The Deepest Chanukah Light
Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, Rav and Dean at Yeshivat Yavneh
Let us ask a few questions before we begin:
Question #1: What are we supposed to learn from the Greek “exile”? Egypt I get. It symbolizes breaking free from our constraints and as we broke out we became a people. I understand the latter exiles. We were cast out of Israel. The image of the wandering Jew is developed. But this whole Greek saga is a very strange episode.
Question #2: The Talmud lists several restrictive decrees imposed by the Greeks. They tried to eradicate Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh (the new month), circumcision and there was an attempt to weaken Torah knowledge. What did the Greeks see as critical in these decrees?
Question #3: We make a big deal about how we found a little flask of pure oil. According to strict Jewish law there was no need for new oil. There is a principle mentioned numerous times in the Talmud called “tumah hutrah b’tzibur” impure items in the public sphere is permissible. This law undercuts the need for the miracle.
Question #4: While Chanukah is taking place, the Torah reading deals with the interaction between Yosef and his brothers. Here are a bunch of siblings, whom the Torah considers righteous people, and they take their younger brother and cast him into a pit. How are we supposed to explain this story to our children? Also, how is it linked to Chanukah?
Thesis – Chanukah represents the battle of light against darkness.
When Yosef is thrown into the pit, that is considered the beginning of our Egyptian exile. It led to a series of unfortunate events which ultimately brings all of the Jewish people down to Egypt. Yosef in the pit as the trigger for the Egyptian exile drama is reflected through a classic Passover seder insight. We observe the ritual of karpas (dipping a green vegetable in salt water) at the beginning of our Seder (Sefer Hamanoach, Hilchot Chametz U’matza 8:2). Why karpas? The Talmud (Pesachim 114b) answers “so the kids will ask ‘why’”. Okay, but then why karpas? When we are first introduced to the special coat of many colors that Yaakov gave Yosef, Rashi describes it as “karpas”. [How karpas went from a material to a vegetable is for another discussion.] This is why we perform karpas at the beginning of the seder. It reminds us how we got into this mess in the first place. Brother raised his hand against brother. From that moment everything devolved.
There is something so incredible about Yosef. Yosef taught us how to find light in darkness. That was his specialty. From the darkness of a terrible situation, Yosef emerged as a brilliant leader in the court of the Pharaoh. “And Hashem was with Yosef, and he became a successful man in the house of his Egyptian master (Genesis 39:2).”
Yosef did more than just teach us how to find light in darkness. He even went as far as to plant the light for us by sowing the seeds of redemption. “And Yosef says to his brothers, I am going to die, but G-d pakod yifkod (will redeem) you… (Genesis 50:24).” Those words were a code which Yosef left in Egypt so the people will know that it’s time for the uprising as soon as they hear those words again. Like the Jewish Conversos in Spain, they had some of the tradition Jewish blessings etched under their tales so when no one was watching they could recite the blessings with their family. Yosef planted some light in the darkness.
The Rebbe of Stichin (notes to Toldos, 5775) asks how it is that we make the blessing “baruch …gaal Yisrael” – Blessed is the God who redeemed Israel? Redeemed? Look around at what’s going on in the world; this isn’t redemption yet? The Rebbe of Stichin answers that just as Yosef has planted the way out in the darkness we must realize that the tunnel is already here. We just haven’t found it yet.
This idea is reminiscent of a teaching from Rav Gedaliah of Linitz (Teshuot Chein, Shoftim): when typical repentance doesn’t seem to be working, “G-d digs a tunnel beneath His Throne” that allows us to immediately find the light when hope is lost. Rebbe Nachman of Breslev has this idea, as well, in his story “The Lost Princess.” The viceroy is searching for the princess and is about to give up. Right at that moment he takes a ‘path to the side’ which leads to her. This path is the code which Yosef planted. This path is the tunnel dug by G-d this available to us all.
When Yosef is in the chamber of the wife of Potiphar, she seduces him. He is about to give in. At that moment, he says something remarkable: “And how can I do this great bad thing, and since against G-D?” (Genesis 39:9). What makes this verse so exciting is that G-d’s name if mentioned in the vilest of moments. Here stands Yosef, in the house of the wife of Potiphar, removed from his father’s Torah, estranged from his family. He has no access to education; he’s a stranger in a strange land. And he is one touch away from breaking his moral code. Specifically in the midst of that darkness he calls on the name of G-d. He fights back the darkness.
