Chanukah coincides each year with the reading of the story of Joseph in the cycle of weekly Torah portions. Our sages have discovered numerous connections between this holiday and the Joseph narrative. I’d like to suggest an additional connection help us appreciate what might be Chanukah’s underlying spiritual motif.
“These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph, at seventeen years of age, was a shepherd with his brothers…” (Genesis 37:2)The problem with this verse is obvious. Instead of listing the progeny of Jacob, why does the Torah divert to focus on the story of Joseph? Menachem Mendel, of Romanov, (1745-1815) had a wonderful spin on this verse. Taking the word “generations” (toldot) as ‘legacy’ – the verse is telling us that the legacy of Jacob was: ‘Joseph!' The meaning of the name “Joseph” is; increase, add, go beyond. In a word – transcend. (When Rachel gave birth to her first son, she wanted more children so much that she named him Joseph and said, “May the Lord add to me another son!") The Rimanover tells us that this is the ultimate legacy of Jacob: (and as such, the legacy of the nation that would descend from him) Joseph! – to always transcend. Never to be satisfied with his accomplishments, but always to strive for more, to do more, go beyond. I believe that the idea of seeking transcendence is the key to understanding Chanukah. Let’s look at a number of examples to see how this plays out.
- One of the Chanukah prayers explains that this was a time when the Almighty delivered the “many into the hands of the few”. The Chashmonayim were a small group of guerrilla fighters. They were up against a huge professional army of well trained and well-armed soldiers. The odds of their being victorious were virtually zero. But with God’s help, they went way beyond what would normally be expected of them and they vanquished the Syrian/Greek forces.
- When the Jews took back control of Jerusalem’s holy Temple from their foes, they found it trashed and desecrated. They cleaned it up and wanted to light the Menorah that was lit each day as part of the Temple service. But the Syrian/Greeks had defiled all the oil. A search turned up only one small jar of ritually pure oil that had not been defiled – but it would only last for one day. A supply of new oil was a four-day journey away. Miraculously, this tiny amount of oil went beyond its normal one-day capacity and remained lit for eight days.
- The schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed about how, ultimately, we are to perform the lighting of Chanukah candles. The school of Shammai insisted that we light eight candles on the first night of Chanukah, seven on the second night, six on the third, etc. The school of Hillel taught that we are to light one candle on the first night, two on the second night, three on the third and so on. The Talmud concludes that we follow the opinion of the school of Hillel: “Yoseph v’holech” we proceed each night by adding on – increasing, more each night.
- Actually, the Talmud teaches that there is a basic, minimal way in which we can fulfill our obligation each night of Chanukah. That is for the entire family to light one candle each night. On the first night, one candle is lit. On the second night, one candle is lit, and this can be the procedure for each of Chanukah’s eight nights.
However, all Jewish rituals have a principle of “hiddur mitzvah” – embellishing the mitzvah and doing it in a more beautiful way. The Talmud teaches that to perform the Chanukah ritual on this higher level, each person of the household should light one candle each night. Chanukah is unique among every ritual in Judaism in that it alone has a level of “m’hadrin min ha’m’hadrin” (beautifying the beautiful) – kicking it up to yet another level! Where the level of “hidur” has each member of the household light one candle each night, the higher level of “m’hadrin min ha’m’hadrin” has each person of the household, following the opinion of the school of Hillel, light one candle on the first night, two on the second night, three on the third, and so on.
- There is a Torah principle that ritual impurity becomes permissible when the entire Jewish community has become ritually impure. Contact with the dead is the ultimate way of becoming “tameh” (ritually impure). During the long war fought between the Jews and the Syrian/Greeks, there was a presumption that everyone had some contact, directly or indirectly with someone who had died. In that case, the whole community was presumed “impure” and therefore, there would have been no need to use only ritually pure oil. They could have used any oil. There was really no urgency to have the tiny amount of pure oil they found last miraculously for eight days until they could retrieve a new supply of pure oil.However, Chanukah is the festival of transcendence – going beyond. Even though the Jews didn’t really need pure oil, they were not satisfied in lighting the Menorah in anything less than the most optimal way. They were committed to going beyond the bottom line letter of the law and would only be satisfied with absolutely pure oil that had not been touched by the idolaters who polluted the Temple.
