Monday, December 22, 2008

Chanukah Sameach!

I'll post some of what we've been up to in a day or two, some great pictures too. But before I do that, I wanted to answer a question I've received a few times. What is it that I do? Sure, I study, but what? Well that's a very complicated answer, but basically I study (for the most part) nearly 2,000 year-old Rabbinic texts attempting to understand how Jewish law is decided and why we come to said conclusions. These texts will be in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Well, I decided to give you an example, through a timely Dvar Torah:

There's a question in the Talmud: What is Chaunkah? What is the significance of Chanukah, and what does it celebrate? Typically there are tons of answers to this question and nearly every Rabbi in history has his own take on the answers, but I'd like to deal with it a bit.

When we're children we're taught about the miracle of the oil. When the Maccabees came into the Temple after the war they found a flask of still sealed, pure oil hidden in the Temple with enough oil to last one night. Through a miracle it lasted for eight, until new pure oil could be made. Fantastic, beautiful.

Except, um... that's not exactly what happened. Let's say that Chanukah does celebrate this event, well the miracle only lasted seven days - the days that oil shouldn't have lasted for, the first day wasn't a miracle at all! So then, where do we get eight from?

One of those popular answers is that the first night celebrates the victory over the Greeks and the last seven celebrate the oil - the
nes pach hashemen. The Netziv (mid-19th century Lithuania) gives us a different answer, combining the two ideas - the finding of the oil itself was a miracle and we celebrate two miracles on the first night - the military victory over the Greeks and the finding of the oil.

Ah, now we've got it. We've got the historical element and the religious one. Fantastic. However, should we really be celebrating the defeat and destruction of human beings? That doesn't seem to square with a Jewish view of
b'tzelem elokim (that all of mankind, regardless of religion, is made in the image of God). This is why, according to some, we celebrate the oil instead of the military victory though that is really the essential part.

Well if that's the case, that we celebrate the finding of the oil, then the Maharal's got a great question (Prague, 1500's): the paragraph of
Al HaNisim (that we insert in the prayers during this week) has no mention of the miracle surrounding the oil at all! How is it that our prayers don't mention such an important part of the Holiday? Why should we be celebrating the finding of oil anyway? It's just for the Menorah anyway.

He answers all these questions beautifully. In fact these two ideas are intrinsically connected. What were we fighting the war for anyway? Against the Greek oppression of our religion and the defilement of the Temple. The Greeks defiled the Temple and the only way to reconsecrate the Temple was through the relighting of the Menorah. Hence, according to the Maharal, the two miracles are actually only one. The finding of the oil flask and the relighting of the Temple is the culmination of the military victory, the final act that showed the victory and the miracle that happened. This should invoke a vision akin to the flag raising on Iwo Jima or at the Kotel in June of '67.

Hence, every year when we relight our Chanukiot, we are not just celebrating the finding of the oil in the Temple not just the military victory. But rather that we are celebrating and renewing the victory over those who seek to crush us through physical destruction and those who seek to destroy us through assimilation. No, we are still here, still here proclaiming year after year that we will not be defeated that we will continue to bring light to this world.
Chag Urim Sameach.


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