This article about Chanukah has been adapted from the video of Ari Fuld’s Grill and Torah D’var Torah that he gave on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016
I want to talk to you a little bit about the spiritual meaning of Chanukah.
Many people have gotten mixed up and make false assumptions about Chanukah, believing it is just a Jewish Xmas. That’s a huge mistake.
First of all, Chanukah existed long before the Christian holiday, but also, the ideas behind it, our traditions for it and what the message is, are really completely and totally different.
As we all know, Chanukah comes out on the 25th day of the month of Kislev.
Again, it might be a coincidence that the Christian holiday comes out on the 25th of December, but as I said, Chanukah existed long before the Christian holiday. I’m repeating myself, only because I want to get this incorrect idea out of people’s heads, that some people believe these two very different holiday are variations of the same theme.
I’m not going to compare Judaism and what happens in other religions, that’s not my goal here. We have to respect other people’s beliefs as long as they are not attacking us. What I want to do is to talk about Chanukah itself.
Many of us, including myself, grew up thinking we knew and understood what the message of Chanukah really was. It’s a really strange holiday if you think about it. But when you have all the facts in front of you, one begins to realize you never really understood what Chanukah is all about.
After their victory, the Jews entered the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, looking for a sealed flask of oil. The Syrian-Greeks had made everything on the Temple Mount completely impure.
As an aside, this part of the story happened on the Temple Mount, in the Beit HaMikdash located on the Temple Mount. Not to get into politics, but everyone should remember the Jews were worshiping God from the Temple Mount long before Christianity or Islam existed, and certainly there was no “Palestinian” anything there, but we’re not getting into that discussion today.
The Menorah, the seven-branched Menorah had to be lit, and the tradition is that it had to be lit with spiritually pure (Tahor) oil.
Purity (Tehorah) is not something you can see, smell or taste. Purity is a spiritual status, and for someone who doesn’t believe in spirituality or God, there’s no effective difference between something pure (Tahor) and something not pure (Tameh).
Going back to our question, what is really the miracle of Chanukah?
There are two miracles we commonly talk about, when we talk about the holiday of Chanukah. Let me give two initial answers to the question.
One option is obviously the war.
We say in our Chanukah prayer that we were the few against the many, we were the weak against the strong, we were the pure against the impure… but that particular miracle of the war was really about physical power.
The fact was that we were the complete and total underdogs, and somehow we won the war, against all odds.
That was one miracle.
The other miracle, the more famous one that people know about was the miracle of the oil. After they won the war, the Jews came back into the Beit HaMikdash, back into the Temple, and went looking for pure oil.
In the Beit HaMikdash, the pure oils were in flasks that were sealed, and on the seal there was a ring-stamp of the priest. As long as the oil is stamped and sealed in that flask, it is considered pure. And if it is not sealed, if the seal gets broken, that means that the oil is not pure and cannot be used to light the Menorah.
When the Jew came back to the Temple they discovered that everything inside had been made impure. The Greeks completely impurified everything and broke all the flasks of oil. The Jews found one small flask that was still unbroken and they put in a little bit of oil into each branch of the Menorah and it stayed lit for eight days, despite that it had only enough oil to stay lit for one day.
And that was the second miracle.
If I asked you, which one of the two was the bigger miracle, most people would say the oil because that was obviously a supernatural miracle. But I have to disagree with that. I would say that the bigger miracle was the war.
Why would I say that?
Think about each miracle and what they mean for us. What miracle made a bigger difference for us?
A war for our very survival? Or that God made a magic trick kept the oil lit for eight days?
God created the world. Keeping a candle lit for eight days is like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, it’s no big deal.
Furthermore, keeping the candles lit doesn’t affect or impact our lives at all.
But in terms of the war, that affects us, we survived. That’s a major impact on our lives.
But there’s another question, why in our Chanukah prayers, do we thank God for helping us win the war, while we don’t even mention the idea of the oil at all?
I think the answer is as follows:
When it comes to war, we fought the war and there is a very dangerous mistake that can develop – we might begin to think that it was we alone who won the war – us, our weapons, our planes, our tanks, our soldiers. And mistakenly, we will not turn to God to say thank you.
So we specifically only mention the war in our prayers, to focus on that point and internalize the source of our victory.
But still, there also had to be an obvious supernatural element.
For God, there’s no difference between the supernatural and the natural. They’re the same, it all comes from God. That we get confused, for instance by rain, and we often think of it as something natural, and not as coming from God, is our mistake, and our problem.
But because we are often so blinded to God’s presence in the world, we ignore the natural miracles or seemingly non-miracles, and we sometimes need some a supernatural trick to make us realize that the entire series of natural events was actually all miraculous.
Before answering the question as to what miracle are we celebrating on Chanukah, let’s simply ask what are we celebrating on Chanukah?
We’re celebrating two things.
Yes, we’re celebrating our physical victory over our enemies. But we’re also celebrating our spiritual victory over our enemies who tried to destroy us also on a spiritual/religious level. The Greeks didn’t want to destroy us, they wanted us to be just like them, to assimilate – Give up the Torah, give up Shabbat, give up Kashrut, be like us.
And we said, no, no, no. No way. No way, no how.
This is the message, and this is the answer to the question as to what was the real miracle of Chanukah – the idea at the end of the day, is that the war was won by the pure [Tahor] oil. Our victory wasn’t just physical, the miracle is that our victory was also spiritual [ideological, conceptual, religious etc.].
Someone not attuned to the spiritual message might ask, “What’s the difference? We [physically] won.”
We say there is a difference.
We can’t perceive purity in any way? That’s totally irrelevant. We will fight to make sure this purity survives, and this is really what Chanukah is all about.
As a postscript, we should also learn the lessons of Chanukah, not just the miracles.
The first lesson is to stand up and fight for what’s right, and the second lesson is to realize there’s more in the world than just physical things, and in the end, there is a spiritual difference between purity and impurity.
Wishing everyone a very, very happy Chanukah, signing off here from Efrat, in Judea, Israel.