- According to the Maharal, from Prague, (1525-1609), the number seven is associated with the formation of our physical world. The number eight corresponds to the realm of the supernatural. Beyond the physical, eight is the realm of the metaphysical. Chanukah is celebrated for eight days – the number of transcendence.
- The basic ritual of Chanukah is lighting candles each night. The flickering flame that emanates is the most essential symbol of the holiday. Of all the phenomenon of nature, the flame is unique. Everything else is ultimately is pulled down by the force of gravity. The flame, on the other hand, licks upward, striving to go higher and higher. It’s a perfect metaphor for our Chanukah theme – seeking transcendence.
The sequence of holidays in the Jewish calendar actually describes the spiritual journey of the Jewish people through its entire history. Each holiday in the year corresponds to the spiritual level of the Jewish people at a particular stage in history. The holidays at the beginning of the Jewish calendar year correspond to the Jewish people at the beginning of their history. They holidays at the end of the Jewish calendar year describe the Jewish people at the end of history.
We also see this idea illustrated in a very famous Talmudic passage:
At the time of the receiving of the Torah, the Jewish people stood at the foot of (Hebrew “tachat” literally means ‘under’) Mt. Sinai. Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says that this teaches that God held the mountain over the Jewish people and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, good. If not, this shall be your burial place’. Rav Acha bar Yaakov says that we see from here that the acceptance of the Torah was coerced (and therefore, should not be binding). Rava says it was reaccepted (willingly) during the days of Achashverosh (the king in the Purim story), as it is written, (Megillat Esther 9:27) ‘Kimu v’kiblu (they established what had been accepted). Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 88aAccording to the Maharal, we shouldn’t necessarily understand that God literally held the mountain over their heads. Rather, this is a way of saying that after the incredible supernatural miracles of the ten plagues and splitting of the Sea of Reeds that the Jewish people witnessed, God’s reality was so clear, that it was as if a mountain were being held over their heads. Could they really have had total free choice when God, at that moment, offered them the Torah? This would be similar to a person walking in a department store surrounded by armed security guards. Would shoplifting not be impossible at that time? However, the Talmud tells us that it was only after the extremely subtle miracles of Purim that the Jewish people finally truly accepted the Torah. Of course! In the Purim story, there were no supernatural miracles (God’s name is not even mentioned) and therefore, absolutely no compulsion. We’ve seen that people who are not yet spiritually advanced often need to see dramatic supernatural proof in order to acknowledge God. (Woody Allen once joked, “If only God would give me a sign – like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank!”) Those who are more spiritually inclined are less in need of such demonstrations. The Talmud relates a story of a man whose wife passed away leaving him with a nursing child. He was very poor and unable to hire someone to nurse the child. A miracle took place, and the man grew breasts and nursed his son. Rabbi Yosef said: What a great man he must have been that such a miracle was performed for him! Abaye, however, said: On the contrary! Look at how low that man must have been that the order of creation had to be changed for him (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 53b). Had this person been on a higher spiritual level, God could have arranged for him to find the money to pay someone to nurse the child. Or he could have won the money in a lottery. Unfortunately, such a person would have just chalked it up to good luck and never acknowledge God as his benefactor. Now we’re in a position to better understand the role of Chanukah in the sequence of holidays. Chanukah is the transition from the holidays that occurred at the beginning of Jewish history typified by supernatural miracles – and Purim, the holiday of concealed miracles coming at the end of the year and corresponding to the Messianic climax of history. The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication” and the holiday marks the rededication of our Holy Temple after it was liberated and cleansed. Chanukah also has the connotation of training and education. We saw that the essential theme of Chanukah is transcendence. As the holiday of transition, Chanukah comes to educate and train us to rise above and go beyond our early, unsophisticated spiritual level where we required supernatural miracles for God to “prove” Himself – and to reach the more refined and elevated level where we’re able to perceive God even when He is apparently hidden.