Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Chanukah: The Light Within the Tunnel

Chanukah: The Light Within the Tunnel

We are used to thinking that inasmuch as there is light and joy, they are at the end of the tunnel. The holiday of Chanukah teaches us that both also appear in the midst of the tunnel's darkness.

Kislev 5782 / December 2021

As we know well, a great chasm separates man from God. God is perfect in every respect: “He is the Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are judgment; a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Devarim 32:4). Man, on the other hand, sins and stumbles: “For there is no man who is righteous in the land who will do good and not sin” (Kohelet 7:20). Does this mean humankind is not good? Certainly not, and the Torah says so: “And God saw all that He had done and here it was very good” (Bereishis 1:31). Even man is included in the Bible’s endorsement of human creation. Man’s good is not simple and static, like that of the rest of creation, but meandering and complex, full of ups and downs, good and evil. Indeed, it is because man can sin that his goodness (because willed) is very good.

In all the other holidays, we celebrate great moments of Divine revelation: the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, the miraculous protection we enjoyed in the desert. In each of these, we were gifted a wonderful encounter with God. Not so with Chanukah. The war was won by human bravery and the Temple was reconsecrated by human piety

Chanukah tells these truths. In all the other holidays, we celebrate great moments of Divine revelation: the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, the miraculous protection we enjoyed in the desert. In each of these, we were gifted a wonderful encounter with God. Not so with Chanukah. The war was won by human bravery and the Temple was reconsecrated by human piety. There are no great theophanies to speak of, only the choices of flawed human beings, with Divine aid rendered quietly and implicitly. These features of Chanukah have much to teach us as individuals and as members of a community living towards redemption.

 

A Bittersweet Victory

In the days of Mattathias son of Yohanan the high priest, the Hasmonean, and his sons, when the evil kingdom of Greece stood against your people Israel to make them forget your Torah and violate your laws. You, in your enormous mercy, stood for them in their time of great need, upheld their cause, judged their case, and took revenge against their oppressors. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the degenerates into the hands of those who cling to your Torah. And you made for yourself a great and holy name in your world, and performed great salvation and miracle for your people Israel, as you do today.

Early sources discussing Chanukah emphasize the military victory over the Greeks (the Seleucids), and no less, over the Hellenization of Jewish culture. After winning the war, the Hasmoneans purified the Temple and established Chanukah as a time of thanksgiving to God: “And afterward, your children came to the Holy of Holies in your House, and they cleansed your Palace and purified your Temple and they kindled lights in the courtyard of your Sanctuary and they established these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and to praise your great name.”

But the victory wasn’t immediate. Far from it. The Hasmonean wars, which can be described as a kind of guerrilla war against the Greek enemy, lasted an entire three years. These years were replete with harsh battles, some of which were won by Jewish forces (such as Maaleh Levonah, at which the Seleucid commander Apollonius was killed), and some of which they lost (such as Beit Zechariah, where Elazar Hamakabi was killed).

Nor was victory total. Things were particularly bad on the political front: Yonatan Hamakabi did secure Jewish autonomy under his leadership for a few years, but he also ended up dead on the battlefield, and his brother Shimon along with two of his sons were killed by his brother-in-law Talmai Ben Havuv. After the death of Yonathan (ben Shimon), his sons fought to inherit the throne. Fifty thousand people (according to Josephus) died in the bloody struggle. The last of the Hasmoneans to rule was Antigonus II, who was killed by Herod, thus ending the dynasty.

The spiritual scene was about as bad: Hellenism was not extirpated, and the Greek names prevalent among descendants of the Hasmonean clan attest to the ongoing influence of Hellenistic culture among the Jewish elite. Power struggles penetrated the holiest of spheres, and the purification of the Temple did not mark the beginning of a glorious era of worship. As the Ramban writes at length (Bereishis 49:10), the Hasmonean kingdom was flawed from the start. Priests are legally forbidden from political office, and in the Ramban’s view, the deep flaws of the Hasmonean dynasty there Divine punishment for their usurpation.

The Rambam was certainly aware of the flaws of the Hasmoneans, which he mentions in his commentary on the Mishnah: “Matters were imperfect during the Second Temple, and the kings did not follow the straight tradition” (Yoma 1:3). Nonetheless, he stresses that the restoration of Jewish kingship to the Hasmoneans was of cardinal importance and worthy of celebration

Despite all this, Chanukah was established as a holiday celebrating the Hasmonean victory. The Rambam was certainly aware of the flaws of the Hasmoneans, which he mentions in his commentary on the Mishnah: “Matters were imperfect during the Second Temple, and the kings did not follow the straight tradition” (Yoma 1:3). Nonetheless, he stresses (at the outset of his laws on Chanukah) that the restoration of Jewish kingship to the Hasmoneans was of cardinal importance and worthy of celebration: “And the High Priests, the sons of Hashmonai, overcame and killed them, and saved Israel from them; and they established a king from among the priests, returning the kingship to Israel for over two hundred years, until the second destruction.” In other words, although it was an illegitimate kingdom – a kingdom that violated a Torah prohibition (see Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Taaseh 362) and even contrary to one of the Principles of Faith (see Commentary to Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10, Yesodot 5-12) – Chanukah nevertheless celebrates the return to monarchy.

