Liberating the Hidden Light 1
For all its beauty and profundity, when we study Chazal’s retelling of the Chanukah story, some of us want to do a reality check. The miracle of the oil was important, to be sure, but why should it so completely eclipse the military victory? If not for that victory, not only would there be no rededication of thebeis hamikdosh to speak of, but as miracles go, the scale of the miracle on the battlefield was much greater!
Moreover, Chazal have a very different take on the nature of the problem that the Chashmonaim solved. We would (and do!) point to the terrible oppression by the Syrian-Greeks, their brutal suppression of mitzvos and diabolical attempt to snuff out Yiddishkeit by banning some of the pillars of practice. But this is not the way Chazal describe the run-up to Chanukah. They note that the second pasuk of Chumash uses four expressions of somber foreboding: sohu, vahu, choshech, sehom. Each, they say, 2 alludes to one of the four successful attempts by an oppressor nation against the Jewish people. Chazal link the third, choshech/darkness to the Chanukah period. Why? Because the Syrian-Greeks “darkened the eyes of Yisrael by telling them to write on the horn of an ox that they did not have a portion in the G-d of Israel. Is this the worst we can say about our persecution by the Yevanim?
Rashi 3 puts us on the trail of an important understanding about Chanukah, although it, too, initially creates problems of understanding in its wake. The Torah describes the lighting of the Menorah immediately following the parshah of the offerings of the nesi’im at the inauguration of the mishkan. Aharon, it seems, was dejected because he had no role in that event. The nesi’im had managed to walk away with every important contributory role. Hashem reassured Aharon by pointing to his role in the lighting of the Menorah, whose contribution would be greater than that of the nesi’im.
Ramban questions why Aharon was appeased by this. Lighting the Menorah is no different from many other parts of the avodah, which require a Kohen. Aharon certainly knew about the centrality of the Kohen to the avodah! Furthermore, a medrash 4puts a slightly different spin on Hashem’s words of consolation. It has Him telling Aharon that korbanos – such as those brought by the nesi’im – are limited to the times that the beis hamikdosh stood; the lighting of the Menorah is forever. Is that really so, asks the Ramban? The Menorah stood in the beis hamidkosh. When the latter was destroyed, no one lit the Menorah each day. What solace could Aharon have found in this?
Ramban explains that Hashem told Aharon about a special lighting that would take place well into the future. A family of Kohanim – the descendents of Aharon – would wrest control of Har Habayis from the enemy, and participate in the rededication of the beis hamikdosh. This lighting, and the ones that would follow every year on the anniversary of the original would take the Menorah forward into time beyond its physical limitations. Alone among all the parts of the avodah, the lighting of the menorah would live on – not as a commemoration of things past, but as a continuation of the light of the actual Menorah of the Temple! (Bnei Yisoschor, citing the Rokeach, finds yet another allusion to this in parshas Emor. After visiting all the special days of the year – Shabbos and each of the holidays – the Torah switches topics 5to the preparation of oil for the menorah. This alludes to yet another, unnamed, holiday, that of Chanukah, making use of that oil.)
This is all so confusing. If Chanukah continues the light of the Menorah, why are its halachos so different? The Menorah in the beis hamikdosh was kindled during the day; not so the Chanukah lights. The Menorah stood inside the structure of the beis makikdosh; we light the Chanukiyah outside, at the entrance to our homes. The Menorah required the purest of oils; the Chanukah lights do not.
The explanation begins with some difficult phraseology. “Toward the face of the Menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.” 6Rashi takes the face of the Menorah to mean the central lamp, which was not held atop a branch, but rose from the trunk of the Menorah itself. This is somewhat unsatisfying, though. Only six lamps turned towards the central one. Why does the Torah speak of seven lights turned towards the Menorah’s face?
