TURN ON THE LIGHTS
Chanukah - the festival of lights. While aptly named for the lights that illuminate our homes each night of the holiday, the moniker begs a very simple question: Why lights?
Chanukah - the festival of lights. While aptly named for the lights that illuminate our homes each night of the holiday, the moniker begs a very simple question: Why lights? Why should the theme of lights so dominate this festival? The apparently obvious answer has become almost a mantra, repeated every year at this time: Many years ago, when the Hasmoneans entered the holy Temple after recapturing it from the Greeks, they found no pure oil with which to light the menorah, save one small jar. Although containing only enough oil for one day, the jar miraculously sufficed for eight days and nights.
However, this response only shifts the question. Hashem could have performed a miracle for the Hasmoneans through any other medium. That the miracle occurred with the light of candles must mean something. Thus, we return once again to our original question - why lights?
In the time-honored Jewish fashion, we will answer our question by asking yet another question. Up until the time of the Chanukah incident, the Jews had encountered many enemies and foes throughout history who sought to destroy and annihilate us. The Greeks were only one of many who threatened our existence. So why then do we celebrate our victory over this particular enemy more than any other? What was different about the Greek attack on Jewish survival?
Prior to the Greeks, all the Jewish people's adversaries presented themselves as exactly that - adversaries. Wielding spears and clubs, they attempted to eradicate the Jews through war. "You are different from us," they cried out. "You have different customs and practices. You present a threat to us and so we wish to destroy you." In the end none were victorious, as the Jews only grow stronger when faced with adversity. However, the Greeks employed a new strategy. Instead of presenting themselves as an enemy, they extended their hand in friendship. Instead of painting the Torah as an evil and destructive book, they noted its great wisdom and insight. For once, the Jews were treated not as second class citizens, but as equals in the Greek empire. "You are just like us," the Greeks offered the Jews. "Our customs may be different, but each of our traditions contains beauty and wisdom. Come join us in friendship and learn our way of life."
While on the surface this approach appears much less antagonistic, in truth the Greeks presented a much more dangerous threat to the Jewish people. The Jews, unfamiliar with this attitude, responded quite favorably to the Greek invitation. After a while, the Jews could be found mingling with their neighbors in every facet of life. Participating in the sports, politics, and other life cycle events of the Greek people, the Jews soon felt themselves truly a part of the Greek society. The Greeks had convinced the Jews that they were in fact no different from any other people.
And this was exactly the danger in the Greek threat. The Jews began to forget that they are different than everyone else. Ever since Hashem gave us the Torah on Mt. Sinai, we have been marked with a special mission - to disseminate the message of the Torah to the world. The Jewish people are unlike any other nation. The Greeks sought to remove that distinction, not by fighting the Jews in war, but by accepting them as their own. Tired of war, the Jewish people accepted with delight the Greek invitation to become one of them. As such, the Jews needed to be reminded that they are different, that they must remain apart and distinct to fulfill their Divinely-assigned role in the world. They had to realize that the Torah is not just another book of wisdom, but that it contains the essence of life itself; that the mitzvot are not simply beautiful customs similar to the practices of other people, but are the guide towards achieving a bond and attachment to Hashem Himself. The Jews are different, always have been and always will be.
The mystery of the lights on Chanukah now becomes clear. Introduce any object into a pitch dark background and nothing happens. The object and background remain invisible and unchanged. This is not true, however, of a candle. Ignite just one candle even in the darkest abyss, and everything suddenly changes. The light can be easily discerned even in the darkness. The Jewish soul is compared to the light of candle, because the Jewish soul can always be discerned in any environment. The Jew is different and he will always stand out. This is why we light the candles on Chanukah - to remind us that we are different and unique, something the Greeks and many nations since have attempted to make us forget.
However, we should not grow despondent of our fate as loners in the world. The symbolism of the light amidst the darkness has an additional meaning. Even in the greatest gloom, the Jew has the ability to illuminate his surroundings. The Torah and the mitzvot shine brightly in any environment. A Jew never has to feel like there is no hope, as the spark of his soul can be the source of inspiration no matter how dark and dismal the situation may seem.
Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Ner Israel Rabbincal College in Baltimore, and will be married to Chavie Weiss next Sunday in New York.
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