We are accustomed to thinking of the holidays of Purim and Chanukah as somehow inferior to the major pilgrimage festivals because they are not commanded in the Torah. From a certain perspective this is undoubtedly true, but on the other hand these holidays are uniquely powerful because they have been commanded by the Sages in the transmission of the Oral Torah. Maharal talks of this at length and especially of the primacy of Oral Torah throughout his works, but given the time of the season we will concentrate on his Chanukah-themed work, Ner Mitzvah, this week and next.
It’s actually somewhat difficult to see the connection of the book to the holiday of Chanukah, apart from the name which is fairly obvious. Conveniently, Maharal does tie the themes together towards the end of the book. In appreciation of the holiday of Chanukah that is beginning this week, we will work our way backwards from the end.
Like the holiday of Purim, Chanukah commemorates events whose miraculous nature was not readily apparent, particularly to those who experienced them. This, it turns out, is part of the power of these holidays and their resonance for us who still live in exile. The true miracle of Chanukah, Maharal points out, is not in the military victory or even the purification of the Beit HaMikdash. Heroic and G-d-fearing individuals worked very hard and made unspeakable sacrifices in order to achieve these goals. It’s true that we can look back many generations later and see the hand of G-d made manifest in these historical events, but the miracle is subtle and discreet.
We emphasize the menorah, and in particular the ostensible miracle of the menorah – that the oil burned for eight days. The lighting of the menorah was one mitzvah among many mitzvot, arguably not even the most important mitzvah, that had come to be neglected under the oppression of the Seleucid Greeks. But the menorah is what we emphasize and what we have come to identify as the locus of the Divine Providence that brought about our salvation in those days at this time. The reason for this, first and foremost, is probably clear to most of us: Because the true enemy was not the foreign occupier but the Hellenists among us who sought to abolish the Torah in the life and culture of the Nation of Israel.
The purpose of humanity is to acknowledge Hashem’s sovereignty over us and to serve Him faithfully; this is what the Maharal expresses in his introduction to the present volume. But in the world of material reality and historical vicissitudes, it becomes easy to lose track of this higher awareness. The Hellenists in those days and in these days seek to strip away this sense of purpose in favor of full immersion in and acceptance of the physical world which we receive with our senses and analyze with our intellect. The menorah represents the knowledge of the Divine that enters into our world through revelation. Extinguishing this light signified victory for those who sought to debase the Temple precincts and to secularize the meaning of what it is to be a Jew. The return of divinely inspired national purpose was demonstrated above all by the purification of the menorah and its oil (not a halachic obligation, incidentally!) and by lighting it.
Hashem made a miracle that the lights burned for eight days, not necessarily because it takes that long to manufacture new olive oil (probably it does not). Eight is the numerical value used traditionally to represent something that transcends our temporal reality. Our physical world is often indicated numerologically by the number seven – we have seven days in the week and count seven cardinal directions (including interior) – so eight is beyond space and time. (We acknowledge this on Shemini Atzeret and on Shavuot as well, and these holidays are directly associated with the giving and receiving of the Torah.) The eight days of Chanukah are not arbitrarily determined but rather they speak to a higher truth. This truth is attested to by the dreams described in the book of Daniel, and that is the topic of the first part of Maharal’s Ner Mitzvah. Next week, G-d willing, we will examine that part of the text.
In the meantime, have a very happy Chanukah filled with the light of the written and the oral Torah.