Toras Chaim - The Living Torah
Rabbi Moshe Yudkowsky
There are two fundamental questions regarding Chanuka. Firstly, the Midrash refers to the light of the menora, the candelabra that stood in the Beis Hamikdash, as "Ohr Torah - the light of Torah", the idea being that the glow of the candles inspired and motivated the Jews to Torah study. The name of Aharon, the first kohein gadol to kindle the menora, is a contraction of "ohr nun - the light of the fifty gates of wisdom" that shone forth from the menora. This presents a problem, for since there already is an aron in the Kodesh Hakadashim that contains the luchos, wouldn't that represent Torah, and encourage us to Torah study? Secondly, this historical period is referred to as "galus Yavan - the Greek exile". Yet, the Greeks did not expel us from Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel; they allowed us to live in our land whilst ordering us to abandon our religion. Why then is their oppression considered an exile?
The answer to both of these questions is one and the same. There are two aspects to Torah. One is the written body of Torah law and Torah knowledge. However, Torah is called, "Toras Chaim - a Living Torah". It is insufficient to know Torah; one must also put his learning into practice. The proponents of the Reform movement expounded, "Be a Jew at home and a non-Jew in the street". They accepted the notion that we are the People of the Book, and we must be knowledgeable of our illustrious heritage, but felt there is no obligation to actually live a Torah lifestyle. However, the Greek-Hellenists introduced us to this tragic idea two thousand years previously. They also taught that we could be proud of our Jewishness while ignoring the Jewish religion. Thus, the Greeks intentionally didn't exile us physically from Israel. Unlike our other enemies who sought to destroy the Jews by exiling them, they tried to destroy us by taking the Judaism out of the Jew. "Stay in your land, keep your Temple, but don't impute any holiness to yourselves. You're a nation like any other, no better and no worse." Eretz Yisrael is called "Artzeinu Hakdosha - our holy Land"; they attempted to defile it and portray it as nothing particularly spiritual. We are termed "am kadosh"; they said we are a common people.
While the aron and luchos symbolise Torah per se, the menora represents the light of Torah embodied in the committed Jew; the Torah brought to life. The aron motivates us to learn Torah, while the menora inspires us to keep a traditional Torah way of life. Therefore, the victory over the Greeks is represented by the menora. When we light the menora, we declare that we are prepared to lead a Torah way of life, not merely to have a Jewish identity. For this reason too, Chanuka is eight days long1. Seven delineates the temporal world as evinced by the seven days of the week, while eight means beyond physical boundaries. On Chanuka we look past our earthly needs and infuse spirituality into our mundane existence.
Chazal say that the three Festivals incorporate the attributes of the three Patriarchs, to which Chassidic sources add that Chanuka corresponds to the trait of Yosef Hatzaddik. Yosef was alone for over two decades in Egypt, and he was faced with terrible moral temptations, yet he constantly recalled his illustrious forebears and remained staunchly Jewish. Chanuka too is the celebration of acting as a Jew in the face of constant bombardment of the secular world. In the tefilas Al Hanisim on Chanuka we recite, "vehidliku neiros bechatzros kadshecha - they kindled the menora in the Courtyard". Why did they light in the Courtyard when the proper place is in the Sanctuary? Perhaps they were indicating the thought that the Ohr Torah shouldn't be relegated just to the shul and study hall, but it should manifest itself in every facet of our life. A Torah Jew conducts himself honourably socially, at work, or wherever he may be, and this was the victory over the Greeks. Thus, the mitzva of Chanuka candles is on "ish ubaiso - on each household". The mitzva isn't upon each individual, but on each family, for the Greeks fought the kedusha of the Jewish home life.
The Torah relates how Yaakov fled with his family from Esav, only to return for some small jugs, and was then attacked by Esav's angel. Sifrei Chassidus write that these jugs were in fact oil for the Chanuka menora. The epic struggle between Yaakov and Esav, it seems, is similar to the conflict of the Jews and the Greeks. Esav was reared in the eminent home of Yitzchak and Rifka; he knew what Torah-true Yiddishkeit and tziddkus was all about. In all probability, he even participated in Torah study. However, when it came to practicing his knowledge, he balked. Rav Aaron Kotler zt"l finds evidence for this from the fact that Esav's head rolled into the Mearas Hamachpeila and was buried there. Esav wasn't wicked in his head, which absorbed much scholarship, so his head could be buried with the Patriarchs. He sinned in his conduct, accordingly his body was denied entrance to the Cave.
