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Jonathan Muskat

Darkness and Mehadrin Min Ha-Mehadrin: Two Tracks of Jewish History

We tend to think that the theme of Chanukah is to spread the light in the darkness. After all, Chanukah is the holiday when we kindle a flame in the darkest time of the year that is characterized by the fewest daylight hours of the year. But I think that Chanukah stands for much more that simply spreading light in the darkness. Chanukah is the one holiday that contains the peculiar halacha of “mehardin min ha-mehadrin,” when there is an obligation to observe the mitzvah beyond a basic standard called “mehdarin min ha-mehadrin,” or a super-enhanced standard. The basic obligation of the mitzvah is to kindle one light per household, the enhanced standard is to kindle one light per person and the super-enhanced standard is to add an additional light every night of Chanukah. Perhaps the nature of Chanukah is more than simply spreading light. It is about spreading “mehadrin min ha-mehadrin.” It is about spreading super-enhanced mitzvah observance in the darkness.

There were many heroes in the Chanukah story. Mattityahu was a hero for starting the Maccabean revolt by smiting the Hellenist who wanted to offer a pig on the altar. Yehudit was a heroine for seducing and killing a Greek commander who was trying to put down a Jewish revolt. Chana was a heroine who was willing to sacrifice her life and the life of her children by not bowing down to a pagan idol. Yehuda the Maccabee was a hero who led the Maccabean revolt to drive the enemy out of Jerusalem and rededicate the Beit Ha-Mikdash, or the Temple. But there was also an unsung hero in the story of Chanukah. And that hero was the anonymous kohen who returned to Jerusalem after it was reconquered. That kohen found a flask of pure olive oil and said that we should use this oil to kindle the menorah. The other kohanim told him, “tumah hutra b’tzibbur,” that we can use any oil, even impure oil if that’s all that we have. After all, we certainly don’t have enough pure oil to last for eight days. And the anonymous kohen turned to his colleagues and probably said something like, “Well, I don’t just want to spread the light of our victory by kindling a light of impure oil, even though I may technically do this. I want to do “mehadrin min ha-mehadrin.” I want to spread excellence. I don’t just want us to survive in dark times with impure oil. I want us to thrive with pure oil.”

Since the destruction of the second Beit Ha-Mikdash two thousand years ago, we have experienced two tracks of Jewish history. We have experienced the Jewish history of darkness – the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the failed Bar Kochba revolt, the Crusades, the burning of the Talmud, the Chmielnicki revolt, the pogroms and the Holocaust. Simultaneously, we have experienced the Jewish history of mehadrin min ha-mehadrin – an explosion of religious literature including the mishna, the gemara, Gaonic responsa, Rashi, Tosafot, the Rambam, the school of the Ramban, the chasidei Ashkenaz, the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema, kabbalistic literature, chassidut, the works of the Vilna Gaon and the “Brisker” revolution. Two tracks of Jewish history: darkness and mehadrin min ha-mehadrin.

On Shmini Atzeret, we experienced a darkness that we as a nation have not experienced since the Holocaust. And we are still mourning and we will continue to mourn. We have also spread light in that darkness, but not just an ordinary light. A mehadrin min ha-mehadrin light. A light of excellence. A light with a renewed Jewish spirit and Jewish pride. A light with a renewed sense of unity and interest in Jewish prayer and Jewish rituals. And a light with a renewed commitment to speak up when antisemitism rears its ugly head.

During this holiday of lights, we pray for salvation, for the defeat of our enemies and for the return of our hostages. And we also pray that this new wave of mehadrin min ha-mehadrin, this newfound spirit of excellence that has swept our nation in Israel, will continue to glow brighter than ever before.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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