Our question is why. Given the complex situation (to say the least) of the Hasmoneans, what is the justification for the unique happiness, thanks, and praise and of the days of Chanukah? Aside from Chanukah, the only time in the year during which we say the full Hallel for eight days is Sukkos – a parallel mentioned in II Maccabees (1:9) and hinted at by the approach of Beis Shammai, who daily reduces the number of candles in the menorah in parallel to the sacrificial cows on Sukkos. This is a “great holiday,” a string of days of unusual joy. But what are we celebrating?

 

The Light Within Human Action

I began with the fundamental gap between God and man: God is utterly perfect and complete, while man is naturally flawed and deficient. This difference is wonderfully articulated in a piyyut recited during the High Holidays, contrasting “Hashem’s action” [ma’aseh Elokeinu] which is utterly perfect with “human action” [ma’aseh enosh] that is utterly flawed – “his wiles are plots, he dwells within fraud.”

Perfection and its absence represent two divergent mindsets, one of them “results-driven” and the other “process-driven.” Perfection, the Divine state, is results-oriented. It has no need for process or even the possibility of it, as Scripture states regarding the future redemption: “Suddenly He will come to His hall, the Master whom you seek” (Malachi 3:1). On the other hand, the absence of perfection defines a process-driven approach to redemption: “Thus is the redemption of Israel: it begins little by little, yet the more it proceeds, the more it increases” (Yerushalmi Berachos 1:1; Yoma 29a).

The absence of perfection is embedded within Chanukah; by contrast with Torah holidays, the events marked by Chanukah are the straightforward results, however imperfect, of human achievement.

In light of this distinction, it seems that Chanukah celebrates the beginning of a process – a redemptive process characterized by imperfection. The absence of perfection is embedded within Chanukah; by contrast with Torah holidays, the events marked by Chanukah are the straightforward results, however imperfect, of human achievement.

Commenting on the verse “Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am Hashem their God” (Vayikra 26:44), the Sages explain that Hashem will always be with us, yet this presence will take the form of independent human action:

“I will not spurn them,” the Sages say “in giving them Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azaryah; “neither will I abhor them,” in the days of the Greeks, when I gave them Shimon Hatzadik, Hashmonai and his sons, and Matityah the High Priest; “so as to destroy them,” in the days of Haman, when I gave them Mordechai and Esther; “and break my covenant with them,” in the days of the Romans, when I gave them the house of Rebbe, the Sages of the generations” (Megillah 11a).

In other words, even during the exile, when God hides His countenance from Israel, He continues to accompany His nation through the channel of human action. During Chanukah, we celebrate this path of God’s providence over us – the human track, flawed and deficient. This is a wonderful, deep reason for the joy of the holiday of Chanukah: Things are far from being perfect since the celebrated events have an active, human ingredient – yet God is present in our very own actions.

Another piyyut for Yom Kippur (“Asher Eimatecha”) declares that God desires the praise of flesh and blood: “You wished first the grubbiness of deed, the ones lacking in truth.” God is interested in us despite our flaws, and perhaps even because of them. During Chanukah, we learn that our hope for the future lies precisely in those “grubby deeds,” and that God acts within them to maintain and even redeem us. Through our actions – the Chanukah candles we light – we have the power to shine up our own path with a light of holiness, a Divine light. In a period of God hiding His face, a time of darkness during which there is no revelation of the Shechina and in which God’s perfect acts are absent from the world, the continuity of the Jewish People depends on those flawed human actions. The path to redemption is paved with broken stones.

It is a good reason to celebrate.

 

The Beginning of a Process

Purim is also a rabbinic holiday, a festival enacted by the Sages to mark human actions in the service of Divine providence, as recorded by Megillas Esther. However, the matter of process separates Purim from Chanukah.

The rescue story of Purim is a question of all or nothing, of life and death. It is not about a process but about results. The wicked Haman sought to destroy, kill, and eliminate all the Jews. Thanks to the intervention of Mordechai and Esther, the Jewish People merited Divine salvation and the abolition of the decree. The story, at least in our collective memory, was binary. This was not the case for Chanukah. In the Chanukah story, the threat was not the complete annihilation of the Jewish People, but rather a spiritual threat – the decrees of the Greeks and the enmity of the Hellenizers. Salvation, accordingly, was a process: the beginning of something new, whose end still lies ahead of us.

