Tonight will be Channuka.With darkness, we will gather as family and light the menorah (or here in Israel more commonly called, 'chanukiya'). Brachot will be made, songs sung, not to forget the tasty treats. We will usher in the 8 days of celebration.
There is a beautiful composition recited after lighting the candle called "hanairot halallu". The passage reminds us of why we light the candles, "to mark the miracles and wonders... done for our Fathers in those days at this time". It goes on to tell us "... these candles are holy. And we have no right to make use of them (not for light nor for warmth etc)... They are only for us to gaze
on, so that we may thereby give praise to Your Great Name for all Your miracles and wonders and salvation".
The odd thing about Channuka is that it is of the most spiritual of Jewish holidays. The Rabbis taught that Channuka is different from Purim. Purim marks a time where our physical survival was threatened. We celebrate G-d's redemption with food and drink and indulgences of our body. Channuka was not a time where the physical existences of our people was at risk. It was the Jewish spirit that was persecuted and as much by the Hellinistic Jews as by the Greco-syrio rulers. The spirit of Hellinism was sweeping the world. Jews who believed in the values of Torah were out of step. The edicts that caused us anguish in the period of Channuka were not those of Haman, focused on our destruction. The edicts were those focused on compromising our observance of Shabbat, kashrut, and the study of Torah. The heroes of Channuka were martyrs for the faith like Channa and her 7 sons, all of whom perished rather than submit to the Greco-Syrian authority .
Indeed Channuka was the first time in Jewish history where martyrdom for the faith, something we would sadly see as commonplace in the times of the Crusades, was invoked and called for, a new kind of Jewish heroism.
It is for that reason,since Channuka as essentially a triumph of the Jewish spirit, that there are no mitzvot associated with Channuka that focus on the physical. It may be nice to eat sufganiyot and latkes, but no mitzvah! The one mitzvah is to light the menorah. And even there we are not meant to make use of the light as mentioned above, but rather just to gaze on it and give thanks.
Whats odd about all this is that Channuka has become the most materialistic of Jewish holidays, especially in the States. Its a holiday where no one feels guilty, even the least affiliated Jew, because there is so little to observe. Light candles? give gifts? eat latkes? Why not? One can live a totally assimilated life and embrace that!
I remember many years ago when living in a small Jewish community in moderately sized Southern city, that the newspapers, as was their custom, did a feature on a Jewish family at the season of the holiday, in this case Channuka. They showed pictures of the family readying for lighting candles and interviewed the mother. The mother, trying to be informational, told the reporter of how Channuka marked a miracle that happened to the oil in the Temple and that therefore we have a custom to eat foods made with oil. She then went on to give a recipe for Channuka of a food cooked in oil. Latkes? no! Sufganiyot? no! Crab cakes!! She actually gave a Channuka recipe for crab cakes!
It is sad when one thinks about it, that this holiday that speaks to the heroes, both men and women, who gave their lives for observance and Torah, so that Judaism should persevere,those who said "we are different from you and we refuse to surrender our uniqueness," would be celebrated by their children as the holiday of assimilation. What so much of the Jewish world is essentially saying in the current secular theme of Channuka is "We are just like everyone else. We eat the same. Live the same lifestyle. Being a Jew is just a matter of culture and history, but with little real consequence. We want to be like you!"
So when we come to make our blessings tonight and light our candles
what are we celebrating? What should we see when we gaze on the lights?
What we celebrates is the survival of our faith! What we see in the candles is that pure light, with G-d's help, triumphs. Despite the woman and her Channuka crab cake recipe and many like her, who sadly have gotten lost along the way, Torah Judaism thrives and prospers. Despite all the efforts throughout Jewish history to compromise our commitment to our faith, we remain strong and determined. I go to Mir Yeshiva every day to learn. Would you believe five and a half thousand young men and some older, like me, do the same. And that's just one Yeshiva amongst thousands around the world! That's what one sees in the candle! The power of the pure to triumph, even if few, even if weak. Would that the martyrs of Channuka and all our history could see the vibrancy of Torah today...all resultant from their devotion.
Indeed there is much to celebrate and for which to thank Hashem.
Chag Urim Samaiach