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Opinion & Comment
The Spirit of Chanukah

by HaRav Tzvi Kushelevsky

The story of Chanukah is well known to all. The Greeks came and defiled the Beis Hamikdosh and all its oils. The Chashmonaim, after liberating the Beis Hamikdosh, could find only one jug of oil fit for lighting. They lit the Menorah with that one jug and miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. The question has been asked: We are taught that if a large proportion of Klal Yisroel is impure, then the service of the Mikdosh can be performed in an impure state, even with impure oil. Why, then, was a miracle necessary? Even if there was no pure oil to be found, the Chashmonaim could have kindled the Menorah with impure oil, since all of Klal Yisroel was impure at that time.

The twenty-fifth of Kislev was already a historic date in Jewish history, even before the Chanukah story took place. The Pesikta and Yalkut Shimoni explain that the Mishkan built by Bnei Yisroel in the desert was completed and ready for "chanukah" (inauguration) on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. However, Moshe Rabbenu waited until the first of Nisan to perform this ceremony. Hashem said at that time: "I will compensate the twenty-fifth of Kislev with the chanukah of the Chashmonaim."

This Midrash inspires a question: The twenty-fifth of Kislev lost the inauguration of the whole Mishkan and received in return only the purification of the altar. Is this fair compensation?

To understand the answer to this question we must first delve deeper into significance of the yom tov of Chanukah.

The Mesillas Yeshorim tells us that there are two mistakes a person can make in the darkness of night: He can fail to see what is in front of him, and he can confuse a pillar with a person and a person with a pillar. Similarly, the Ramchal continues, in the darkness and confusion of this world, a person may fail to discern the pitfalls of the reshoim, or worse, he can confuse bad ways with good and vice versa.

Chazal taught us how to overcome this darkness. Talmidei chachomim, who are filled with the light of Torah, can guide us through the maze of life. The original light from the very First Day of Creation is also a source of guidance for us. When Hashem saw the wicked deeds of the reshoim he hid away this light for the tzadikim at the time that Moshiach comes. This light resembles the light of Torah, of pure truth.

The purpose of the Beis Hamikdosh was to manifest this light in the world. Chazal tell us that after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh, the Greek philosopher Plato found Yirmiyohu Hanovi sitting and crying over the Churban.

"Why does a wise man like you mourn stones?" asked Plato.

Yirmiyohu answered, "Tell me all the philosophical questions that trouble you and I will answer them."

After answering all of Plato's difficulties, Yirmiyohu explained that his wisdom came from these stones. How could he not mourn over their destruction?

The Midrash explains that the windows in the Beis Hamikdosh were narrow on the inside and wide on the outside so that the light of the Menorah would radiate out into the world. Indeed, the gemora calls the Beis Hamikdosh "the light of the world."

The Netziv takes this idea further and contrasts the Aron Hakodesh with the Menorah, the two sources of the light of Torah which embodied the purpose of the Mikdosh. The Aron Hakodesh, he explains, contained the Written Torah, the luchos brought down by Moshe Rabbenu at Sinai. The Menorah, however, represented the Oral Torah, which is man's ability to innovate in issues of halacha through chiddushim and pilpul.

The era of the second Beis Hamikdosh was a time when yeshivos multiplied and the foundations for the Talmud were laid in Klal Yisroel. This was the time of the miracle of the Chanukah, when the power of the Menorah was strengthened.

In this light, the Netziv understands the statement of Chazal that a person who sees olive oil in a dream should expect to see the light of Torah. The Greeks fought to extinguish this light, as we are told in Bereishis Rabbah: "`Darkness' refers to Greece, who darkened the eyes of Yisroel."

The Greeks at the time of Chanukah defiled all the oils of the Mikdosh, effectively snuffing out the light of the Menorah — the source of the light of Torah in the world. They hoped that this would cause Klal Yisroel to drift away from Hashem, as they demanded: "Write on the horn of an ox that you have no connection with the G-d of Yisroel."

The Chashmonaim waged war with mesirus nefesh to restore the purity of the Menorah and the Torah. Through this they merited to purify Hashem's Sanctuary, and to rekindle the light of the Menorah.

To comprehend the above questions, as well as the essence of the light of Chanukah, we must understand the significance of the twenty-fifth of Kislev as a time of light. The first light of the universe was formed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, the First Day of Creation. The Maharal writes that [in the seasons of the year] from the twenty-fifth of Elul light and darkness are equal. But from then on, light slowly fades from the world and the darkness of night takes over. Until the twenty-fifth of Kislev, which is the turning point. From then on, light gradually grows stronger, until the twenty-fifth of Adar, by which point light and darkness have evened out. From Adar, the light continues to increase until it reaches its peak brightness on the twenty-fifth of Tammuz and then immediately begins to fade again until the twenty-fifth of Elul, when the dark begins to dominate once more.

With this we can understand why the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the date when the light begins to rise again, is the most appropriate time for bringing light into the world. This concept can be referred to as "beko'ach," the power for light to increase, and "bepo'al," the actuality of the light.

The Mishkan was composed of two elements: the physical structure and spirit of the Mikdosh. The spiritual element flowed from the sense of love and service expressed by Klal Yisroel as they contributed to its building. This spiritual essence was the beko'ach, the power of the Beis Hamikdosh, and the physical structure was a translation of that love into bepo'al, actuality.

Consequently, explains the Maharal, the Mishkan was finished on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, when the light has the ko'ach to increase. It was however only set up on the first of Nisan when beko'ach meets bepo'al, when the power of the light begins dominating and advancing towards its peak.

We now understand why the Chanukah of the Chashmonaim was fair compensation to the twenty-fifth of Kislev. The Greeks left the physical structure of the second Beis Hamikdosh intact, but the spirit was missing. The Chashmonaim, through their acts of purity and love, restored the spiritual essence. This was no mere purification of the Altar but an inauguration of the light, of the spirit, of the entire Beis Hamikdosh.

On Chanukah, it is customary to recite the thirtieth chapter of Tehillim: "Mizmor shir chanukas habayis leDovid" (A song for the inauguration of the Bayis by Dovid). We know that Shlomo Hamelech built the Beis Hamikdosh. Why then, did Dovid Hamelech sing the song of inauguration?

Based on the above idea, we can understand the gemora in Zevochim that says that Dovid put the kedusha into the Beis Hamikdosh. The kedusha is the spiritual element that dwells within the physical walls, and Dovid inaugurated the spirit of the Beis Hamikdosh. Therefore, his Chanukas Habayis was for the essence of the Bayis. Chanukah is therefore the appropriate time for reciting this chapter of Tehillim.

In light of all this, we can answer the question raised initially regarding why the Chashmonaim did not use impure oil in the Beis Hamikdosh. They could have done so in theory, however the purpose of their battle was to return purity to the Mikdosh. They sought the restoration of the pure light of the Menorah which would radiate the truth of Torah to the world. For this, they could not have used impure oil.

The Ramchal writes that any time in history when a spiritual light illuminates the world, such as a yom tov, at that moment the light of the First Day of Creation comes back. This is especially true of the light of Chanukah. This explains why Chazal established it as a yom tov only a year after the miracle. When they saw that the light of yom tov illuminated the world on the date of Chanukah, they established the holiday.

Every year, the light of the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdosh and its radiance of Torah are revealed in the light of our Chanukah Neiros. This is what the Chashmonaim fought to preserve for us.

Let's not pass up this opportunity to put extra effort into study of Torah, which is the essence and power of these sacred days.

HaRav Tzvi Kushelevsky is rosh yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah Betzion, Jerusalem.


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