Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Significance of the Miracle of Chanukkah

First things first. I erred in my previous post, and retracted it quickly, but if you happened upon it in the few minutes it was up, know it was incorrect.

On the the substance of this post. I should preface this with a reminder that I generally dislike homiletics, but in this case I am writing this because in this case I think there is a good chance it is true.

The famous miracle of Chanukkah (there are others) is ... well, why not see it inside, where the Gemara in Shabbat daf 21 cites Megillat Taanit:

מאי חנוכה, דתנו רבנן, בכ"ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון, דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון (מגילת תענית, משנה כ"ג). שנכנסו יוונים להיכל, טימאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום,בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן, שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול, ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד.נעשה בו נס, והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים. לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה".

A good-enough translation, taken from this webpage at OU:
"What is Chanukah? The Rabbis have expounded: Beginning with the 25th of Kislev, eight days of Chanukah are observed, during which no eulogies are delivered, nor is fasting permitted. For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils (used for the Menorah) in the temple, and when the Hasmonean house prevailed and vanquished them, they searched and found only one remaining jar of oil with the Kohen Gadol's seal. Although it contained only enough oil to burn for one day, a miracle occurred, and the oil burned for eight days. A year later they (the Rabbis) designated these days as Yamim Tovim (holidays) on which praise and thanksgiving were to be said."
One famous question is: why the need for undefiled oil? After all, tume`a hutera betzibbur, ritual impurity is permitted in the Temple when the community as a whole is impure. So they could have used the oil, even if it was defiled.

I would suggest the following: What is the significance of the oil, and the miracle of the oil, such that this deserves to be the basis for establishing the chag?

Well, as we say in Mishlei 20:27:
כז נֵר ה, נִשְׁמַת אָדָם; חֹפֵשׂ, כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן. 27 The spirit of man is the lamp of the LORD, searching all the inward parts.
and so we can take the oil as referring to the neshamot of klal Yisrael. The Chashmonaim wished to maintain Jewish practice and beliefs unadulterated by Hellenism, but the Syrian Greeks defiled all the holy oils in the Temple - they defiled Jewish belief and practice by influencing it with Hellenism. Except they found one remaining jar of oil with the Kohen Gadol's seal. Since the seal was still on it, they knew it had not been opened and thus not defiled. What is this jar of pure oil, with the seal of the Kohen Gadol? This is Yochanan Kohen Gadol, his son Mattisyahu, and his sons (and their followers), whose neshamot, oils, had not been defiled by Hellenic influence.

Lighting the menorah in the Temple is keeping true to authentic Judaism and thus using one's oil to serve Hashem.

However, as we know, the Chashmonaim were few, compared with the Syrian Greeks and compared with their Hellenized fellow Jews. They should not have been able to prevail, to win the physical war, or the spiritual war for the soul of Judaism. Their oil was insufficient. It should have been able to burn for only one day. Yet the miracle of Chanukkah is the victory of rabbim beyad me'atim, teme`im beyad tehorim, reshaim beyad tzaddikim, zeidim beyad oskei toratecha. And so it burned eight days, long enough to get a resupply of pure oil, and to ensure the continuity of authentic Jewish practice.

Now, two important caveats:
1) That something lends itself to metaphoric interpretation does not mean that it is not simultaneously historically true. Historical truth and deep metaphorical significance are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
2) That such an interpretation seems to work out does not necessarily mean that it is a correct interpretation. The human mind is a machine that tries to make sense of things, and comes up with all sorts of explanations and rationalizations that seem to make sense. It takes great skill to distinguish between a true explanation and a rationalization. So perhaps this is true, and perhaps it is not. Personally, I think it is true.

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