“Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe, Who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all.” (Shacharis prayer)
Like anything written by Chazal, these words are filled with eternal significance.
What do they have to do with Chanukah?
What is darkness? Is it simply the absence of light or does it have substance in itself?
Darkness is associated with suffering. “In the evening one lies down weeping, but with dawn … a cry of joy” (Tehillim 30). In Mitzrayim, during the ninth plague, the darkness was so thick it prevented the Egyptians from moving. Apparently, darkness can have substance.
It seems the first entity Hashem created was light. The account of Creation begins with the statement “v’yehi ohr … let there be light.”
But wait a minute. There was a state preceding light. “Tohu vavohu … astonishing emptiness” is described as “darkness … upon the waters.” It sounds as if darkness came first and only then did Hashem create light. “God saw that the light was good and God separated the light and the darkness.”
So the light is “good.”
Is darkness “bad?”
These questions are relevant to Chanukah, because Chanukah is the quintessential Yom Tov of Exile, and Exile is always related to darkness. We want Exile to end, which should mean we want to get out of darkness. But first let’s try to understand just what “darkness” is.
Chanukah occurs during the darkest days of the year.
The shortest day of the year (which usually falls on December 21) lasts approximately nine hours and fifteen minutes from sunrise to sunset in New York City (as opposed to the longest day, which is approximately fifteen hours and six minutes). Although this year Chanukah ends about a week before the shortest day, it always falls during this period of intense darkness.
Chanukah is the only Yom Tov that occurs during the second half of the Jewish month, the period of the waning moon. All other Jewish holidays occur during the first half of the month, when the moon is becoming continually brighter. No holiday except Chanukah falls during the period in which the moon is becoming darker. Thus, these are the darkest nights of the darkest month. Each night becomes darker … until the last night of Chanukah, on which the new moon appears, hinting at the Redemption.
It would be helpful to understand more about the nature of darkness, because, clearly, the world is in profound darkness right now. We seem to be living in a world that reflects the original conditions of Chanukah.
Just as Greek culture dominated the world at the time of the Maccabees, so the Romans, successors to the Greeks, now dominate the Western world, with its emphasis on material progress and technology. The hallmark of Roman culture – reflecting the lifestyle of its ancient founder, Eisav – is the belief that technological progress will eventually make life on earth a paradise.
That assumption looks very questionable right now. We can see where the dream of Eisav, and the culture that descends from him, seem to be leading. Whatever you can say about the current state of the world, it does not look as if it’s headed toward a Garden of Eden. Indeed, we know the only blessing for the world is that which emanates from the Jewish people, the blessing that accrues from Torah.
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Let’s see what Chanukah tells us about darkness.
There must be something good about darkness, because everything Hashem does is good, and He created darkness. “The Rock, His work is perfect” (Devarim 32:4).
“Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe, Who by His word brings on evenings, with wisdom opens gates, with understanding alters periods, changes the seasons and orders the stars in their heavenly constellations as He wills. He creates day and night, removing light before darkness and darkness before light. He causes day to pass and brings night, and separates between day and night.” (Maariv prayer)
It sounds from these words as if day and night are equivalent, with night having no lesser role than day. It appears that night may have a real function.
“ ‘A song of ascents. Behold, bless Hashem, all you servants of Hashem, who stand in the Temple of Hashem in the nights.’ What does [the term] ‘in the nights’ mean? Rabbi Yochanan said: This refers to Torah scholars who engage in the study of the Torah at night. Scripture regards them as if they were engaged in the Temple service.” (Menachos 110a)
It is as if those who learn Torah at night were performing avodah in the Beis HaMikdash.
Rabbi Chiya taught in a baraisa: “Whoever engages in [the study of] Torah at night [merits that] the Divine Presence [stands] opposite him, as it says, ‘Arise, sing [the song of Torah] at night, at the beginning of the [night] watches, pour your heart out like water in the presence of the
L-rd.’ ” (Tamid 32b, quoting Eichah 2:19)
“Rav Acha bar Bizna said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Chassida: a harp hung above [King] David’s bed. As soon as midnight arrived, the north wind would blow on it and [the harp] would play of its own accord. Immediately, David would rise and engross himself in Torah [study] until the [first] ray of dawn appeared….” (Sanhedrin 16a; Berachos 3b)
During the day, one can see. This is the time to accomplish. People use daylight hours to do that which requires the use of one’s hands. At night, one cannot see around oneself, but if he is wise, he will try to use other faculties, such as his brain and perhaps his heart. Night is a time when one can think. At night, the work of the soul can replace the work of the hands. And since the essence of this world is ruchnius, which is perceived through the soul, night is a unique opportunity to investigate the world of ruchnius.
On Chanukah, we illuminate the darkness, but it’s not like the day. During the day the illumination comes from outside sources. The sun is shining. But on Chanukah it is we who provide the illumination. We cause light to come into the world. Darkness forces us, so to speak, to search for the Source of the eternal light emanating from the Creator.
Chanukah is associated with Torah she’be’al peh, the Oral Torah.
“Night was only created for the purpose of Torah study…. It is stated in the Gemara (Chagigah 12b) that when anyone engages in Torah study at night, Hashem draws a thread of kindness over him during the day ….” (Mishneh Berurah 238:1)
Moshe Rabbeinu was able to differentiate between night and day on Har Sinai because Hashem would teach him the Written Torah during the day and the Oral Torah during the night (Midrash Tanchumah Parshah Ki Sisa 36).