Back to Chanukah. The Bnei Yissaschar (Maamarei Chodesh Kislev Teves, 2:21) writes that Chanukah is the holiday where we have the revelation of the ohr haganuz – the primordial light hidden away from begin of creation. What he means to say is that Chanukah is Yosef. Just as Yosef brought a light in the middle of the darkness we do the same on Chanukah. Chanukah appears in the middle of winter when the nights drag on the longest.
The Sfas Emes points out that on Chanukah we will light a total of 36 candles. These 36 candles refer to the 36 hidden tsaddikim- righteous ones. That’s a nice idea but what does it mean? It means that the tzadik is the light in the darkness. Yosef is referred to as ‘Yosef HaTzadik’ because that is what he does; bring light. Chanukah is the holiday where we push back against the darkness. We stare at the Chanukah lights and we realize that they represent us; what we are capable of.
Antithesis – There is no darkness.
Some of you may have the seen the movie Creed (in other words: Rocky 7).
There’s a scene where Rocky takes Creed, Apollo’s son, to the mirror. He says to him “I want you to meet your biggest enemy.” Creed looks at Rocky in wonderment. But then he gets it. There is no enemy other than ourselves. Rocky says to Creed, “Hang out here a little. I want you to get to know.” This simple perspective opens up a whole different way of looking at Chanukah. Let’s open this up a bit by presenting an interesting debate.
The Degel Machaneh Ephraim (Shemos – “Vayeirah Malach Hashem”) asks how we deal with a foreign thought that enters our mind in the middle of prayers. He answers that it is our job to lift these strange sparks and elevate them to a G-dly level. If we are working on serving G-d and we are working on how we pray or how we care for others and suddenly there is some interruption, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim argues that we must resist and fight back against the darkness and ultimately elevate it.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, (Likutei Moharan 115) presents a different approach. The Torah tells us that Moshe “approached the smoke for there was G-d.” This verse is teaching us that G-d was there in the cloud. Imagine an individual who has led a narcissistic life. Previously self-indulged, they now want to change. When we make a decision for change in our lives, our progress can be stilted when we hit a wall. Some snare stands in our way. Rebbe Nachman says that we need to stop seeing these distractions as a foreign enemy but rather understand that this is G-d. In the middle of the smoke, there did Moshe find G-d.
What is this somewhat esoteric debate between the Deger Macheneh Ephraim and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov all about? The Degel Machaneh Ephraim is a reflection of our original thesis – life is filled with darkness. It is our job to shine a light and fight. Rebbe Nachman says, stop fighting. You can’t keep winning some battles and losing some battles. Rather, open your eyes and recognize, when you have clarity when you truly understand what you’re about, then you will begin to realize there is no more darkness.
This new approach can help us understand Chanukah somewhat differently. Yosef is a fighter and in the pit he meets snakes and scorpions. Yosef fights his way out into the light. He’s in the house of the wife of Potiphar and Yosef finds a way out. And then again he’s in the dungeon but this time he’s going to come out and stay out forever. What changed? At a certain point he comes to the realization that there is no struggle, there is no fight, no enemy that you keep pushing back at. He tells his brothers to ‘come to Egypt. I’m going to show you how to thrive anywhere!’
Chanukah, as we pointed out, is the revelation of the hidden light. You can understand this teaching the classic way (thesis #1) that is the light pushing back the darkness in the long winter. Or you can understand it a la thesis #2, or as the Lubavitcher Rebbe says it: “when there is light, there is no darkness.” Chanukah is a time when we can realize that this world is so beautiful; our strength can achieve so much good.
The Greeks tried to eliminate Shabbos observance, Rosh Chodesh, circumcision and commitment to Torah. Each of these reflects a passing of the baton from G-d to us. Hashem turns to us and says “I’ve given you the tools. I’ve given you the light. Now finish the job.” Shabbos is merely a shell without the rabbinic laws such a muktzah, and shevus (rabbinic additions). Rosh Chodesh celebrates the fact that we dictate the Jewish calendar. Circumcision is a declaration that WE finish what G-d has created. And Torah – Torah is an unending well that bursts forth with the teachings of our tradition and our mesorah. We are that light.
There is a great teacher of Breslov Torah named Avraham Tzvi Kluger. He points out that every time the Jews were sent into exile the only way it was accomplished was by first dismantling their Temple. Without a Beis HaMikdash, the Jews are vulnerable. Whether in Egypt or in Rome – when we are without our central focal point, we are at risk. The Greeks tried something totally different. They recognized that there doesn’t need to be annihilation. They walked right into the Temple and didn’t burn it or remove it. But, they made it impure. They didn’t delete the Torah; they corrupted it. To simplify, they wanted to put out the light.
May this Chanukah be filled with an abundance of light. May we push back the darkness or may we realize a world where there is no darkness.