Shedding Light on the Miracle of Chanuka
Rabbi Yonason Abraham
Rabbi Caulfield Hebrew Congregation

We extend our best wishes of bracha and hatzlacha to Rabbi and Rebbitzen Abraham and family
on their recent move to London, England.
Rabbi Abraham will serve as Dayan on the London Beis Din

One of the classic questions regarding the story of Chanuka relates to the nes shemen - the miracle of the oil - where the single surviving crucible of pure oil burned for eight days. Miracles are not performed for miracles' sake. Hakadosh Baruch Hu varies the "normal" way of the world, as we know it (derech hateva) only when absolutely imperative.

Why then, was this miracle necessary at all? Surely the manifestly miraculous military Jewish victory, when the small band of Bnei Chashmanai defeated the massed mighty ranks of the Greek Empire's forces, was a sufficient cause of celebration. Alternatively, why couldn't a few more crucibles have been divinely protected to survive the orgy of desecration and plunder perpetrated by the Greeks, thus obviating the need for the miracle altogether? In any case, if the Menorah had not been lit throughout the period of the Greek occupation of the Beis Hamikdash, why was a miracle suddenly required to enable the Menorah to remain alight?

The Midrash cryptically addresses these questions with an incisive insight into the essence of the Greek Empire.1

In discussing the second passuk of the Torah "And the earth was desolately empty with darkness upon the surface of the deep," R' Shimon ben Lakish identifies the four references to the world's post-Creation emptiness, with the four Galuyos, Exiles, which Klal Yisrael would have to endure prior to the advent of Mashiach. The third allusion to exile is in the phrase "and darkness [upon the surface of the deep]," which refers to the galus of Yavan, Greece, "where they darkened the eyes of Yisrael with their decrees, saying to them 'Write on the horn of the ox that you have no portion in the G-d of Yisrael' ".

The Midrash seems to be teaching us that Yavan is specifically synonymous with darkness, as a result of "darkening" Israel's eyes with their decrees. What made Greece more associated with darkness than any of the other cruel oppressors during our other bitter exiles? Even more puzzling is the continuation of the Midrash, which encapsulates the Greek oppression with the slogan "Write on the ox's horn that you have no portion in the G-d of Yisrael." What an odd place to write such an obscure message!

Many and varied interpretations are given: each one providing precious perspectives, and invaluable insights into Galus and its meaning. I would like to dwell on a few of those explanations.

The Maharal explains that the Avoda - the service - which was performed in the Beis Hamikdash, highlights the unique bond between Klal Yisrael and Hashem. 2 The Korbanos - offerings - which we offered on the Mizbeach represented the ultimate sign of our connection and unity with the Shechina (Divine Presence), which was manifest in the Beis Hamikdash. The Avoda was both the focal point of our service to Hashem, as well as the source of Divine blessing and influence from Hashem. It was nothing less than the spiritual umbilical chord, providing the nurturing, life sustaining spiritual nourishment, vital for the survival of the Mamleches Kohanim Vegoy Kadosh - Hashem's Kingdom of priests and holy nation.

The antithesis of this unbreakable bond, represented by the Avoda, was the eigel hazohov, the Golden Calf, which Klal Yisrael made in the wilderness at Har Sinai so soon after experiencing the highest level of Divine Revelation a mere forty days earlier, with the giving of the Aseres Hadibros. The eigel and its aftermath sorely tested that special bond, and even threatened the very existence of Klal Yisrael. Only the faithful intercession and Tefillos of Moshe Rabbeinu spared Klal Yisrael from destruction, as well as salvaging that relationship.

This, explains the Maharal, was the true motive of the Greeks. Defiling the Beis Hamikdash, desecrating the holiest place on earth and denigrating the uniqueness of Klal Yisrael, all served to taunt and torment us. Thus the strange symbolism of the ox becomes clear: the ox, the parent of the eigel hazahav, conclusively proved that we had no special bond with the Divine. Any such link had long since been severed, any such ties torn asunder through the sin of the Golden Calf.

