Many explain the name “Chanukah” as a combination of Chanu and kah. The former means “they rested” or “encamped,” and the latter has the numerical value of 25, the day of the month on which our righteous warriors were victorious (Tur, O.H. 670). Others amend that to allude to something much deeper. Chanu can mean they received chein, grace (another word for miracle) on that day (Makhsor Vitri 239).
Going yet deeper, the beloved hassidic commentary, Kedushas Levi (Drushim l’Chanukah, Kedusha 5) teaches that kah alludes to the way many of our prophets introduced their prophecies: KOH amar H’, “THUS says G~d” (koh and kah are the exact same Hebrew letters). The implication is that just like these prophecies would begin with a word which conveys something very unclear (in contrast to Zeh, “This,” or Henei, “Behold”), which means that the prophet had to struggle to understand the divine communication, so too did the victory of our Chanukah heroes culminate on a fuzzy spiritual note. And that was its greatness.
In other words, the real novelty of Chanukah was not the specific miracle, but our ability to embrace it while it was unclear. Until then, Jews celebrated grand moments of grace – like the Exodus on Passover, the Sinai Revelation on Shavout, the Clouds of Glory on Succot, and the radical overturning of a national death sentence on Purim. But on Chanukah, there was no grand drama. Discovering that flask of oil and its lasting for eight instead of one night was a very subtle experience. In fact, our Sages put into our prayers the note that it was only the next year that they declared it as a miracle. What’s the point? They want us to internalize that THIS miracle took time to realize, and that was its greatness.
We can take this idea a step further. In contrast to all our other holydays, the Chanukah miracles (including the military dimension) were not nationally experienced in real time. Only a small band of warrior priests were privy. And yet, the nation ended up embracing it like never before.
It was because for the first time in history, KOH was enough.
The 8 nights of Chanukah can be compared to the 8 which defines the holyday of Shmini Atzeret, coming on the heels of the 7 days of Succot. In Israel, it’s also called Simkhat Torah, since it’s when we celebrate the end of the yearly Torah reading cycle. Netivot Sholom (Ma’amarei Chanukah, Tikun Midat Hod) explains that while 8 always reflects the supernatural, there are two ways it can manifest in our lives. It can come from above, based on our merits, or from below, based on our teshuva, repentance. That’s why Chanukah is the holyday which follows Shmini Atzeret/Simkhat Torah – because whatever we might not have merited then, from above, we can recoup now, from below.
But wait. Didn’t we do teshuva leading up to Simkhat Torah? Ah, that was a teshuva from above, driven by the Shofar and tons of other mitzvahs at that time. Teshuva driven by koh is very different. That’s why it’s permissible, and some say ideal, to light the Chanukah Menorah very low (as in the photo at the top). Because that’s the essence of the miracle: Faith within an extremely low spiritual state.
In fact, explains the N. Sh, we were lower than at the time of the Exodus, about which the Sages teach that the nation was at the 49th level of impurity, which is the final point before losing all connection with Judaism. At the time of Chanukah, we sunk even lower, to the point of being “Hellenized,” meaning anti-Jewish! We even have accounts of many Jews sewing or stretching their foreskins back on, so they could wrestle in the nude with dignity!!! That’s why the tradition is that the line in the Great Hallel – b’shifleinu zakhar lanu, “He remembered us in our lowliness” – refers to Chanukah. The only reason we came out of that dire spiritual pit is because of the Hasmonaeans. That tiny clan of warrior-priests was a miraculous single flask of oil with which the nation was graced, igniting our capacity to hear … the koh.
In the last Torah portion, Va’yishlakh, the one that always leads into Chanukah, we learn of a virtual war between Yaacov and his brother, Esaav. One of Yaacov’s strategies for winning was to send gifts. Esaav initially balked, but Yaacov pressed him, twice, with the argument that he’s doing it “to find grace in your eyes.” Then the clincher (Gen. 33:11):
Please accept my blessing,
which was brought to you,
because G~d has graced me
Classic commentator, Rash”y, explains that the passive verb “was brought” is used to impress Esaav that he needn’t exert any effort in receiving it. Usually, if someone brings you something, certainly of bulk, you have to put out effort to facilitate the transfer. Not here. Yaacov was dropping these gift-animals into Esaav’s lap, just like he had experienced G~d had done so in gracing them to him. The whole point of the gift was thus to share the experience of divine grace, and through that, conquer his enemy’s heart.
Indeed, is this not precisely what celebrating Chanu-KOH is all about? Helping the Esaav within us all find that chein …
It’s no secret that the victims of the October 7th massacre were not celebrating Simkhas Torah in the traditional manner. I am not here to judge them, and truly – I feel only outrageous compassion for all the suffering of my brothers and sisters on that G~d awful day. And I know if they weren’t there to absorb that evil, it could have easily hit the rest of us. Still, on a national level, I can’t escape the Message that there was a major spiritual vacuum occurring that day which we all need to fill. And contemplating further, I find it striking that this is our only holyday which does not involve a miracle. No chein on Simkhat Torah; only joyous connection to Torah, after a month of incredible merit.
Perhaps, then, Chanu-koh is really, really a necessary follow-up.
May we celebrate it this year like never before.