This week we celebrate the holy and beautiful holiday of Chanukah.
Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, recalls the victory – more than 2100 years ago – of a militarily weak but spiritually strong Jewish people over the mighty forces of a ruthless enemy that had overrun the Holy Land and threatened to engulf the land and its people in darkness.
The miraculous victory – ending with the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem and the rekindling of the Menorah which had been desecrated and extinguished by the enemy – has been celebrated annually ever since, especially by lighting the Chanukah Menorah. When the Chashmonaim found the untouched vessel of oil, they had enough oil for at least one day, so why isn’t the miracle celebrated only for 7 days? This is because on that first night they prayed and cried so hard to the one and only one above who had brought them this far and fought their mighty battle against such a strong and mighty army. That first light was the first miracle of the 8 lights since it connected our darkened souls to G-d’s endless light of hope and faith that we are always in the hands of our creator our father. Our job is to cry out to G-d and make that effort to light that “oil” that message of connecting to a higher source that is always full of light. If you try to light many candles from an existing flame it never takes away from the original fire. G-d is that existing flame that is always waiting for us to reach out to him and light our oil. Chanukah is also a symbol and message of the triumph of freedom over oppression, of spirit over matter, of light over darkness. Darkness is not chased away by brooms and sticks, but by illumination. Our sages said, “A little light expels a lot of darkness.” The Chanukah Lights remind us in a most obvious way that illumination begins at home, within oneself and one’s family, by increasing and intensifying the light of Torah and Mitzvos in the everyday experience, even as the Chanukah Lights are lit in growing numbers from day to day.
Although this bringing in of light begins at home, it does not stop there. Such is the nature of light that when one lights a light for one’s own benefit, it benefits also all who are in the vicinity. Indeed, the Chanukah Lights are expressly meant to illuminate the “outside,” symbolically reminding us of the duty to bring light also to those who, for one reason or another, still walk in darkness. In such times of distress we must always be like that faithful band of Hasmonaim, and remember that there is always a drop of ‘pure olive oil’ hidden deep in the heart of every Jew, which, if lit, bursts into a big flame. This drop of ‘pure olive oil’ is the ‘Perpetual Light’ that must and will pierce the darkness of our present night, until everyone of us will behold the fulfillment of the prophet’s promise for our ultimate full redemption and triumph. And as in the days of the Hasmonaim ‘the wicked will once again be conquered by the righteous, and the arrogant by those who follow G d’s laws, and our people Israel will have a great salvation.
Another fact of Chanukah that many might not remember when thinking of this holiday, is that a standard box of Chanukah candles contains 44 candles. That’s exactly what you need when you include the shamash, the helper candle with which we light the other candles every night. But if you only count the actual Chanukah candles without the shamash, you will discover that there are 36 candles (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8=36). In the words of the Al Hanisim prayer, which we recite each night of the holiday, the Greek occupiers worked hard to “Make [Israel] forget Your Torah.”
A careful look at the Chanukah story reveals that the Greeks’ primary battle to make Israel “forget” was waged against the rabbinic traditions that make up the Oral Torah. The actual Written Torah was something they knew they could not cause Israel to forget. Sure, they tried to make the Jews stop practicing, but knew they could not make them forget something documented so well in thousands of Torah scrolls. Therefore, they tried to eradicate all traces of the oral laws carefully preserved in the memories of the Jewish people. Hundreds of years after the Chanukah miracle, the framework of these oral laws was committed to writing in the form of the Mishnah, edited by Rabbi Judah the Prince. As the centuries passed, even more of the Oral Torah was written down, and two major bodies of Jewish law were formed, one in Israel and one in Babylon. The Babylonian Talmud, which gained prominence as the primary repository of Talmudic teaching, contains commentaries on exactly 36 tractates of the Mishnah.
And this brings us back to the number 36. The 36 Chanukah lights celebrate the survival of the Oral Law, which has since found expression in the 36 tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. When you light your Chanukah candles this year, remember that we are doing more than celebrating the miracle of the oil. We are also celebrating the fact that we can keep the Torah in its entirety, including the vital Oral law. May we merit seeing the high priest this Chanukah, light the oil in the 3rd temple please G-d.
Happy Chanukah to all.