In effect, the Greek strategy - far from oppressing us because of our connection to Hashem - was to torment us because we were not connected to Hashem. We were not unique, they claimed. We had surrendered our spiritual legacy, and to prove it, they embarked on a sacrilegious spree of desecration and defilement in the Beis Hamikdash.

The antidote to such darkness was therefore a clear and unequivocal Divine display about the unique spiritual role of Klal Yisrael, in upholding and spreading the light of Hashem's Torah to the world.

Hence the nes shemen: the miracle of the oil. The miraculous military victory was not sufficient in illustrating the fully restored the sense of connection to Hashem and spiritual uniqueness. Winning the war in this context would only have meant winning the battle; the "war" for our spiritual survival had not yet been won. Nothing could serve to warm the heart, rejuvenate the soul and re-ignite the passion for our Torah, like the excitement that mounted from witnessing the Menora lights continue to radiate miraculously with every passing minute!

This brings to mind a fascinating, uniquely Australian, Chanuka story, which I was privileged to hear from a member of one of Melbourne Jewry's pioneering families, Reb Aaron Feiglin.

In the early 1900's, a recently arrived Jewish immigrant couple of European descent settled in Victoria. With limited employment opportunities and a growing desperation for a source of income they began hawking, travelling from village to village and town to town, buying and selling whatever they could. Unfortunately, together with their determination to succeed in this new foreign and distant land of opportunity, was a firm resolve to divest themselves of any vestige of their Jewish lifestyle and the traditional observances of old. "New for Old", described both the essence of their business and, tragically, their recently adopted lifestyle.

One (Australian) summer afternoon (in December) saw them riding horse and wagon in the direction of Bendigo, a regional Victorian town some two hundred kilometres from Melbourne. Before sunset, they reached the Campaspe River, following a track along its banks before arriving at a drover's hut, an empty dilapidated wooden shack in the proverbial "middle of nowhere". Rain threatened as the light began to fade. They decided to camp there overnight.

After settling in for the night, an argument arose. The husband told his wife this was the first night of Chanuka. Despite having decided to ditch their Shemiras Hamitzvos, mitzva observance, he nonetheless wanted to light a candle in the window and make the brachos. "After all, out here in the bush there is no one around to know that we're keeping the mitzva, so why not?" (This is deeply ironic given that the whole objective of this mitzva is pirsumei nisa - publicising the miracle.)

Despite his wife's protestations at what she claimed was her husband's weakness in succumbing to his imagined pangs of conscience, he nonetheless triumphed in the dispute and ended up lighting a single candle in the window. Tears of emotion welled up in his eyes as he recited the brachos, although the heavy rain, which had begun falling, was pounding away on the tin roof and almost drowned out his voice while reciting "Shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazeman hazeh!"

Emotionally charged, spiritually stirred, but nonetheless relaxed with a sense of fulfilment and accomplishment, they eventually settled down to sleep in the stormy isolated Australian bush.

No sooner had they both fallen asleep and there was a loud banging on the door. Startled, they jumped up and opened the door to discover the rain-drenched shape of a country policeman holding the reins of his horse, facing them. "Hurry and get out of here! Torrential rain at the riverheads far upstream has flooded the river; this whole area will be underwater within the hour." Shocked, the couple prepared to leave. "By the way," said the policeman, "you were very lucky that you left the light in the window. I rode past earlier and would never have imagined there was anybody in the drover's hut out here, but I noticed the candlelight on the way back!"

Needless to say, the couple brought the light of mitzvos and the richness of our unique heritage back into their lives following their miraculous survival!

But there are other interpretations of this Midrash. The ox is the strongest beast of burden, a source of energy and power, enabling its owner to plough, reap, develop and build. The ox thus symbolises the ultimate power of material accomplishment: the progress and relentless advancement of technological sophistication. The keren, the horn, is the most vivid and awesome feature of that might and power. The threat to life and limb that results from even a single disdainful flick of the ox's head bears ample testimony to the strength of the ox.

