By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
As we anticipate the arrival of Chanukah, our preparations should not be limited to the physical, making sure we have enough oil, wicks and candles, but to also include the spiritual, so that we can benefit from the lessons and power of this special Yom Tov.
We are familiar with the mitzvah of zeh Keili ve’anveihu, to perform a mitzvah in its most perfect form. On Chanukah, the hiddurim in the mitzvah of lighting involve the type of oil and wicks used to light the menorah and providing a menorah for every member of the family. After the fire burns for a half hour, it may be extinguished. The Mishnah Berurah (672:6) states that there is no hiddur mitzvah in having it burn longer. I would think that the longer the candles remain lit, the more of a hiddur mitzvah it is.
Perhaps the explanation is that we light the menorah to commemorate the heroic act of the Chashmonaim. The greatness of what they did and what we celebrate is the fact that they had the courage to stand apart with faith in Hashem as they battled the Yevonim and those who fell under their influence.
What came after that was a result of siyata diShmaya, Divine intervention. By laws of nature, there was no way they could have succeeded in their mission. Their dedication was rewarded by Hashem and they overcame the overwhelming odds stacked against them.
With siyata diShmaya, after the war, they found a small container of holy oil, which miraculously proved to be enough to light for eight days, until they were able to procure more. Their heroic act was the initial kindling of the menorah. The fact that it remained lit until more oil was obtained was a miracle independent of them. Because they performed their mission without weighing their chances of success, Hashem caused them to succeed.
Thus, the mitzvah is to light the menorah – kovsah ein zokuk lah – and there is no hiddur in the lights burning longer, because we are saluting the action of the Chashmonaim, which was their devotion to their mission of kehunah and kedusha, and destroying the tumah, even though victory was not apparent.
When the Chashmonaim lit the menorah they did not know how long it would remain lit. We commemorate their heroic acts by lighting the menorah. For that it is sufficient for the menorah to remain the minimal amount, burning longer does not add to the performance of the mitzvah.
The Jews believed that they did not possess the strength to free themselves from the shackles of Greek tyranny. Matisyahu burst on the scene and showed the people that it could be done.
Forces of evil remain in power because the people they dominate fail to appreciate their own collective power and therefore fail to join together to bring down the wickedness. Evil is toppled when one good man decides that he can bear it no longer and begins to rally people around him.
The miraculous military victory over Yovon is a dramatic example of laws of nature being suspended when dedicated people come together to increase Torah and kedusha in the world. 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 small group.
Though measuring by the laws of nature, the oil in the menorah was only enough to burn for one day, it fueled the flame until more pure oil could be made.
Those who are moser nefesh to perform a mitzvah, working lesheim Shomayim with selfless dedication, are not limited by logic or the laws of nature. They succeed in places where everyone guarantees failure, because they know that our task is to light the fire. The rest is from Hashem.
On Chanukah, we pay tribute to the ideals of mesirus nefesh of the Chashmonaim. They took a brave, determined stand against the evil tyranny that had brutalized and sought to destroy them. In their day, the Chashmonaim were unpopular, and the majority of Klal Yisroel had succumbed to the temptations presented by the Yevonim.
In fact, the Bach (Orach Chaim 670) writes that the Yevonim were able to enact gezeiros, because there was a hisrashlus b’avodah, a general weakening in the commitment to religious obligations.
The Chofetz Chaim foretold of a similar atmosphere towards hachzokas haTorah during ikvesa deMeshicha, the period leading up to the arrival of Moshiach.
The avodah of Chanukah is to support and enable courageous stars to emerge from within our people and free us of our shackles, enabling us to rise.
Every individual has the ability to grasp an ideal and fight for it. We all have our own singular mission in life and are blessed with the strength and stamina to realize it. We must never lose sight of what our ultimate goal is, despite all the intrusions that seek to steal our attention. Challenges confront us, but we possess the ability to surmount them.
It is as true today as it was thousands of years ago, when the Chashmonaim confronted the masses to fight with dignity and pride in defense of our mesorah.
On Chanukah, we celebrate the Chashmonaim and their mesirus nefesh for kedusha. They rose to throw off the forces of darkness from the nation that was having its light source blocked. They were the me’atim, the tzaddikim, the tehorim, the people who performed Hashem’s service in the Bais Hamikdosh and in the bais medrash. And they themselves led the battle against the forces of darkness.
Too often, we look for others to do our work. We look in the wrong places for saviors and salvation, not knowing that the solution is within us. If we improve ourselves and make ourselves worthy, we can overcome whatever stands in our way. And if it isn’t us who can accomplish the goal, we can assist those who can. It is very difficult to work in a vacuum. Those intrepid souls who do so need all the help and support they can get.
There are many who seek to undermine us. We are beset by problems that beg for solutions. There is an air of negativity and begrudging acceptance of the situation, as many are apathetic about bringing things back to where they were not that long ago.
There are many missions for the taking. There are causes waiting for champions.
The miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate is primarily that of the tiny flask that burned longer than was thought to be realistically possible. The menorah’s lights signify that the power of light overcame the power of darkness. The oil lasting longer than one day signifies that if you expend the effort and work bemesirus nefesh, physical rules will not apply.
