R’ Kahana said, R’ Nosson ben Minyomi expounded in the name of R’ Tanchum: If the Chanukah Menorah is placed higher than twenty cubits it is disqualified, as are a Sukkah and the cross-beam over the entrance of an alley. R’ Kahana also said, R’ Nosson ben Minyomi expounded in R’ Tanchum’s name: Why is it written [Bereishis 37:24] ‘And the pit was empty, there was no water in it?’ From ‘and the pit was empty’, do I not know that there was no water in it; what then is taught by, ‘there was no water in it’? There was no water, yet there were snakes and scorpions in it.
The Sifri wonders what the connection between these two statements is. The Pnei HaMenorah offers an interesting insight. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the menorah should be placed outside, in the doorway to the public thoroughfare in order to publicize the miracle of Chanukah. The Rama writes that in our days everyone lights their menorah indoors, and later-day commentaries explain that the primary promulgation of the Chanukah miracle is for the people inside the house.
The Gemara’s juxtaposition of the two maxims can be explained on a deeper level as the various references incorporate the ideal of the mitzvah of Ner Chanukah.
The Sukkah represents a sanctuary of divine influence, of inner kedusha and light, with the special guests (ushpizin) who grace its premises. The cross-beam across the top of the alleyway indicates the line of demarcation between the reshus hayachid and the reshus harabim.
The pit that is empty of water refers to a home without Torah, which is compared to water. If a home lacks Torah the void will inevitably be filled with harmful influences and the force of the yetzer hara, e.g. snakes and scorpions.
It could be understood that in the earlier years it was not necessary to tout the miracle of Chanukah within the home. Steeped in Jewish law and tradition, the members of the household were imbued with Torah and Yiras Shamayim. The home was a fortress of faith, like the Sukkah itself. It was, in fact, the masses outside who needed the inspiration of Chanukah.
Our times, however, are different. The home needs protection and light, inspiration and chizuk, to maintain the standards of Torah. The allusion to the cross-beam establishes a spiritual boundary. It establishes the perimeters that will ensure the retention of our true Jewish identity and separate us from assimilation and the harmful influences that abound in the public domain, in the street. The candles of Chanukah guard the house, and illuminate it from within with the light of Torah and kedusha to avert a spiritual void.
The Gemara also tells us (ibid.) that the mitzvah of Chanukah lighting is “one light for a man and his household.” Our chachamim tell us that this teaches us that, unlike other mitzvos for the home which can be performed by one household member himself – e.g., the mitzvah of mezuzah or ma’akeh (a guardrail for the roof of the house) – the mitzvah of Ner Chanukah must have the participation and presence of all the members of the household. The Tzemach Dovid suggests that this is because of the special import of this mitzvah. The light of the Chanukah Menorah is symbolic of the flame of Yiddishkeit and alludes to the significance of ensuring that the innate radiant spark of Yiddishkeit is brightly illuminated. Such an undertaking cannot be achieved by proxy; each household member must personally be engaged in the mitzvah.
We pray that the energy and potency of the menorah and its light will protect our homes and inspire us to a higher level of Torah and holiness.
During the Second World War, the Brisker Rav escaped to Kovno, where he sat in his house and learned. R’ Kalmanowitz, who was the rav of the city, heard of his arrival and immediately went to welcome him.
When he knocked on the door, the Rav called out, “Who is it?”
Rav Kalmanowitz responded, “It is the rav of the city, Rav Kalmanowitz.”
The Brisker Rav called out that someone should open the door, but it took a very long time because the Brisker Rav had barricaded the door with heavy sacks of grain.
Understanding that they feared war, R’ Kalmanowitz asked, “What is the explanation of this? There is no war in this city!”
The Brisker Rav contended that there was, in fact, an explicit halacha that obligates a person to seal the door even when there is no war. R’ Kalmanowitz replied that he did not recall such a halacha and asked where the halacha was found.
The Brisker Rav showed him the Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 6:1) which states that if one lives in a place where the inhabitants are evil, he should move to a place where the people are righteous and follow the ways of good. If in all the places with which he is familiar or hears of, the people follow improper paths, or if he is unable to move to a place where the behavior is proper, for whatever reasons, he should remain alone in seclusion. If they are wicked and sinful and do not allow him to reside there unless he mingles with them and follows their bad behavior, he should go out to caves and deserts rather than follow their path.
The Brisker Rav explained: “Here in this city, there are maskilim, there are those who deny Hashem, people with terrible middos who do evil deeds. We need to go to the midbar (desert). But this is a time of war, and we can’t go to the midbar. I am making my house my midbar and therefore it’s difficult to get into the house. It takes one half hour of work to remove the sacks blocking the door because outside there is danger. The children know that we have no connection to that outside world. We are not connected to anything – not their deeds, not their entertainment, not their education. We have nothing to do with their city.”