And (we thank You) for the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days, at this time.”(Al HaNisim Prayer)
The preservation of our history and the commemoration of past milestone events is one of the central motifs of Jewish tradition. However, celebrating holidays is not just an exercise in remembering the past. As Rabbi Chaim Friedlander in his work Sifsei Chaim writes, “Jewish holidays are not simply days of historical significance commemorating past occurrences. Rather, all that transpired then – the salvation and abundance of spiritual and physical blessings, are re-established annually at the anniversary of the holiday.” (Vol II pg 53) This idea is also alluded to in the special prayer of gratitude which is recited on during the eight days of Chanuka and on Purim, which reads “…in those days, at this time…” Clearly there is a contemporary message that can and should be taken from the holiday of Chanucka into our everyday lives.
In order to understand the message, we must first understand the event. The holiday of Chanuka celebrates two unique miracles. Maimonides, in his Laws of Chanuka 3:1-2, explains that these two miracles were the following: the successful waging of a war by the ragtag Chashmonaim army led by the priestly family of Mattityahu against the mighty Greek empire, culminating in the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and the miracle of finding the last jug of pure oil, which was used to light the Menorah (candelabra) in the Temple miraculously burning for seven days until new oil could be brought.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the Dean of Har Etzion Yeshiva, comments that these two miracles at first glance seem to stand in contrast to each other. The miracle of the oil lasting for seven days in the Menorah was inside the Temple, in a place where only the priests were able to see and witness it; however, the miracle of the victorious war was one that occurred outside the Temple and was one in which everyone took part. While they seem worlds apart, Rav Lichtenstein explains that in reality there is a unifying factor in each of the two miracles mentioned above. Both those who fought in the war on the battlefield, and those who were preoccupied with finding the pure oil to light the Menorah in the Temple, were doing so for the same reason and to further the same goal: the sake of the Jewish people. Therefore, writes Rav Lichtenstein, these two miracles are actually two sides of the same coin. And the message that we must learn from this duality is that though we all have different roles to play, each must do their utmost to fulfill that role for the benefit of the Jewish people as a whole. “It would be disastrous for each party to focus only on its own problems, ignoring those of the other side. The kohanim interested only in purifying the defiled Temple, in finding “pure olive oil,” while making no effort to help mold the surrounding culture, nor to connect with those outside of the Temple; and the rest of the nation caring only about external matters, with no thought for the Temple.” These two miracles share a complementary quality, in the fact that they stressed the importance of both holy/earthly, while at the same time reinforcing the idea that one is not complete without the other.
Unfortunately, today there is a failure among contemporary society to recognize the symbiotic relationship between holy/earthly work. Continues Rav Lichtenstein, “There are people who occupy themselves only with the “pure olive oil,” taking no interest in matters of the world… in areas that are not “pure.” On the other hand, there are other people who lean too far towards secular and universal trends and values, abandoning their tradition and severing themselves from the “pure olive oil.”… In the wake of this grave development, each of us is obligated to contribute towards the building and molding of the land – even if this entails rendering one’s “olive oil” slightly less “pure.” (Lecture on Chanuka) In our day, we are seeing an unfortunate trend where the lines of holy and earthly pursuits are drawn so finitely, essentially, we are experiencing a reality of “never the ‘twain shall meet.” But this is a mistake. Just like in the times of Chanukah, whether your work is in the Temple or on the battlefield, we need Jews from all spectrums to join together and live their unique roles in unity and in the service of the Jewish people.
On this idea, Rabbi Nachman Kahana, the spiritual leader of Beit Kenneset Chazon Yechezkel of the Old City of Jerusalem, offers an original and novel insight into the priestly blessing (Birkat Kohanim) which practically reflects the concept of focusing one’s individual spirituality for the sake of the people of Israel. In a lengthy discussion, Rav Kahana points out a particularly interesting aspect of the Kohanic blessing. As we know, when blessing the congregation the Kohen turns his back to the Torah ark and blesses the people with outstretched arms. Explains Rav Kahana, having one’s back face the ark is not normally done, however, in this case, there is a very specific and meaningful reason for the custom. “When a kohen recites the birkat kohanim, there is no general pool of goodness and blessings to which he connects and retrieves for the benefit of the congregation… The kohen gives of his own personal bank account in Gan Eden (Paradise) to the community. The essence of the kohanic service is dual sacrifice — sacrificing of the animal as required by the Torah, but more so, the kohen’s personal sacrifice for the sinner coming for atonement. When performing his kohanic duties, a kohen relinquishes his spiritual gains for the good of the nation.” This is the reason for his back facing the Torah ark — because he is not acting as a conduit between God and the people, rather he is taking from his own spiritual energies and giving it to the people. It would be natural for the Kohen to feel that he is somehow losing out and trading down his “pure olive oil,” however Rav Kahana explains that in fact, the exact opposite transfer is taking place. After the instruction to deliver the priestly blessing, the verse in Numbers 6: 27 states, “They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them.” According to Rav Kahana, “that I will bless them” is not referring to Israel, but to the Kohen. God will bless them, the Kohanim, for their self-sacrifice of behalf of the Jewish people.
In those days, at this time: 65 years ago, an event unprecedented in the last 2000 years took place and Jewish sovereignty returned to the land — the modern day State of Israel was born. Sadly, the lesson of the duality of the Chanuka miracles has not yet penetrated the Jewish heart. And it must be noted that the culpability is on both sides. On the one hand, today’s religious and spiritual leaders of the Jewish people need to recognize that it is part and parcel of their position to involve all strata of Jews in their work, and that sometimes it will be necessary to relinquish their pure olive oil for the sake of the people. On the other hand, the people as a whole need to realize that there is a deep and meaningful part of their heritage, the Temple and their religious service, that they are turning their backs on. It is only when both sides can recognize the necessity and value in each other that the light of the Menorah will be able to shine bright over the entire Jewish people.