We see wrongs in our world and are told that there is nothing we can do about it. We try to right the wrongs, and are mocked. Yet, in fact, if you look around, there are so many people who overcame the odds, building Torah where no one thought it was possible, restoring lives others had given up on, and fighting abuse that people thought was part of life. We see teachers touching souls and impacting them forever. We see righteous men and women not taking no for an answer, standing up to an apathetic society, and awakening people’s consciences. We see people rallying to fight for those who have been wronged.
These are the heroes of our people. They have heard the call of the Chashmonaim. They have been the shluchim for the rebirth of our people decades after we were nearly wiped out. They have succeeded in a greater fashion than anyone thought possible, blessed with siyata diShmaya reserved for those who work bemesirus nefesh lesheim Shomayim.
Many others worked alone, mocked and derided as failing dreamers, yet they placed their faith in Hashem and lived to see much success. People such as the Ponovezher Rov are the stuff of legend and many stories are told about them. But even in our day, there are people who defied the odds and went on to undertake trailblazing endeavors on behalf of our people. We can all have that impact if we discover our mission and set out to right wrongs and make the world a better place.
Instead of wondering why nobody does anything about something that bothers us, if we really mean it lesheim Shomayim, we ourselves can light the spark. Hashem does the rest.
As we study the story and halachos of Chanukah, we need to recognize their relevance to us and our daily lives. If each of us would internalize the lesson of the Chashmonaim, we could free ourselves and our world from much oppression, nonsense and pettiness.
As we light the menorah, we should learn the lesson of the Chashmonaim, and of those who have led us on a path of greatness and sought to motivate us to do what we can to complete our missions. We dig deep inside for strength and faith and do not let ourselves be deterred. We fight for the truth as determined by intrepid gedolei Yisroel and accepted by those who have remained faithful to Torah and its ideals.
In this week’s parsha (37:26), Yehudah proclaimed his truth in public. He apologized for his error and redeemed himself as the progenitor of malchus and Moshiach. He left his comfort zone, accepted embarrassment, and merited bringing geulah l’olam.
After all Yosef had been through, sold by his brothers into slavery and finding himself as a stranger in a strange land far from his father and family, he didn’t view himself as forsaken. The image of his father was always before him (Rashi, ibid. 39:11), reminding Yosef of his heritage and that he was cut from better cloth than those in whose midst he dwelled.
He resisted temptation and maintained his faith, guaranteeing him a glorious future and that he would give birth to Moshiach ben Yosef.
In a place of darkness, he saw light. In a den of iniquity, he remained true. While others worked to create division, a yearning for unity resided in his heart.
The Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:13) states that even though there is a mitzvah to learn Torah day and night, a person acquires the majority of his wisdom at night. Therefore, someone who wishes to obtain the crown of Torah should be zealous about his nights and not forfeit even one of them.
The Maharal in Ner Mitzvah on Chanukah addresses the significance of the 25th of Kislev, the day Chanukah begins. From Tishrei until this date, the days grow shorter and the amount of darkness increases nightly. On the 25th of Kislev, the amount of daily light increases and the length of daily darkness decreases. Therefore, it is fitting, explains the Maharal, that the Mishkon, which signifies light, was completed on this day.
Thus, the miracle of Chanukah was performed with light, as the menorah remained lit for eight days, since the day on which the Chashmonaim lit the menorah following their war against the Yevonim was the day that light begins to evidence its strength.
We see physical light and study the spiritual qualities of light. As the physical light of the sun increases, so does the potential for the spiritual light we can create through increasing our Torah learning and kedusha.
The Maccabi victory over Yovon was celebrated and consecrated with the miracle of the eight days of light in the Bais Hamikdosh. Metaphors for the eternal battle between good and evil, Yovon resembled darkness and the Maccabim light.
The lesson of the Maccabim remains illustrative until this day. Maintaining crucibles of light and oases of goodness is possible if we remain loyal to the objective and infused with proper faith.
The darkness, it seems, is complete and total. The world is darkening and there is danger lurking everywhere. It would seem that we have nowhere to hide and nowhere to turn.
Even after the last light has run out of fuel and been extinguished, and after the last night of Chanukah is over, we have what it takes to brighten the winter nights.
If we keep their memory alive and study their lessons, the flames of the menorah will light up the way, the fires of the Chashmonaim will burn in our souls, and the darkness of despair will be banished.
The words of the Maharal will provide succor for us as we recognize that the darkness has begun to recede and yield to the light. There is hope if there is faith.
We possess the ability to live on a higher, elevated plane that is afforded to us every time we sit down at an open Gemara.
No matter how cold it is outside and how fierce the winds are, we remain anchored to a force stronger than any other. Ki ner mitzvah veTorah ohr.
Mitzvos are compared to a candle and the Torah to light, for they light up our lives, brightening the pervading darkness.
They give us a firm foundation and provide depth and internal fortitude in a world mired in superficiality. They permeate the enveloping fog, dusty cobwebs and static, enabling us to see the truth and live it.
Let us be as the Chashmonaim, recognizing the truth and never slackening in our loyalty to it.