Rabbi Francis Nataf
Chanukah is a fortunate holiday. Ostensibly a minor observance (think Rosh Chodesh or one of the minor fasts), the last hundred and twenty years have brought it to the forefront of Jewish consciousness.
There have been three major factors in this development:
Most familiar to many of us is the commercialization of Christmas among our Christian neighbors, which has put pressure on many sectors of the Jewish community to compete. The only holiday available at somewhat the same time, of course, is Chanukah (this year we’re out of luck).
Yet, even before this, the early Zionist movement focused on nationalist themes that could only be found in the story of Chanukah. Subsequently, Zionism invested the holiday with much greater visibility on the Jewish communal calendar. Picking up on these developments, Lubavitch has made Chanukah one of the focal points of their efforts to reinforce Jewish identity and faith. The highly prominent and ubiquitous Chabad menorahs have added a new dimension to the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle, making it difficult for any but the most assimilated to ignore the existence of the holiday.
We could see the rise of Chanukah in our times as coincidental, due to developments that have little to do with each other. Perhaps. Still, it seems rather curious that Chanukah’s place on the calendar, its major theme, and twentieth century Jewish history have so much in common.
Chanukah always falls on or near the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice (the shortest day in the year, or more to the point, the longest night). Once we pass the solstice, the days slowly and then rapidly get longer. If Chanukah’s place on the solar calendar seems revealing, its place on the Jewish calendar is even more fascinating: There are two high points in the Jewish calendar the first day in Tishrei and the first day in Nissan (see Tractate Rosh haShanah 10b-11a, wherein the fundamental importance of these two dates creates a disagreement among our sages as to which one marked the creation of the world). The midpoint between these highlights is the last day in Kislev, which is coincidentally(?) the midpoint of Chanukah.* While Chanukah’s position on the solar calendar makes it the shortest physical days, the lunar calendar places it on the shortest spiritual days in the biblical calendar, the longest gap between holidays is that between Tishrei and Nissan. Just as we receive the least physical sunlight on the solstice, Chanukah’s distance from the seasons of our spiritual light also makes this time of year the most spiritually dark. And as with the solstice marking a turning point, the 29th of Kislev marks the beginning of the slow return to the greater spiritual light of Nissan.
If Chanukah appears in a dark place on our calendar, it also appears in a dark place in our history. The Hellenization of Judea that led to the Maccabean revolt was a process largely led by the Jews themselves. While Jews had succumbed to the attraction of false foreign beliefs many times previously, Chanukah marks the first time that Jews were prepared to betray their nation. The hellenization of Jerusalem was brought about by Jews who felt that Jewish nationality was somehow inferior to the larger newer culture of the Greeks. Instead of proclaiming the unique message of Jerusalem, Jerusalem became a cheap imitation of Athens and Alexandria. Thus, it was not just Jewish practice that was in question, it was also Jewish peoplehood.
As with the limits on darkness found in the solar and lunar calendars, there is a limit to the spiritual darkness in Jewish history there is some light within the Jewish people that cannot be extinguished. Like a pendulum, when the Jewish people reaches the extreme limit of darkness, darkness must start to recede. It is for this reason as well that the Jewish people is compared to the waxing and waning of the moon. (It is noteworthy that Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday that encompasses both the waxing and the waning of the moon.)
Chanukah itself was epitomized by the miracle of a small light that would not go out. Extreme hellenization could not extinguish the light of the Jewish people. Once that light had been depleted to its lower limits, it had nowhere to go but up. That light was central to the religious and national rebirth that would follow on the heels of the Maccabean revolt.
The long exile, as we know it, has been marked by something that first reared its head during Chanukah the self-imposed notion that the Jewish people no longer have a viable raison d’etre. Be it Christianity’s historical campaign to disenfranchise the Jews of their holy mission or modernity’s trends to dismantle faith altogether, the leaders against the Jewish people have often been Jews themselves. Whether from Pablo Christiani, Benedict Spinoza or Karl Marx, the most significant attacks on Judaism have come from within. These attacks, however, can no more wipe us out than attacks on the sun itself.
In the twentieth century, secularization, assimilation and the Holocaust all brought about a point at which the Jewish people was holding on to its light by a thread. If the second half of that century witnessed a rebirth of the Jewish nation in its land and around the world, we should not wonder that this came on the heels of one of the greatest catastrophes in Jewish history. This is the way G-d created the world and the way He created His people. The fact that the holiday of Chanukah itself has witnessed a rebirth in Modern times may thus be no coincidence.
The regular patterns of nature serve as a model for human behavior. Indeed, much of enlightenment philosophy was geared towards the emulation of the harmony inherent in the natural world. Yet there is an obvious difference between the natural world and the world of man even though man is circumscribed by nature, he is able to fight against it. Similarly, though circumscribed by its nature, the Jewish people are also able to fight against it: In the end, the Maccabean revolt was only a temporary respite from the forces that would eventually sink the Jewish people into the even greater darkness of the long exile. The Jewish people failed to take advantage of the natural upswing of the pendulum represented by their victory over the Greeks. This, after the Hasmonean heirs of the Maccabees led Jewish society away from the noble ideals of the revolt.
With the emergence of the new State of Israel and the strengthening of the Jewish people in its faith and numbers, a growing light is visible. What remains to be seen is whether this will only be a temporary respite; whether we will use our free will to cover over this natural light with a renewal of darkness.
G-d has given us a natural model of night and day, of winter and summer. He has also given the Jewish people a spirit that resembles these natural cycles. Yet, even as He has given us this nature that prevents our complete decline, He has also given us the ultimate choice to increase the natural growth of light or to hinder it.
Perhaps herein is the message of Beit Hillel, who instructed the Jewish people to add lights through the eight days of Chanukah.** As we add light each night of Chanukah, let us think how we can add more light to the Jewish people at this auspicious time in our history let us help the growing light of the modern-day Chanukah survive the winter and bring about the ultimate spring.
* We are speaking about a regular non-leap year.
** One should realize that such a practice neither resembles the actual miracle, where the amount of light stayed the same throughout the days of Chanukah, nor is an obvious response to that miracle, as testified to by the opposition of Beit Shamai and the ultimately optional nature of having more than one light each evening of the holiday.
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Rabbi Francis Nataf
David Cardozo Academy
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