We find an allusion here to the very nature of the Menorah’s light, whose source was the Ohr Haganuz, the original light of the first day of Creation. This was no ordinary light with conventional physical properties, but the ohr of Elokus. Too powerful for Man to use, it was therefore hidden away for some future time when it will be appropriate for him. What we translate as “face of the Menorah” – pnei hamenorah – can be taken as the penimiyus, the inner essence of the Menorah. That inner essence is the Shechinah, in the form of Binah, shining through to the seven lower sefiros. TheKohen kindles the lamps, and draws down some of this light from its source, illuminating our world with Divinity.
Maharal explained the significance of the number “eight.” Seven (the number of days it took to create the world and all things in it, including the spirituality of Shabbos) sums up all things that are part of this world, including the spirituality inherent in it. Eight signifies what is beyond and above the natural. We circumcise on the eighth day, proclaiming the child’s duty to add more kedushah to the world than what is already there. The eighth day of the inauguration of the mishkan distinguished itself in ten different manners. We received the Torah on an eighth day of sorts – not the eight that is one more than seven, but the eight that is one more than seven squared. Despite the fact that the miraculous part of the oil’s burning was that it burned seven days beyond its natural capacity, we celebrate Chanukah for eight, in recognition of the nature of its special ohr and its lofty, transcendent plane. In a word, that ohr can be identified with the continuation of the supernal ohr of the Menorah, continuing to be available to us even in the absence of the beis hamikdosh.
In a sense, there is nothing more precious to a Jew than that ohr. What possibly could be more valuable than the light of Divinity that illuminates the Jewish soul? For that matter, what could be more devastating to a Jew than to be told that the light had been extinguished, that the Shechinah had permanently departed from the community? But that is precisely what the Syrian-Greeks attempted to beat into the Jewish psyche – the sense that the Shechinah had abandoned them, plunging them into permanent spiritual darkness.
It makes perfect sense, then, that we should mark the defeat of that plan through a holiday of illumination. How wonderful it is that we do so not by simply commemorating our past glory, but by partially restoring it, through revitalizing the light of the Menorah.
It could not have happened at a more opportune time. The Chanukah events took place at the nadir of Jewish spirituality – even more so than Purim. From the time of the giving of the Torah, Bnei Yisrael were used to an ongoing association with the Divine through the phenomenon of prophecy. Nevuah, however, came to an end just before the Chanukah era. The cessation of the sweet voice of Divine communication plunged our people into darkness. (This is the reason that the details of Chanukah are not discussed in the Mishnah, and the holiday itself if mentioned only once, obliquely and in passing. Similarly, Chanukah is mentioned but once in all of the Zohar. Chanukah symbolizes a profound hiddeness, not emerging even in words of Torah.)
All of the Menorah was made from a single piece of gold, 7from the bottom of its base to the ends of its branches, and including all its decorations and embellishments. This is meant to teach us that the ohr Elokus illuminates all spiritual levels, from lowest to highest. Although the Shechinah never descended below ten tefachim, its ohr suffuses all places and levels. Similarly, Chanukah continues that illumination into the most inhospitable places and times of our exile. Chazal fixed this holiday to light up our galus in the worst of times. Therefore, they deliberately placed the Chanukah lights within ten tefachim of the ground, and outside our homes, casting its light on the entirety of the world.
The Menorah in the beis hamikdosh required oil that was “pressed.” 8 The ohr Elokus is generally incapable of entering and penetrating our coarse, unrefined natures. We must first “press” out the dross; only then will we yield the clear, refined oil within. We are required to negate our physical selves to Hashem before we can contain His light.
The oil we use each year at Chanukah is not subject to any similar requirement. Part of Chanukah’s specialness is its ability to reach all Jews, at all levels. Chanukah is relevant to all of us, wherever we may be situated on our spiritual journeys.
We could not continue the long, arduous path of galus without it. It comes down to this: without the ohr Elokus in our lives, we are nothing. With it, we can survive anything.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, Chanukah, pgs. 25-31
2. Bereishis Rabbah 2:5
3. Bamidbar 8:1
4. Bamidbar Rabbah 15:6
5. Vayikra 24:2
6. Bamidbar 8:2
7. Rashi, Shemos 25:31
8. Vayikra 24:2
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org