In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed many of my former University of Pittsburgh classmates share statuses disregarding Chanukah’s spiritual significance. From their perspective, Chanukah is a holiday whose status has been upgraded solely due to the time when it falls. This perspective couldn’t be further from the truth.
Due to the fact that Chanukah often falls around the same time as Christmas, many Jewish Americans mistakenly believe that Chanukah is a minor holiday. They believe that our menorah displays and our gift exchanges are merely a result of cultural assimilation. This misperception is unsurprising; in comparison to Christmas, Chanukah seems like a consolation prize.
In reality, every Jewish holiday has immense spiritual and physical implications. Our sages teach us that every single year that we celebrate a miracle we are reliving the original experience in spiritual terms. That means that every Passover we are given the power to break through our spiritual limitations; every Shavuot we receive the Torah anew; and every Rosh Hashanah the world is imbued with the same energy that was originally there by the first day of creation (sixth day of creation, for those who would prefer to be more specific). With this idea in mind, we have to ask ourselves a question: What spiritual significance does Chanukah have?
Many of us have grown up hearing that Chanukah is a story about light and illumination. Although the story of oil lasting for eight days is rather miraculous, it is hardly a reason to celebrate an eight-day holiday. Compared to the splitting of the sea of the reeds or the creation of the world, the miracle of Chanukah seems like a minor occurrence in the scope of world history. Prior to understanding the miracle of the menorah, we must understand the story of Chanukah as a whole.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Jews faced brutal opposition (what else is new?) from the Seleucid Greek Empire. In many regards, the Greek Empire admired the Jewish people. The Greeks were very much into academic pursuits and they understood that Jews were among the most intellectual people in the world. They admired the Torah in the sense that it was filled with wisdom and intellect.
Regardless of the Greeks’ admiration for Jewish intellect, they detested the faith of the Jew. They were aghast at how a Jew was able to worship G-d at a level was above intellect. The Greeks didn’t mind if the Jewish people studied Torah, they just wanted to make sure that the Torah had nothing to do with G-dliness. The goal of the Greeks was unlike the goal of most anti-Semites — the Greeks desired to crush the Jews in a spiritual rather than physical way.
In an effort to break Jewish morale, the Greek armies sought to destroy many jars of oil in the Holy Temple. The Greeks understood that oil represents a Jew’s essential connection to G-d. By lighting the menorah, the Jews were able to connect to G-d’s will and desire. The Greeks despised this notion. They despised the idea of a relationship with G-d; they couldn’t understand how the Jews were able to perform commandments that didn’t have any rationale. The Greeks had no issue with mitzvahs that could be explained logically, such as the prohibitions against stealing and killing. But the idea of a mitzvah beyond knowledge and intellect was the antithesis of a Greek society, which to this day is considered the birthplace of true intellect. The Greeks’ sole desire was to erase any connection between mitzvahs and G-d. By doing so, the Greeks would be able to get the Jews to fully conform and assimilate. It is for this reason that the Greeks chose to defile the oil. By restricting the Jews from keeping an “irrational” mitzvah, the Greeks would be able to destroy the Jews’ connection to G-d.
The Greek armies were enormously successful at first, but in the end, a small band of Jews was able to overcome the tyrants. When the Jews re-entered the Temple, they recognized that the Greeks had defiled the majority of oil. Miraculously, the Greeks failed to discover one jar of oil. Although such a find would generally result in celebration, the Jews realized that according to the laws of nature and intellect a jar of oil so small in size would only be able to light the menorah for one day.
After the Jews found the oil, they realized they had no choice but to light the menorah and hope for the best. Thank G-d, the best happened and the oil that was supposed to only last for one day lasted for eight miraculous days.
This miracle can be explained in several ways. Chassidus teaches us that seven is the natural order of the world — there are seven days in the week and we very comfortably relate to things that are of an interval of seven. This is the importance of the miracle lasting for eight days — it was an amount of time beyond the realm of the ordinary. This teaches us that when we relate to G-d and Torah on a level that is above reason and intellect, G-d also relates to us on a level that is above reason and intellect.
December is very difficult for many Jewish families. Many Jews don’t feel like true participants in the holiday season. To make matters worse, the idea of Christmas often feels more exciting and compelling than the idea of Chanukah. But Chanukah is about the essence of being a Jew. It teaches us that we don’t need to assimilate to be successful; even more, it teaches us that when return to our essence we are rewarded on a level that cannot be comprehended rationally.
This Chanukah we have an incredible opportunity to correct a faulty perception. Chanukah is one of the most important Jewish holidays and it is about the essence of Judaism. Rather than shying away from the attention, we should utilize it and teach the world about the power of light over darkness. pjc
Gabriel Kaufman graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in the spring of 2019. He is currently studying at Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies. Many of the concepts elaborated in this piece are brought down from ideas of the 6th and 7th Lubavitcher Rebbeim.