It is easy to disregard Chanukah. It’s the most secularized holiday. It’s not in the Torah. And its iconic miracle is so overdone, it’s a bit of a joke.
However, despite the hackneyed metaphor, Chanukah is actually far deeper a holiday than most people realize. But the problem is that most Jews, sadly, don’t really understand what the Temple was that the Maccabees reclaimed, and what that meant for the Jewish people.
The Beit HaMikdash, as the Temple is referred to in Hebrew, was built by King Solomon around the year 957 BCE. It was the central point for Judaism in terms of religious practice, judicial rulings, and according to Pirkei Avos, regular miracles. When the First Temple and then Second Temple were destroyed, it devastated the Jewish people. Sacrifices, the core element of Jewish rituals, were forbidden outside the Temple. So with it destroyed, the whole way the religion was practiced had to be reformed. Needless to say, when the Maccabees recaptured the Second Temple from the Greeks it was a big win. This rededication of the Temple is what the word Chanukah actually refers to.
Why the Lights?
The Temple had many functions, but the most critical were the daily sacrifices. Though the Menorah was important, it’s a little surprising that’s what Chanukah makes such a commotion about it. Imagine if your car had been stolen. The police manage to recover it mostly intact. The engine works, the brakes are good, they didn’t even steal the tires. But you’re fixated on the headlights.
Why does it matter that the Menorah was lit for 8 days? The Menorah hadn’t been lit since the Temple was taken by the Greeks. It’s great our ancestors found a jar of oil. The one night would have been amazing. But if it hadn’t lasted any longer, would it have been such a problem? What was so essential about the Menorah?
Why this holiday?
Before the Jewish people had Solomon’s Temple, they were using a sort of portable prototype given to them by God in the Torah, known as the Mishkan (or Tabernacle.) For the sake of discussion, the Mishkan and the Temple are regarded as the same entity. Now here’s an interesting thing. We don’t have a holiday to celebrate the completion of the Mishkan, or a holiday to celebrate the building of either Temple. But for some reason, we have Chanukah to celebrate the reclaiming the Temple. Why?
Also interesting, the Mishkan gets up and running during the month of Nissan (the month of Pesach.) However the sages say that the Mishkan was actually completed in Kislev, the month of Chanukah. God told the Jewish people to delay the inauguration for almost half a year. Why? Well it seems, He knew we’d be celebrating a holiday in the future and wanted to connect to the actual completion of the Mishkan. (If you want further proof of that, the Mishkan is used for the first time in the Torah portion Shemini, which means eight. Perhaps a reference to a holiday that would not happen for 1,100 years.)
As I’ve said for every holiday post, Judaism views time as a spiral. Always moving forward but also reexperiencing spiritual moments of the past. So every Jewish holiday has a special spiritual opportunity available to us. If the reclaiming of the Temple/completion of the Mishkan is so essential to the holiday, what does that mean?
If you look in the prayer added to the Chaunkah service, I think there’s a big clue.
“You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of the diligent students with Your Torah.“
Notice, the text doesn’t say the weak beat the strong, or the few defeated the many. It says delivered them into the hands of. More than victory, there’s a change in dominance or mastery.
The Upside Down World
It’s no surprise that our world feels a little backwards. Those who are the most wealthy rarely have the nicest of character traits. Basketball players and film actors are famous while teachers and nurses struggle to make ends meet. And when disasters strike, the ones who caused the problems get off consequence free while the poor, innocent, and disadvantaged suffer the most.
However, Jewish tradition insists that in the next world (Olam Habah) we will all see justice and everything perverted in this world will flip. Those who sacrificed for the greater good and dedicated their lives to helping others will be the celebrities. Every dollar given to tzedakka will have a greater return than investing in Apple in the 1980s. All of this is alluded to in the Chanukah blessing.
The Temple was the one place on Earth God’s presence could be tangibly felt. It was where this right-side up justice was not only found, but was the source upon which it illuminated out to the rest of the world. That’s what the light of the Menorah represents.
Making it Last a Little Longer
Obviously during Chanukah, this justice of Olam Habah isn’t going to suddenly realign our world. Chanukah lights are only a taste of that energy. But we can still harness it. The miracle of oil lasting eight nights wasn’t about unexpected abundance. In fact, according to Jewish law, the impure oil that was available in the Temple would have sufficed given the conditions. However, the Jews decided that they were going to try do light the Menorah in the holiest way possible for just one night. God did the rest.
Chanukah is the time we not only celebrate the reclaiming of our holiest monument, but also its creation. With that, we can taste the light of the justice we all know the world should have. But in order to get there it’s going to take a lot more work. Some of that work is internal, such as working on ourselves. Some of it will be external, such as fixing a problem that will only get addressed if we take responsibility for it. If we can dedicate ourselves to that mission, even for one day, that can take the light of Chanukah out of this eight day holiday, and eventually, bring it to burn in the Menorah of the rededicated the Third and final Temple.
What we want may seem impossible to achieve. Whether that is eating a healthier diet, learning a new language, giving up a vice or destructive behavior, or keeping up with daf yomi. These are things that take tremendous willpower and discipline. Not to mention years of dedication. We might think we are fooling ourselves if we are going to keep it up. But can we do it for one day? The lesson of Chanukah is that when you’re trying to do things right, trying to be good, and trying to improve, if you dedicate yourself to one day, Hashem will help you with the second day, and then the third. Before you know it, that thing you thought was impossible may be a reality.