The Hellenistic Greek culture and philosophy stressed the power of man and the greatness of human achievement. Mythical gods were invented to sing the praises of man. Huge edifices were erected attesting to the sophistication of mankind and in every sphere of human endeavour man's greatness was reinforced and venerated, deeming the influence, and even the presence, of a Divine Creator increasingly "redundant" and "irrelevant". The ox of technological advancement had replaced any reliance on or accountability to Hashem. Released from the moral imperative of the Divine directive, the Greeks espoused a homocentric-based philosophy, justifying reckless abandon, moral decay and societal degeneration.

That was their intention in inscribing their rejection of Hashem on the horn of an ox.

In a similar vein I heard from my father, shlita, in the name of the late tzaddik, the Klausenberger Rebbe zt"l, that the ox represented the business and professional worlds: the areas of material accomplishment and success. The Greek message, along this line of symbolism, was urging one to "be a Jew at home but in the street - when occupied with the ox's horn - forget your religion and declare you are no different."

This dichotomy - detaching our daily lives from Torah and living with the times and their technological wizardry, absorbed, integrated and assimilated into the lives and lifestyles of our Gentile neighbours and relegating our religious practices to ritualistic anachronisms - is the greatest darkness. Today we see that, having survived thousands of years of exile and rejection by the countries of our Galus, as a consequence of being accepted by the Western world we are confronted with catastrophic rates of assimilation and intermarriage.

The response we must show to the keren hashor, to the dire threat of life without Torah, is to light a candle with a flame that burns at home but also illuminates the street. The message is to take the values and spirit of the home into the street, our daily lives and occupations, as opposed to bringing the "streets" into our homes.

That message is just as vital today. Military triumphs over our enemies are only means to the ends, which must be the triumph of the light of Torah and its constant, continuous relevance and application to our lives.

There is one final insight, which I heard some quarter of a century ago from the late Rosh Yeshiva of Gateshead Yeshiva, Reb Leib Gurwicz zt"l, that adds an entirely new dimension to the meaning of Chanuka. I remember as a young boy hearing the Rosh Yeshiva recount how he had been a Rov in London for some years prior to becoming Rosh Yeshiva. One of the many functions of a Rov is to be a friendly ear to the news, views and concerns of the Shule attendees. One afternoon, one of the shul regulars came into shul telling Reb Leib how he had been to view an interesting exhibition at the British Museum. It featured baby bottles through the ages. (I can only begin to imagine the effort needed by this Gadol BaTorah with legendary hasmada, to maintain an interest in the conversation.)

"In Egypt," the shul regular told him, "they used clay jars. The Persians made their baby bottles as small skin pouches, while the Greeks used cattle horns to feed their babies…" "That's it!" cried Reb Leib, "that is pshat in the Midrash!" Kisvu lachem al keren hashor means to write on the babies' bottles! "Rays avek der chinuch" - from the youngest age, the Greeks wanted the chinuch of Jewish children to be torn away. That was the Greek objective!"

If the Greek aim were to inculcate a new generation of Jews with Hellenistic culture, then it would not have sufficed to merely defeat the Greeks and throw them out of Eretz Yisrael. The attack on the brightest lights, the pure souls of Jewish children, had to be reversed. The pervasive polluting effect of their perversion had to be purged. The "nes shemen" illustrated unambiguously that the light and spirit of kedusha had to grow and continue, from generation to generation.

It may be for this reason that Chazal instituted the mitzva of Ner Chanuka as "Ner ish u'veiso" a candle for a person and his household, highlighting the importance of the intergenerational connection in guaranteeing the perpetuation of the light of Torah and the spirit of kedusha.

As we celebrate Chanuka this year, may we merit to indeed strengthen the chinuch of our children. May we see their lights shining brightly, may we imbue and inspire every area of our lives with Torah, and thus merit to see that special bond of the korbanos restored to the rebuilt Beis Hamikdash with the advent of Mashiach as the Midrash itself concludes, "Veruach Elokim merachefes al pnei hamayim - Ze Rucho Shel Mashiach- and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters - this refers to the spirit of Mashiach!"

1 Bereishis Rabba 2:4
2 Sefer Ner Mitzva. page 13-14.

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