By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
I was in a mall on Motzoei Shabbos, when an Israeli man who operates a stand there came over to me. He was very sad.
“I need your help,” he said to me.
I was sure he was going to unload upon me a hard luck story and hit me up for a loan. But I was wrong.
“Every year, there is a man dressed like you who comes to the mall and brings a menorah for all us Israelis working here. He didn’t come tonight. Maybe you know who he is and can call him and tell him we are waiting for him here.”
I looked at this man who had been working a whole Shabbos and was amazed by the power of the netzach Yisroel that burns inside of each Jewish heart. I spoke to him a bit and cheered him up, and with that he was back at work selling his holiday ornaments.
“Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah?” asks the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos. What is it that we are commemorating now for eight days? What are we celebrating? What are the lessons inherent in this holiday for all of us to learn?
The Gemara’s answer is one that we are all familiar with. The Gemara relates that during the period when the Yevonim ruled over Eretz Yisroel, they entered the Bais Hamikdosh and defiled all the flasks of olive oil used to light the menorah.
When the Maccabim were victorious and beat the forces of the Yevonim, they searched and were able to find only one flask with the kohein gadol’s seal on it. The flask contained just enough oil for the menorah’s lights to burn for one day, yet they miraculously continued burning for eight days. The next year, the chachomim established these days as holy days of Hallel and thanksgiving.
That is the extent of the Gemara’s explanation of the miracle of Chanukah. The obvious question is why the Gemara does not elaborate upon the extent of the Yevonim’s domination of the Jews in Eretz Yisroel and the Maccabim’s miraculous military victory over Yovon. These episodes, which took place during the period of the second Bais Hamikdosh, do not appear in Nach, as does the miracle of Purim.
We all know that the Yevonim sought to separate the Jews in Eretz Yisroel from their observance of Torah. They targeted their spiritual lives and sought to convert them to lives of secular accomplishment and hedonistic luxury which they introduced to the world. They were not anti-Semitic per se and were content to let the Jews live in peace. Their beef wasn’t with the Jews as people. It was with their fidelity to the Torah and its teachings.
To accomplish their goal, they enacted edicts against Shabbos, bris milah and Rosh Chodesh, and succeeded in spreading their Hellenistic way of life throughout Eretz Yisroel. While many resisted the attempted indoctrination and forfeiture of tradition, many more - those referred to as Misyavnim - became Hellenized. They joined the campaign against their brethren who remained loyal to Torah, actively seeking to bring them over to an enlightened lifestyle.
No doubt they used Hellenist literature to bolster their arguments. Marshaling their modern-day intellectual proofs, the enlightened ones sought to undermine the old-fashioned beliefs and practices of the backward Jews who clung to their traditional ways. They tormented the faithful with theories intended to dislodge them from their firm grasp of the Tree of Life.
“We are not out to destroy you or force you to engage in harmful conduct. On the contrary, we’re interested only in improving your lives,” the Misyavnim taunted them.
“Don’t you understand that if you would abandon bris milah as it was practiced for thousands of years, your children would be healthier?” the campaign went.
After all, who should know better than the educated, advanced Greeks who brought civilization to the European world? No doubt they began their campaign with a broadside against metzitzah. They said it wasn’t necessary and even brought testimony from certain Misyavnim to prove their contention. They even claimed that it was only because they cared about the Jews and their children that they sought to ban the practice.
Matisyahu Kohein Gadol decided that it had gone far enough and that he would do all in his power to halt Jewish subjugation to the Greek gods and philosophies. Just as his forefather, Levi, displayed tremendous courage when he went to war to protect the honor of his sister, Dinah, Matisyahu took on a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
He took a lesson from his great-uncle, Moshe Rabbeinu, who sought volunteers to put down the Eigel rebellion, calling out, “Mi laHashem eilay?” Sheivet Levi then gathered around him.
Matisyahu also took inspiration from his grandfather, Pinchos, who put his own life in jeopardy to end a catastrophic plague on the Jewish people centuries earlier.