The Sefas Emet explains the essence of Chanukah in this light, explaining en passant why we don’t say Hallel on Purim, since “we are still servants of Achashverosh,” while we say Hallel on Chanukah even when we don’t enjoy complete autonomy:

Chanukah is named for Chinuch (inauguration) for it is preparation and inauguration for the future redemption. At this time, the Jewish People received kingship from the wicked kingdom of Yavan [Greece], which was not the case for the four kingdoms of our exile. Madai took over from Bavel, and Yavan from Madai, yet from Yavan the People of Israel received kingship, though for a temporary period alone. It is an inauguration for the future complete restoration of the kingship to the Jewish People. Therefore, the Sages established the mitzvah of Hallel, as it says, “Give praise, servants of God” – of God, and not of Yavan. By contrast, Hallel was not established on Purim, since we are still servants of Achashverosh, while on Chanukah, the Jewish People received the monarchy.

On Purim, we are happy with the result – the redemption itself. But on Chanukah, we rejoice in the beginning of the process, which ends with the famous line, “Then I shall finish with a hymn singing of the consecration of the altar.” The redemption of Chanukah represents an imperfect situation, but it is an imperfection that starts a process whose end, someday, will be complete redemption. Perhaps this can explain why the miracle of Purim can be written in the Scroll of Esther, while the miracle of Chanukah was not written in Scripture. The process, after all, is not yet complete.

 

The Joyful Path

A crucial lesson we need to take from Chanukah is to know how to take joy from being in a process – crucial not just in a national sense, but also in our personal lives. Most of our personal challenges are not immediately resolvable, and to deal with them we need to find the light in the path, recognizing that the human condition is imperfect. In my experience working with parents and couples, I find that many are stuck in “results-driven thinking,” defining success based on results and denying themselves the contentment of the process itself, and unable to make peace with the imperfect notwithstanding much that is good.

Here are some examples:

Some days ago, a woman told me that her ten-year-old daughter refuses to go shopping by herself. The daughter excused her refusal by pointing to her irresponsibility: “I’m not a responsible type. I don’t even succeed in school assignments – so I certainly can’t go to the grocery store.” This provided her with an excuse to refrain from buying even simple things like bread and milk.

In a conversation with me, the mother understood that her daughter’s refusal was related to how she tasked her daughter: She did not respect her daughter for the very act of going to the grocery store, but only for the effective result. If she forgets something at the store, her mother will be upset with her and give her the feeling that it would be better if haven’t gone at all. The mother’s thinking was results-driven rather than process-driven. This thinking then transfers to the daughter and makes her deeply afraid of failure.

Handing over responsibility is a long path, an ongoing and sometimes arduous process, which necessarily includes falls and stumbles. When the mother absorbs that her daughter’s failures do not necessarily prove her irresponsibility, but rather attest to a process of development, then the daughter will also be happy in being part of a work in progress, without fearing failure.

If she could only take joy in the path, a path replete with imperfect achievements, that sense of threat would dissipate and she would succeed in functioning well, even if not perfectly

Another example that comes to mind is a young woman, recently married, without any experience in managing a household. Daily tasks such as laundry, washing the floor, and cooking meals are entirely foreign to her. “It’s all so threatening!” she confessed to me. In this case, too, the sense of threat is a consequence of a results-based approach to assessing oneself and one’s accomplishments. If she could only take joy in the path, a path replete with imperfect achievements, that sense of threat would dissipate and she would succeed in functioning well, even if not perfectly. Household maintenance in its various forms is a process – an endless one – and it is important to focus on the path and not its end.

A third example is my piano-playing daughter. Over time, as she advanced in her playing skills, I became aware of the degree to which learning to play an instrument is a process with no endpoint. Even after she finished playing a piece under one teacher, she may end up discovering another aspect of that same piece when studying under another instructor. Every performance she hears will reveal another later, and additional depth. Playing focuses on the process, not the result. There is no final, complete product.

In fact, this insight is true of all human learning, whether of bodies of knowledge or the acquisition of skills. It is all the more central when it comes to building virtues, personal development, and relationships. As human beings, imperfect by definition, we must focus on the process and not the result. Chanukah teaches us that we can rejoice in the process itself and that the absence of perfection does not hamper our happiness. It only attests to our humanity. We wish to achieve good results, of course, but we should also focus on the joyous path towards them.

***

The days of Chanukah were enacted by the Sages, but they are not full festival days. We are not prohibited from working, and there is not even an obligation to feast and drink (as there is on Purim). They are not days of rest – neither from work as Shabbos and holidays nor rest from our enemies as Purim. These are days of process: a process of correction that started on the 25th of Kislev. They teach us that so long as we are in the thick of the process, we need not fear our lack of perfection, which is endemic and intrinsic to the human condition. The process itself, regardless of the result, is good reason for joy, praise, and thanks.

 


Photo by Andres F. Uran on Unsplash

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