still, it didn’t seem quite the same. Chanukah was supposed to be orange.
I grew up, and, a few years down the line, got married to a fine bachur. In the yeshiva world, olive oil was the name of the game. But olive oil was a time-consuming mitzvah. It required wicks. None were commercially available so we twisted our own. If they were too thick, they did not absorb sufficient oil and they slowly puttered out. If they were too thin, they burned out too quickly and new ones had to be made and reinserted. Either way, it was a messy procedure. No matter how careful you were or how carefully you wiped up, olive oil was everywhere.
And then, one magic day, all this was gone and done and over. Someone knocked at our door selling triangular-shaped boxes containing forty-four sealed glass containers of just the correct amount of olive oil, just like the sealed flask of oil found in the Beis HaMikdash. Perfectly-formed wicks, held in place on a single metal disc, stood upright in the oil, their halachic tips waiting for the touch of a match. You popped a cap open and voila! A perfect, clean, ready-to-go Chanukah light in all its glory. Except that the first boxes, products of France, had a bad smell, which gave them a bad name. The next year, the triangular boxes were back on the shelves, but French oil was out and pure olive oil from the Holy Land took its place. We’ve been using it ever since.
But should we? At a recent shiur, it was explained that the preparation for a mitzvah is an integral part of the mitzvah and making everything easy is denigrating the mitzvah. L’fum tza’arah agra… the reward is according to the effort expended. So what does that mean? That to truly and fully perform one of my favorite mitzvos I have to suffer an oily mess? And what about other mitzvos? Shall I stop looking for the quickest, easiest (albeit halachically approved) way to kasher my kitchen for Pesach? Must I return to scraping and bleaching and boiling when there are heiterim to do certain things faster and easier? Am I copping out by looking for the easier way? There’s no doubt that when we expend more effort and energy, we appreciate the finished product more fully.
After the shiur, the rabbanit asked how many of the women present would still use the ready-to-go cups of oil and how many would return to old fashioned, hand made wicks, cut to fit glass cups you fill with your own oil. The ready-made product won by a whopping majority. Evidently, we are not made of Maccabee material.
But we are, each of us in her/his own way! How else to explain that after two thousand, one hundred and fifty-five years (the miracle of Chanukah took place in the year 3622, or 139 B.C.E.) we are still celebrating, performing, blessing, learning, remembering and deriving strength from that provincial, parochial, uncosmopolitan, fanatic family of Chashmonaim? If ever anyone was politically incorrect, it was they! And just think… we, even in our marvelously comfortable, contemporary surroundings, in luxurious settings the likes of which Am Yisrael has rarely seen in the long years of its Exile, are still holding on! If that’s not a sign that something of that Chashmonai determination and loyalty and emunah is still simmering within us, I don’t know what is.
Of course Chanukah is “lucky” because it happens to coincide with a certain gentile holiday that begins with the same letter. Poor Shavuos is almost a non-entity on the general Jewish American scene. The same goes for Tisha B’Av which has the added misfortune of coming out in the summer when there is no school so that the general Jewish population doesn’t even know it exists. These events in Jewish history have no American “twinning” to help keep them alive in Jewish America.
Our own contemporary Chanukah battle has become one of saving Chanukah from American culture. Not allowing it to morph into an orgy of gift giving (gifts were originally an Xmas phenomenon; Jews gave Chanukah gelt). Or turn the holiday into our annual Winter Vacation (the ski-slopes in Colorado are beckoning!). Ours is to remember that Chanukah is primarily a celebration of Jews who stood up to fight for Torah. The Maharal writes that the true “miracle” was not the oil, but the fact that a few “fanatic” Jews, a tiny percentage of the population of little Judea, were willing to stand up to the greatest, most powerful army in the world. That they found within themselves the necessary strength to fight and endanger their lives for G-d and His Torah, for Eretz Yisrael and for the Beis HaMikdash. It’s called mesiras nefesh.
The Torah has been forgotten by many of the sons of Judea in the Exile; the Beis HaMikdash has not yet been rebuilt. But Eretz Yisrael is, as it has always been, still at the frontline of the battle for G-d and Torah, and Am Yisrael is still holding on and standing up to the world’s greatest evils, empires and armies. We may not possess the same fortitude the Maccabim displayed, but we keep trying. And like the Maccabim, with G-d’s help, we shall prevail and light our olive oil candles in the Beis HaMikdash once again. May it be soon.