Armed with the Levite mission to be shomrei mishmeres hakodesh and the knowledge that Hashem sides with those who fight battles lemaan Hashem without any personal agendas, Matisyahu rallied his brothers to his cause. The small band of faithful Jews took on the forces of the Hellenist enlightenment.
As the Jews saw that Hashem was with Matisyahu and his fellow Maccabim, they began deserting the Yevonim. As the victories of the traditionalist forces mounted, Misyavnim started jumping sides. Eventually, almost all the Jews were brought back to Rabbinic Torah Judaism. It was then that the miracle of Chanukah occurred, with the finding of the flask of pure oil.
Yovon is referred to in the Medrash as a force of darkness. The Medrash states that the posuk of “Choshech al p’nei sehom” refers to Yovon. It alludes to Greek mythology, philosophy, art, gymnastics, Olympics - everything perceived by the world as representing advancements in mankind’s so-called evolution from pre-historic times.
All this is regarded by Chazal as the very antithesis of civilization. Since this culture deifies human intellect and prowess, it represents darkness and agents of the dark side of humanity.
Klal Yisroel didn’t feel itself strong enough to throw off the yoke of Greek tyranny until Matisyahu showed that it could be done. Forces of evil are permitted to remain in power, because the people they dominate do not appreciate their own power and join together to bring them down. Evil is toppled when one good man decides that he can bear it no longer and begins to rally people around him.
The miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate is primarily that of the tiny flask that burned longer than was thought to be possible. The menorah’s lights signify that the power of one small crucible of light-giving oil overcame the power of darkness. The oil lasting longer than one day signifies that if you expend the effort and work b’mesirus nefesh, physical rules will not apply.
The miraculous military victory over Yovon is a dramatic example of how the laws of nature are suspended when singular dedicated souls join together and enable light to triumph over darkness. That reversal of the natural order in their day was made possible by the great acts of courage and heroism carried out by one courageous individual, Matisyahu, and his tiny group of followers.
That victory was thus part and parcel of the same dynamic that brought about the miracle of the pach shemen. That is perhaps the reason it is not singled out in the Gemara’s discussion of what comprised the miracle of Chanukah.
A flask of oil, which according to its physical and chemical attributes can only burn for one day, can last for as long as is necessary, just as the forces of good, though outmatched by evil in terms of numbers and strength, can thoroughly eviscerate the forces of darkness.
At times, when attempting to solve problems, we are told that we cannot do this or that, or that what we are proposing cannot work. Yet, so often we see that people who work with selfless dedication are not limited by logic or the laws of nature. They tread where no one has dared step before and they succeed where lesser people vow that success is absolutely impossible.
Seeing such people in action is contagious and serves to inspire others to scale seemingly unattainable heights.
That is why the neis of Chanukah is celebrated by kindling lights in our doorways and on our windowsills facing the street. This is why the mitzvah is to light the menorah as soon as sundown begins and darkness starts spreading across the city.
That is why the shiur that Chazal give for the duration of the lights is “ad shetichleh regel min hashuk,” that the lights of the Chanukah menorah must remain lit as long as there are people out on the street.
As long as people are out in the public thoroughfare, we need to remind them of the miracle. We need to prominently remind them not to yield to the temptations of darkness.
“Don’t surrender to defeatism,” we call out to them. “Don’t regard what you do as being of minor consequence. Remember that Matisyahu started out as one lonely man of faith with all the forces of the world stacked against him. Because he did not let defeatism overtake him, the Yevonim and Misyavnim were conquered and the forces of good prevailed.”
We gather our family around us and light the menorah to proclaim to the world that Hashem felled the mighty, the many and the evil. They were demolished by the weak and the few, the just and the holy.
Hashem had rachmonus on us and fought our battles, causing the zeidim to fall into the hands of the oskei Torah. We sing songs of thanksgiving and Hallel, and we remind ourselves that in our day as well, the Yevonim, in other guises, continually attempt to ensnare us.
We have to be ever vigilant, for if we falter, the forces of Hellenism are waiting to ambush us. They pounce upon us with cleverly worded propaganda to curtail our hallowed religious practices.
