The festival of Chanukah commemorates an event in Jewish history that involved a chain of miraculous aspects, including the military victory of the weak over the mighty, overcoming the struggle between the Jewish tradition and Hellenism, and the miracle of the jug of oil that lasted for eight days.
In his sichos and farbrengens throughout the years, the Lubavitcher Rebbe discusses these various facets of Chanukah in great detail. “Pirsumei Nissa,” publicizing the miracle of Chanukah, was something the Rebbe stressed and invested much effort into, to bring the light of the festival to the furthest reaches of the globe and ignite the hearts of Jews wherever they may be.
In the Rebbe’s unique approach, by looking more closely at the root of the various aspects of the events surrounding the story of Chanukah, we can identify one underlying element from which they all stem.
In the V’Al Hanisim we insert to the Shmoneh Esrei and Birchas Hamazon, the Yevanim (Greek-Syrian) goal is described as follows: “The wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.”
A simple reading implies that the Yevanim wanted the Jews to stop observing Torah and mitzvos. The physical existence of the Jewish nation didn’t bother the Yevanim – only their religious rituals.
The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (known as the Rebbe Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn), however, interprets the prayer in a more nuanced way: The Yevanim didn’t mind if the Jews retained their culture and heritage, studied Torah, or observed the rituals of the mitzvos, with one caveat – as long as they were logical. What did they object to? They wanted to make the Jews forget “Your Torah,” and cut away the belief, transcending reason, that the Torah is G-dly.
They conceded that the Torah contains tremendous intellectual depth, and had no problem with its study. They were only opposed to the Jewish belief that the Torah is given by G-d, and how it revolves around its G-dly essence. Among the mitzvos, the Yevanim only had an issue with “Chukei Retzonecha” – the “decrees of Your will” – which transcend reason.
The Rebbe takes this a step further, and points out that the expression seems to be repetitive. The term chukim, the statutes, generally refers to the mitzvos that transcend reason. If so, why is it necessary to add the term retzonecha, which also denotes a will that drives someone to do something beyond any pull of logic?
We must conclude, says the Rebbe, that the Yevanim didn’t even mind if the Jews fulfilled the irrational mitzvos classified as chukim. The question was only: What is the approach to their observance? Is it grounded in logic or not?
To illustrate: A group of children is spending the day with a counselor who is directing them. He lists multiple instructions for them to follow, and explains a reason for each one. Then, he gives them one more instruction but doesn’t provide any explanation.
One possible reaction is that there must not be an explanation for that last instruction, for if there were, he would have said it. But it is also possible to argue that the counselor must have his reasons. It is evident from all the other instructions that he is looking out for the children’s benefit, thus it is logical that this last instruction is also for their benefit. It’s only that the reason for that particular instruction is too lofty or complicated for the children’s comprehension.
Notice that the second option is a logical argument for accepting something that seems to transcend reason.
In a similar vein, the Yevanim didn’t mind if the Jews approached chukim from the logical perspective that even if we humans can’t understand the logic behind them, there must be some lofty reason for them – since the ultimate essence of everything is intellect and logic.
The ideal way to perform mitzvos, however, is because they are G-d’s will. Just as a servant is ready to fulfill his master’s instructions whether he understands them or not, we submit ourselves to Hashem in such a way that our understanding of the reasons for mitzvos isn’t at all relevant.
This is clear from the Gemara (Shabbos 88a), which teaches that the Jews received crowns for saying “Naaseh – we will do” before “Nishma – we will understand.” The foundation of our entire service of G-d is the readiness to fulfill His will in practice; any logic or understanding only comes afterwards.
To be continued