Chanukah @ Shemayisrael

A Chanukah Lesson

by HaRav Moshe Meir Weiss

Chanukah! Unbelievably, it's already here. How will we celebrate it? As chalila (God forbid), a Jewish imitation of Xmas, replete with gifts and Jewish "carols," and even window decorations with everything minus a tree?!

Obviously, at this family oriented time of the year we want to present some significant Torah lessons, unique to this festival, to our children. After all the first four letters of the word Chanukah (in Hebrew) spell chinuch, which is THE word for educating our young! It's difficult, though, to mine this holiday's secret. There is no megilla in the scriptures to sink our teeth into. Chanukah is not mentioned even once in the Mishna! Thus many of us are without the tools to impart to our children the proper flavor of this special time of the year.

Well, let's start from the beginning—literally. If one counts 25 words from the start of the Torah, the 25th word (alluding to Chanukah which is the 25th of Kislev) is ohr, the Hebrew word for light, hinting to the fact that on the 25th day there will be a miracle of lights! This might also be a hint to the fact that Chanukah will remain hidden in both the Written and Oral Law just like the first light was hidden by Hashem! Thus we see that the importance of this season is alluded to in the beginning of time!

Now, let's study the name of the month in which Chanukah takes place, Kislev. In Hebrew Kislev is spelled kaf-samech-lamed-vav. If you anagram the letters thus: samech-kaf-lamed-vav, it spells the words sach lo, to look to Him. "Him" refers to Hashem. This I believe is one of the great themes of Chanukah—becoming closer to Hashem through the medium of prayer. The Sefer Hatodah informs us that the mazal of Kislev is the rainbow. We know that the rainbow, a divine sign of Hashem’s mercy to us, was prompted by the service and prayers of Noach. Furthermore, the Hebrew word for rainbow is used as an allusion to prayer (cf. Yaakov’s usage of the phrase "b'charbee u'v'kashtee," which the Targum renders as a reference to prayer). This merely sets the table for us. The Gemara in Shabbos relates that the year following the miracle of Chanukah, the Sages, sensing the kedushah (holiness) still present in the days of Chanukah even a year later, established the celebration of Chanukah, b'hallel u'v'hodaah, with praise and thanksgiving!

This is crucial and is reiterated in the Al hanissim liturgy: "v’kavu shemonas yemei Chanukah eilu l’hodos u'l’halel l'Shimcha hagadol" (they established these eight days to thank and praise Your great name)! We see clearly the whole theme and meaning of this holiday is thankful prayer to Hashem.

Let's try to understand why the sages made prayer the main focus. The heroes of Chanukah were the Chashmonaim who were all Kohanim. As we know, the kohen is dedicated to the service of Hashem in the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple) to which our prayers correspond. Thus the masters of prayer and divine devotion were the messengers of Hashem in causing the miracle! It is therefore only fitting that we use their medium to celebrate their victory!

The Yosef Lekach points out that we do not have a directive to celebrate Chanukah with feasting and drinking unlike Purim, for on Chanukah there were many Jewish casualties! It would not be proper to legislate reveling with food and drink when so many Jews died in battle at the hand of the wicked Antiochus. On the other hand, it is an opportune time to exercise our power of prayer to thank Hashem that our ancestors were spared! The viewing of someone else’s loss is a great incentive to intensify our thanks to Hashem for our good fortune. Of course, the Levush adds, since we were primarily threatened by the Syrian-Greeks in the spiritual arena (unlike on Purim) we celebrate in a spiritual way, with prayer! The Chasam Sofer adds that the first day of Chanukah is the last of the seventy day mourning period for Yaakov (who passed away on the first day of Succoth) and therefore no seudah (celebaratory meal) was established for Chanukah.

Now, let's dig a little deeper. We know that around the time of Chanukah we suffered a tragic spiritual decline. The Hellenists were making inroads "l'hashkeecham torasecha", to cause us to forget our Torah. When one has strayed from religiosity, how can we bring him closer to Hashem? Sometimes it is hard to accomplish this through Torah learning since the "wandering" soul might not immediately warm up to the Torah's delights nor have the stamina to motivate himself to learn the Torah's gifts. The medium of prayer is however eminently accessible and rewarding to him, and serves as an immediate reconnection between him and his Creator! Thus the Chashmonaim used this device to reawaken our people. We, too, can jump start our spiritual batteries with a healthy dose of heartfelt prayer communication on Chanukah!

But the prayer prescription of Chanukah is unique! Unlike all the other festivals, when we feverishly petition Hashem for our needs (i.e., Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for our very lives, Succoth for water, Pesach for the crops, Shavuos for the trees), on Chanukah we put the emphasis on saying "Thank You!"—"l’hodos u'l’hallel"! A time of unselfish expression of gratitude to our creator!

We have a custom to give the children Chanukah gelt. This is an old minhag practiced by saintly sages for hundreds of years. Perhaps it is in the footsteps of Avraham who served his guests and then motivated them to give thanks not to him, but rather to Hashem. We, too, can point out to our children—when they joyfully receive their Chanukah gifts—to give thanks to their Father in Heaven! Indeed the Bnei Yisoschor points out that the numerical value of Kislev in full (kaf-pei, samech-mem-chaf, lamed-mem-daled, vav-vav) is the exact gematria of "Av Harachamim," Merciful Father, a term we use when we beseech Hashem.

Indeed, this is a great legacy to give to our children. If we teach them meaningful prayer we will be gifting them with something they will use three times a day, every day of their lives! And even those who are thoughtful during prayer might overlook the important facet of thanking, not just asking and pleading!

In parshas B’haloscha (the Torah portion of B’haloscha)the pasuk states: "el mul p'nei hamenorah ya'eeru shivas haneiros" (towards the middle of the Menorah will the candles shine). The Baal Haturim states that the pasuk is indicating that the light shines inwardly and not outwardly, because Hashem does not the light of the Menorah. This indeed is a fitting symbolism of prayer. Hashem does not need our prayer, the praise of His own handiwork, which is incumbent upon us (as we say in the Shabbos liturgy, "shekein chovas kol hayetzurim"). Rather it is for us to come closer to Hashem through our prayer and reach that great reason for life known as Yiras Hashem to be always aware of our Creator!!

So together with the latkes and the dreidel, cheese platters and family reunions, let us sharpen our skills at thanking Hashem for our gezunt and our children, the land of peace which we live in etc. and take out the time to take stock of all our gifts which Hashem bestows upon us and warmly praise him for his kindness. This the real fulfillment of l’hodos u'l’hallel and is the essence of the spirit of Chanukah!

Let us conclude with a prayer: May we and our families merit to elevate our spiritual connection with Hashem this Chanukah and may we merit the dedication of the everlasting Temple speedily in our days! A healthy and wonderful Chanukah everyone!

Speaking about thanks, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my good friend Country Yossi for offering me his medium to spread Torah to 20,000 of our brethren on a regular basis. Dear Yossi may you be healthy and go michayil el chayil!

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