According to Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, “all the laws of Chanukah are rabbinic, and their observance … is an indication of allegiance and faith in the rabbis [in other words, the Oral Torah].” (Mo’adim U’Zmanim, quoted by Rabbi Binyamin Hecht)
The Greeks could not comprehend spiritual concepts. They worshipped physical achievements and the beauty of the human body. They forced our sages in the year 3515, some one hundred years before the events of Chanukah, to translate the Written Torah into Greek. They wanted to diminish the Word of God to something they could try to understand.
But one thing stood beyond their ability to comprehend: the Oral Torah. And why was this? Because the Oral Torah is, in its essence, not physical. It is designed to be passed down from father to son, rebbe to talmid, through the mouths of those who are commanded to follow the 613 commandments, the Children of Israel.
“Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua; Yehoshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly….” (Pirkei Avos 1:1) through the generations to this very day.
This, the lifeblood of Am Yisrael, the regulator of our entire lifestyle, is completely beyond the comprehension of the other nations. Only because of dire necessity was it ever written down, and then with trepidation, at the time when the long Exile loomed and the rabbis understood that the only guarantee of our survival would be if our Oral Tradition were codified in a way that we would be unable to forget.
I found an illuminating story in an article by Rabbi Nota Schiller, the legendary founder of Ohr Somayach. “When I was in yeshiva in Baltimore,” he writes, “many of the boys took courses at Johns Hopkins University. The Semitic Studies Department was then headed by William F. Albright. Clutching a photo-copied page of the Talmud, the frustrated Albright once approached one of the yeshiva boys and said, ‘I’ve translated the text and correctly identified the etymology of every single word on this page, but I can’t for the life of me understand what it’s saying!’ ”
Yes, the Gemara has been translated into many languages. But only the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, who are obligated to obey the 613 Commandments, are able to dive into the depths of the Sea of the Talmud and fly to its ethereal heights.
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How does the Gemara describe Chanukah? It’s all about light. “On the 25th of Kislev the days of Chanukah [commence]…. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all the [flasks of] oil … and … the Royal Hashmonean House gained the upper hand and vanquished them … and found only one flask of oil … with the Kohen Gadol’s seal….” (Tractate Shabbos 21b) From this pure oil, the menorah was illuminated.
What is darkness to the other nations is light to us. The symbol of Chanukah is the illumination we bring to the world. During the day, the nations of the world go about their work and build the physical structure of society. But at night, when the world is quiet, the Jew, sitting over his Gemara, is bringing blessing into the world.
The other nations cannot understand how we survive when, “logically,” we and our “incomprehensible” lifestyle should no longer exist. They want to reduce us to their physical level of existence, but they cannot. Our connection with Hashem is beyond both their understanding and their ability to sever.
Thus, Chanukah became the unique Yom Tov of the Oral Torah. And this is what infuriated the Greeks. They tried to cut off our unique relationship with the Master of the World, but, since they could not understand the world of ruchnius, they could not understand how we exist. Ultimately, they could not control us or master us or survive us. We were completely beyond them.
Chanukah and Purim are both identified with Exile, but they are very different. On Purim, we had no choice but to fight. We were singled out for annihilation, God forbid, and we were forced to fight for our lives. Our response was spiritual – fasting and repentance – but our salvation was physical. We were on the verge of extinction.
The situation surrounding the events of Chanukah was not like that.
There was “no reason” to fight. Our lives were not threatened. The Greeks “simply” wanted us to compromise three mitzvos: Rosh Chodesh, bris milah, and Shabbos. That was “all.” If we were a “normal” nation, we could have said to ourselves, “We will go along with them and we will survive.” But that is not what we said.
Over the principle of keeping Hashem’s Torah, we said, “We will not deviate. We would rather die.” The three mitzvos the Greeks wanted us to abandon do not require us to give our lives. But we understood that our entire existence is based on nothing but Torah, and that if we did not keep the Torah in all its details, we would cease to exist. Therefore, we fought against a vastly more powerful army, only for Torah. And we received Divine help.
The Hashmoneans felt they had no choice except to fight for the absolute, unblemished integrity of the Law on which Israel’s entire existence is based. This existential war was entirely based on considerations that hung from the words spoken on Har Sinai to Moshe Rabbeinu and transmitted through the generations.
Upon this Am Yisrael lives and about this we are willing to fight to the death. This is what we study during the darkness of Exile. No other nation in the world lives like this. The other nations translate our Written Torah and claim it – falsely – to be their own, but no other nation can even claim the Oral Torah because no other nation has the slightest idea what it is.
This unique connection of Am Yisrael with the intrinsically unwritten mesorah that has passed unbroken through the ages forms our unique bond with our Father in Heaven. And so we illuminate the darkness. In this darkness, the candles can be seen. The very darkness enables the light to be seen, the light of ruchnius that can never be extinguished.
Soon the darkness will end. Then the entire world will be illuminated by Torah, night and day.
“May it be Your will, Hashem, my God and the God of my forefathers, to fill the flaw of the moon that there be no diminution in it. May the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the seven days of creation, as it was before it was diminished? As it is said: ‘The two great luminaries.’ And may there be fulfilled upon us the verse that is written: ‘They shall seek Hashem, their God, and David, their king. Amen.” (Kiddush Levanah)