We live in an age when talk is cheap and positive actions are few and far between. People speak strongly, often with little thought or intelligence, but are very slow to act. Leadership positions are occupied by people who don’t possess the ability to rally people and join them effectively for good causes.
Yevonim hide behind the power of the ballot box, the pen, the web, blogs and populist demagoguery to attack us. Misyavnim offer wild accusations to back up their unfounded charges. They spare no effort to vilify and castigate us. The more growth our community experiences, the more scorn the Misyavnim heap upon us.
The menorah and the Yom Tov of Chanukah remind us that we should not hesitate to defend Torah and mitzvos. The lights of the menorah proclaim to us to seek out the people who carry the flag of Torah and the Matisyahu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadols of our day and rally around them.
We should resolve to use our abilities to spread goodness and kindness in this world. We should seek to inject greater purpose in our lives. Instead of just sitting back and criticizing others, we should seek to join together and mightily wave the flag of Torah, truth and justice. We should be prepared to forsake some of our physical comforts and put ourselves on the line for the values we believe in and that matter.
When the call of “Mi laHashem eilay” goes out, we must all answer. We must always be prepared to answer, “Hineini.”
One of the lessons we learn from the miracle of the pach shemen is that although we may view ourselves as being but a small, tiny vessel, if we commit ourselves to the service of Hashem with the self-sacrifice of Matisyahu, the light of our lives can be enduring and everlasting.
There are many people like the Israeli in the mall who are in desperate need of some support. There any many people who have yielded to the temptations the Yevonim throw at us and are unable to overcome the urge to do what they think they must to get ahead.
The man who brings the stand-keeper his menorah every year may not realize that he is this individual’s only kesher with Yiddishkeit. He may become dejected in his work. He may think, “Why am I wasting my time bringing a little candle to this mechallel Shabbos to light? It anyway has no affect on him.” Little does he know that the man’s neshomah is crying out for sustenance and he is satisfying that craving. And one day, my friend, Rav Zev Dunner, may open a branch of his Masoret Yehudi schools for Israeli yordim in New Jersey and this man will send his child to that institution and he will return to the fold.
There are many heroic stories of people who stand up against the tide of Yovon in our time. Many of them are lonely and desperate for help.
One of them called me as I was contemplating what to write about this week. The son of the Kamenitzer mashgiach, he is a rov in Yerushalayim, a boki bechol haTorah kulah, nigleh and nistar, and the mechaber of eighty-six seforim.
Rav Michel Stern could sit and learn and pasken shailos in comfort in Ezras Torah in Yerushalayim. But somehow he became involved with a city outside of Chaifa. He began traveling there some ten years ago and, thanks to his efforts, there is a community of some three hundred people who are shomrei Torah umitzvos. He leaves Yerushalayim Motzoei Shabbos and doesn’t get back home until Thursday night.
Rav Stern opened a kindergarten and elementary school and even a kollel. He says that there is no limit to what he can accomplish in the city of Tirat Hakarmel, if only he had funding.
He would happily go on being a nistor, hidden from view, without any public knowledge or accolades, but he no longer has a choice. In fact, he discussed his predicament with Rav Chaim Kanievsky, asking him for advice on what he can do to keep his project going. Rav Chaim told him that, sometimes, in order to accomplish a goal, it is necessary to go public and broadcast one’s activities.
There are others like him who look at the lesson of the pach shemen tahor and stand mightily against the forces of spiritual darkness and deprivation. Some of them we read about in this newspaper. These include those who placed their own needs aside and worked mightily so that Sandy’s victims can put their lives back together. Then there are those we don’t usually read about, including the ones in the trenches fighting to save children from the streets and getting them enrolled in schools, and those who engage in desperate battles against abuse and depression which plague so many people who are desperate for a drop of light and love. These people labor mightily against the forces of darkness, spreading Torah and kedushah in ways large and small, impacting Jews one by one and by the dozens.
When you light your menorah, think of them and thank them, promising to support them so that these lonely individuals can light up our world with the remnants of the pach shemen tohar and make it a much better place for all of us.
Ah lichtigen Chanukah.