Chanukah 5780 – Kindling the Jewish Spirit

This Sunday evening, 24 Kislev 5780, corresponding to December 22, we will light the first Chanukah candle as we commemorate both the miracle of oil and the Maccabee victory over Antiochus and his men (B”T Shabbos 21b).

Based on the teachings of R’ Avraham Yitzchak ha’Koken Kook zt’l, R’ Chanan Morrison writes, “The holiday of Chanukah raises a number of questions.  Why do we celebrate Chanukah for eight days?  After all, there was enough oil to burn for one day, so the miracle was really only for seven days.

“The minimum requirement is for each family member to light one candle each night.  It is customary, however, to light with two hiddurim (embellishments): every member of the family lights, and the number of candles corresponds to the day of Chanukah.  Why do we light with these two hiddurim?

“The Gemara (Menachos 28b) relates that the Maccabees were unable to obtain a solid gold Menorah for the Beis HaMikdash.  Lacking the means for such an expensive menorah, they constructed a simple one out of iron rods plated with tin.  Why was there a miracle with the oil, but not for the Menorah itself?

“The truth is, had the Maccabees not found the small flask of pure olive oil, they could have used any oil.  While it is best to use olive oil, any oil that burns well may be used in the Temple Menorah.

“The miracle of Chanukah could have been the Menorah burning all eight days with ‘miracle oil.’  But while ‘miracle oil’ is as good as any other oil, it is not olive oil.  Thus the miracle of the first day of Chanukah was not the burning of the ‘miracle oil,’ but that the Maccabees found pure olive oil.  This discovery was unexpected and it enabled them to light with the optimal type of oil.

“In addition, since the majority of the nation at the time was ritually impure, the Maccabees could even have used impure oil.  The miracle of finding the flask of olive oil thus allowed them to fulfill 2 hiddurim: lighting on the first day with olive oil, and lighting with ritually pure oil.  We commemorate this miracle by similarly performing 2 hiddurim, with every family member lighting, and lighting multiple candles.

“But why was there no comparable miracle with the Menorah itself?  Why didn’t the Maccabees also find a gold menorah in the desecrated Temple?

“The Menorah corresponds to the material state of the Jewish people.  It is a vessel for holding the oil. The olive oil, on the other hand, is a metaphor for the nation’s inner spirit.  While it is fitting that the external vessel should be aesthetically pleasing, there are times when the physical reality is harsh and discouraging.  During such times, we make do with what we have, even if it means lighting with a menorah improvised out of iron rods.

“However, the spirit – the oil that nourishes the inner flame – must always remain spiritually rich, with all of the hiddurim of purity and holiness.  This is an important part of the message of Chanukah: the miracle occurred, not with the Menorah, but with the oil.  We may suffer physical hardships and deprivation, but our inner spiritual life should always shine with a clear and pure light” (Silver from the Land of Israel, p.116-117).

While the vessel that holds the oil – the external state of Am Yisrael – is sometimes less than stellar, represented in the iron Menorah the Maccabees constructed, the inner essence of our people – the Jewish neshama, represented in the miracle of pure oil that was found intact – always remains pristine and pure.

“The Jewish High Holidays were drawing near, and fear in the Janowska Concentration Camp mounted.  It was well known that the Germans enjoyed inflicting added terror and death during the Jewish holidays… In Janowska, there was a Jewish kapo by the name of Schneeweiss; he was sadistic and cruel towards his fellow Jews, and if the Jews wanted to ‘observe’ the holidays, Schneeweiss would have to be dealt with. 

“A few prisoners approached the Bluzhever Rebbe, R’ Yisrael Spira zt’l, and asked him to approach the kapo, and request that they be excused from work on Yom Kippur (Y”K)… With a heavy heart, the Bluzhever Rebbe approached.  ‘Tonight is Kol Nidrei.  You are a Jew like us.  There is a small group of Jews who want to observe the holy day; can you help us?’  To his surprise, the kapo replied, ‘Rabbi, I cannot do anything for you tonight, as I’m not in charge of the night brigade.   But tomorrow, I will put you and your friends to work cleaning the officers’ quarters without polish or water, so that it will not be against halacha.  I will supervise.’

“True to his word, the next day, the rebbe and the others were brought to the S.S. officers’ quarters and put to work with dry rags.  While they worked, the chanted the Y”K tefillos through tears. 

“At noon, two Nazis suddenly burst into the room with trays of food and demanded of the starving inmates: eat or be shot.  Nobody moved.  The lead Nazi reiterated the command.  Still nobody moved.  The Nazi called in the sadistic kapo, Schneeweiss, from the next room and ordered: Make them eat, or you will be killed along with them! 

“Schneeweiss stood up defiantly and said, ‘Today is Y”K, a day holy to Jews and we may not eat.’  Incredulous, the Nazi asked the kapo to repeat himself.  Proudly and defiantly, Schneeweiss repeated that it was Y”K and Jews did not eat on this day.  The German pointed his revolver at Schneeweiss, who did not even blink.  A single shot ran out and Schneeweiss fell dead. 

“Much later, the Bluzhever Rebbe would recount this story, and say, ‘It was only then that I understood the meaning of the Sages’ words: Even the sinners in Israel are full of good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds’” (Heroes of Spirit, p.160-162).

While there was no miracle with the Menorah, Chanuka commemorates – and reminds us all – that a single flask of pure olive oil was found amidst great defilement and impurity in the ransacked Temple.  While externally, we may be confused by the darkness of galus, and often we may lose our way and stray from Torah and mitzvos, the Jewish neshama retains its purity, its brightness and its connection to G-d.  שעשה ניסים לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה.

בברכת שבת שלום וחנוכה שמח,

Michal

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