The Chafetz Chaim explains the difference between the story of Purim, when Mordechai decreed days of prayer, fasting and repentance upon hearing Haman's decree, and the story of Chanuka where the Maccabbim went to war against the Greeks. Haman's decree was against the Jews - he wanted to kill them; therefore they turned to their Father in Heaven to save them. The Greeks however, didn't attack our physical lives, they attacked our souls; we could live, but not as religious Jews. This is not considered an attack on Jews, it is an attack upon Hashem and His dictates, and thus we had to rise up in respect and defense of His Laws.
We know that two miracles occurred at Chanuka: one, the military victory of a poorly-equipped Jewish army over the mighty Greek legions with their battle-trained elephants, and two, the cup of oil that lasted for eight days. Why then do we only commemorate the miracle of the oil and not the military victory? The answer is because the whole contest between the Jews and Greeks was not physical combat. They didn't seek to kill us, and we had no need to defend ourselves. The fight was over spiritual values as depicted by the menora and the little jug of oil. The Chafetz Chaim continues that Communism is a modern-day Greek-Hellenistic belief. When the Iron Curtain went up around the Jews of Russia, condemning them to a life of atheism, he compared it to the story of Chanuka. The Communists had no designs on our physical lives, it was our souls they were after. In such circumstances, it would not be enough to pray and fast for our brethren in Russia. Rather, we would have to wage war against the evil Russian Empire, and if we did so, said the Chafetz Chaim, we would win! We didn't fight out of fear, however. When we stand up for our beliefs, no matter how intimidating the enemy, we are guaranteed of success. As the Rav of Brisk, Rav Yitzchak Soloveitchik zt"l, once commented, people think they're doing Hashem a favour by keeping the Torah; after all, without frum people, Torah would disappear. The truth however is exactly the opposite. Torah is guaranteed to survive and Torah is the Eitz Chaim - the Tree of life. Just as a drowning man who clings to a piece of driftwood prevails, so too, one who clings to Torah ensures his survival.
Another distinction between Purim and Chanuka is in the spinning toys traditionally used on the festivals. The gragger, (the noisemaker used at the sound of Haman's name), is spun from a handle below, whereas the dreidel, (the four-sided top of Chanuka), is spun from a handle above. This is because on Purim it was our prayers and repentance that made the difference and invoked Hashem's mercy, it was us below who spun and turned events in our favour. On Chanuka however, the pitiful handful of tzaddikim who engaged the Greek troops couldn't accomplish anything, the victory was completely from Hashem, it was He above who spun and turned the course of history to save us.
We find that Purim was established as a day of rejoicing, whereas Chanuka is more of a serious time to dedicate oneself to avodas Hashem. On Purim, Hashem saved us so we rejoice in His salvation, but on Chanuka we took up arms in defence of religion, so every year at this time we apply ourselves anew to Torah and mitzvos. The Bach remarks that the Greeks initially established dominion over Israel only because the Jews slackened in their avodas Hashem. If they had stayed strong there would never have been a galus Yavan altogether. Once they weakened in their observance however, they had to reinvigorate their yiddishkeit, create a spirited and animated Orthodoxy, and this enabled them to conquer the Greeks.
Many sefarim note that the Western mores of today's society also reflect the values of the ancient Greeks. Our culture preaches and encourages people to live a life of pleasure and relaxation, leaving little emphasis on spiritual goals. Religion is frowned upon as being from the Dark Ages. "Enlightenment" is classified as throwing off the shackles of mitzva observance. But the truth is quite the opposite. Chazal2 say, "Choshech zu Yavan - darkness is the Greek way". Those who reject faith are depressed and demoralized, living a dark, primitive existence. Life without higher values and goals has little meaning, while religion brings light, joy and peace.
So in effect we have come full circle. While the Maccabim succeeded in besting the Greeks of yore, their modern counterparts have arisen against us, seeking to influence us away from focusing on religious growth. We must recognize the insidious enemy we face, battle him courageously, and we will surely merit once again Divine salvation and a Chanukas Habayis of the third and final Beis Hamikdash.
1 Maharal, Sefer Ner Mitzva.
2 Bereishis Rabba chap 1.
Back to Chanuka Homepage
Shema Yisrael Torah Network