As we gear up for Chanukah, with Menorahs, dreidels, latkes, and gelt, I wonder if we realize that Chanukah was stolen!
Hopefully, we will enjoy the Festival of Lights – the candle-lighting, the family time, the delicious foods, and yes, even the Chanukah Gelt. But do we know what Chanukah is really all about?
Of course, many of us will say it is about fighting for freedom. Others will talk of the miracles of a few Jews battling and defeating the Greek army, and of the miracle in which one jug of oil for the Bais HaMikdash (Temple) Menorah that would normally only burn for one day lasted for eight!
Although these reasons are true I am referring to something else: the purpose of Chanukah and what it really commemorates. This is what was stolen from us.
Chanukah was not about physical freedom. In fact, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael that adopted the customs and lifestyle of the Yevonim (Greek Assyrians) had relative freedom and were not persecuted.
Chanukah was about fighting for religious freedom. The Maccabees were not macho weight lifters as the coloring books depict –rather they were scholars and rabbis! Throughout our history the Jewish People have unfortunately endured many persecutions from before the time of the Purim story through the Holocaust until today. In the vast majority of them it made no difference whether we were secular or religious. It was simple; if we were Jews, we were persecuted. But Chanukah was different. The Greek Assyrians wanted us to adopt their lifestyle, their mode of dress, and their customs. And if we did, they left us alone.
The “problem” for the Greeks was those stubborn Torah and Mitzvah-observant Jews!
So the Greeks banned the observance of Shabbos, the performance of Bris-Milah (circumcision), the celebration of Rosh Chodesh (the new month) and the study of Torah, hoping to break the Jewish people spiritually, not physically.
Some of the Jews, the Misyavnim, succumbed to the temptations of Greek Helenist culture, others however, held fast to Jewish religious life and observance. There were many that were even willing to give up their lives to continue observing the Mitzvos (the commandments). Then, under the leadership of the Maccabees, the observant Jews fought to restore Jewish religious life.
By understanding what really took place at that time our appreciation of the miracles of Chanukah is deepened. We all know that physical self-preservation is a natural human response. Therefore, for people to put themselves in physical danger to preserve Hashem’s Torah and Mitzvos is quite extraordinary. Rav Dessler described the Jews who battled against the Greek Assyrians as having “Holy Chutzpah”. And because they transcended human nature (self-preservation) to uphold Yiddishkeit (Judaism), Hashem responded by transcending nature. He allowed the few to beat the mighty and the oil to miraculously last eight days.
The Chassidic masters teach us that the eight days of Chanukah also remind us of what the Greek Assyrians tried to destroy. We should remember the eight days of Chanukah correspond to the eight days from birth when we do Bris Milah. And that every eight days have a Shabbos in them and there is always a Rosh Chodesh during Chanukah.
So now is the time! We need to steal Chanukah back!
I would like to suggest that this year, as we celebrate Chanukah, let us remember its deeper significance:
- As we spin the Dreidel we should remember that it was used to disguise the Torah study of children under the Greek’s rule. So too we should commit ourselves and our children to greater Torah study.
- As we eat the Latkes fried in oil we should remember the miracle of the oil that transpired because of the commitment to fight for the light of Torah. So too we should take a stand for Torah and Mitzvos.
- When we think of the oil, we should remember that just as oil floats to the top and doesn’t stay mixed, we should be inspired to remain distinct from the society we are in. Not every fad or gadget needs to be ours to “fit in” to American Society. We need to feel and project greater pride in what is unique about us and rise to the top, as the oil teaches.
- As we count eight days with Shabbos in it, we should count ourselves to greater Shabbos observance. How about getting ready earlier? And making our Shabbos meals more meaningful and joyous?
- As we spend time with our families and light the menorah let us reflect and ask, are we doing enough to light the flames of Yiddishkeit and Torah learning within our communities, homes, lifestyles and selves?
Are we brave enough to put our spiritual existence above our physical one? If we can even just contemplate this question then Chanukah can be stolen back and truly be ours!
Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik (Chapnick) is the Director of the Jewish Learning Exchange and a Pre-1A Rebbe at Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes Academy. He has been involved in teaching adults and children for over twenty years. For comments or class information please contact us at 323-857-0923 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.