Monday, December 26, 2011

The Miracles - and Lessons - of Chanuka

While there are a number of historical sources for the events surrounding the Jewish rebellion against the Syrian Greek empire, there are only two sources that can be said to have any kind of canonical authority in Judaism. These sources are the Talmud and the Siddur (Jewish prayer book). The Talmud (Shabbos 21b) states:
מאי חנוכה? דתנו רבנן: בכ"ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון, דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון. שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל, וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום, בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול, ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד, נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים. לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
What is [the miracle of] Chanukah? The Rabbis taught (in a braisa from Megilas Taanis): On the 25th of Kislev, there are eight days of Chanukah, in which we do not eulogize nor fast. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they rendered all the oils in the Temple tamei, and when the kingdom of the house of Chasmonai (the Hasmoneans) became strong and was victorious over them, they searched and they found only one vessel of oil that had been placed with the seal of the kohein gadol and it only contained enough to light for one day. A miracle happened with it and they lit from it for eight days. The following year they established and made these days into festivals with Hallel and thanksgiving.
The Talmud seems to indicate that the holiday of Chanukah was established in memory of the miracle of the oil. And, as we all know, on Chanukah we light the menorah in memory of this miracle. However, if we look at our second source, the Al HaNisim prayer that is inserted into our prayers on Chanukah, we find something strange. The prayer reads:
[We thank You, God,] for the miracles, the redemptions, the mighty deeds, the salvations, the wondrous deeds, the consolations, and the wars which You performed for our fathers in those days, at this time.
In the days of Mattisyahu, son of Yochanan Kohein Gadol, the Chashmonai, and his sons, when the evil Greek kingdom rose against Your nation Israel to make them forget Your Torah and to remove them from the laws of Your will. You, in Your abundant mercy, stood for them in their time of oppression, You fought their fight, You judged their case, and You avenged their revenge. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the numerous into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the evil into the hands of the righteous, and the wicked into the hands of the students of Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and You did a great salvation and redemption for Your nation, Israel, as [clear as] this very day. After this Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, and they cleaned Your Temple, purified Your Holy Place, and lit candles in the courtyards of our holiness. And they established these eight days to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.
In the entire prayer, the miracle of the oil is not mentioned. If the miracle of the oil was the primary miracle of Chanukah, which the Talmud seems to indicate, then why don't we mention it in our prayers?

To answer this question we need to first deal with another question, and that is, why was the miracle of the oil necessary at all? One of the famous questions asked about Chanukah is that if the reason we celebrate Chanukah for eight days is because the miracle of the oil lasted eight days, then really we should only celebrate seven days, as the first day was not a miracle since there was already enough oil for one day. There are many answers to this question. One of the answers that some authorities, such as the Meiri, suggest is that the very fact that they were able to find one container of pure oil in the first place was a miracle. The concept of ritual purity was deeply offensive to the Hellenistic mind, especially to those Jews who had abandoned Judaism in favor of Hellenism. It had been no accident that the Greeks had “rendered all the oils impure” (as stated in the poem, Maoz Tzur) but a deliberate act. The Greeks had searched the temple very carefully to render impure all the oil, and finding even one container was itself a miracle.

This, then, raises a question; why did God need to violate the laws of nature to make the oil burn for eight days, when He could have made a "simpler" miracle that the Jews would find eight containers? We know that, in truth, there is no distinction between "nature" and the miraculous; that both are entirely the expression of God's Will. However, in general, God desires that the world follow the natural laws that He established; that, of course, is why He established them. Whenever we find a miracle that violates the laws of nature, this indicates that God wishes to send us a special message that required the violation of His natural laws. What was God's message to us through the miracle of the oil?

All of our sources about the period, historical and traditional, tell us that the Jews of this period had been deeply affected by Greek thought. (The Jews were not unique in this regard.) The influence of Hellenism was not limited only to the outright Hellenizers, who had betrayed their people and had taken a major role in the oppression of their fellow Jews, but was pervasive throughout the culture in various degrees. One of the principles of Greek philosophy, as espoused by Aristotle, is that God does not take an active part in the affairs of the world. This idea had crept into the thoughts of many otherwise loyal Jews. Thus, even after the miraculous war that had just been fought, there were Jews who were unsure if the victories were really the result of Divine intervention, or simply the result of the brilliant strategies and tactics used by the Jewish leaders. The doubts of these Jews were put to rest by the miracle of the oil. Here was an undeniable miracle; one that broke the laws of nature! Obviously, God does intervene in this world, and clearly His hand was behind the entire Jewish victory.

The miracle of the oil had no great historical impact, in of itself. It won no battles, saved no lives, and only those who were directly involved in the temple service would have even been aware that it was happening. Nevertheless, the miracle of the oil was absolutely vital as a justification for the establishment of Chanukah as a Jewish holiday. If there had been only the miracle of the victory of the Jews over the Greeks, there was a risk that Chanukah would have been viewed as nothing more than a patriotic holiday—a sort of Jewish Fourth of July. It might deteriorate to nothing more than a celebration of Jewish military might and patriotism. However, with the miracle of the oil it became clear that Chanukah was not a celebration of military strength but of Divine salvation.

When we light the menorah to fulfill the requirement of pirsumei nisah—to spread knowledge of the miracle, we perform an act commemorating the miracle of the oil, a miracle which cannot be explained away as simply brilliant military leadership, or lucky coincidence.

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch
However, in our prayers we focus exclusively on the miracle of the victory of good over evil. We thank God for saving us from spiritual destruction, that the Torah and its commandments were not forgotten. That God guided the leaders of His people to victory over those who would forbid us from serving Him as we should. In our prayers we do not focus on the miracle of the oil, for in our prayers we express our recognition that there is no real distinction between the open miracle and the hidden miracle, that both are essentially the same. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:
The very steadiness, the regularity, of the phenomena of nature is a much clearer, more wonderful manifestation of Divine wisdom and omnipotence than the suspension of these natural laws when God’s miracles were executed. In fact, the purpose of these special acts of God, which interrupted the regular order of nature, was to point to Him as the Lawgiver of these natural laws, lest the thought of Him as Regulator, Master and Lord of the world order be lost through the steady regularity of the natural phenomena. (Hirsch Siddur p. 23)

There are many lessons we learn from Chanukah. We learn that we must be willing to risk our lives for the observance of the God's commandments, we learn of the primary importance of Torah study, and we learn not to judge right and wrong from the standards of numbers and strength. However, perhaps the most basic lesson of Chanukah is to recognize that God's guiding hand is behind all events, even when His presence is not evident; that every aspect of life and history is a miracle.

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