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Chanukah: Why Light Candles and Ignore the War?
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Negative Space is when you draw without drawing, when what your draw creates the border for blank space and the blank space is your real picture. The apple becomes the serpent, but is the serpent the negative space. The peel created the outline of the snake, so in some way the snake is there, but he is also not there; he is just made of nothingness.
I want to suggest to you that if you read the Parsha of the festivals, it is what the Torah talks about the festival themselves, but it is the outline created defines a kind of negative space; a space occupied by Chanukah of all things.
The Hebrew word moed often translated as “festival”, doesn’t really mean festival. It means “appointment”; a meeting time with God. These are meetings called by God, and the people are supposed to show up, was to come to the temple and celebrate and encounter as a nation, their Maker.
Today moedim looked very different than they used to. Now we celebrate Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot with these elaborate meals in our homes, we go to Synagogue, eat some herring after kiddush; that’s not what it used to look like. Three times per year, people in Israel, left their homes, and made the long journey to Jerusalem, to the temple, in order to encounter God. The holiday was spent not just getting together with families, but getting together with the entire nation of Israel to get together with God. The Sages talk about miracles that would take place in the temple; God’s presence was pretty tangible. It is like God was showing up three times per year, and he invited us to meet him.
Now a moed typically is associated with some sort of agrarian event, but it’s also associated with some sort of historical event. Typically, the historical events are some sort of miraculous occurrence; God took us out of Egypt and we have the holiday of Passover; some signs and wonders. We have the holiday of Shavuot, traditionally associated with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Again, the big fire and light show around the mountain; signs and wonders. We’ve got Sukkot, commemorating how God took care of millions of people for forty years in the desert. It’s quite a logistics nightmare; again, signs and wonders. And there are agrarian events associated with each of these holidays too. Pesach – “the spring time”, Shavuot – “harvest time”, Sukkot – “the time of gathering in the wheat”.
And now note one thing interesting aspect of all of these moedim, they all happen really, within a six months framework, starting in the middle of the spring to the middle of the fall; it’s the light times of the year, the times of the year, where at least in the northern hemisphere where Israel, where the beit mamikdash were, the daytimes are long and the night times are short. There is no winter moedim, or is there? There is a winter holiday but it’s a negative space. Its possibility, its potential seems implied by the outline of the Biblical moedim, by the Negative Space. It comes at a time of the year when night times are longer than day times. It’s a holiday that celebrates no agrarian event because it’s in the winter when nature is entirely still. And it’s not a holiday mandated by God as a meeting time; it’s a holiday started by people who are reaching out to God. And the question is, “Would God reach back?”
Okay, but now you’re saying ”Well, it’s kind of interesting, it may be a little bit suggestive, but is there really kind of a Negative Space phenomenon here, or maybe is it just our over active imagination?” Well could be.
But now, let’s play a little game. Let’s pretend, “What if Chanukah was a Biblically mandated event, where would you expect to find it in these list of moedim?” Well, they proceed chronologically right? Starting from the spring, first you’ve got Pesach, first thing that appears here in Leviticus and then Shavuot, forty-nine days later, and then of course you have Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, your next calendar event is going to be Sukkot, and the next holiday down the pike in the Jewish calendar after Sukkot is Chanukah. Sukkot is the last holiday so the list is over, right? But what’s the next thing you find after Sukkot? Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor, “And God spoke to Moses saying, tzav et-benei Yisrael veyikchu eleicha shemen zayit zach, “command the children of Israel and tell them to take pure olive oil”, katit lama’or, “for lights”, leha’a lot ner tamid, “to make sure that there is a candle, a light, that burns ever night, one night after another night.” Al hamenorah hatehorah ya’aroch et-hanerot, “On the pure menorah you shall set up these lights”, lifnei Hashem tamid, “before god always.” Kind of spooky isn’t it? I mean it really seems reminiscent, really like fore shadow of Chanukah. In the peshat, in the simple meaning of the text, it’s not actually talking about Chanukah here.
Yes, Chanukah is all about lighting the lights of the menorah, it’s all about using the pure olive oil, all of those elements are true, but what we are talking about here is the biblical command to light the menorah every night and the candles should burn throughout the night, every night in the temple. But it’s quite suggestive wouldn’t you say, of the holiday that’s all about the lighting of lights, the pure olive oil; the light of menorah. Right when the Parsha of holidays is over, it’s not so over. There, sneaking into your field of vision, is the menorah and the light. It seems as if the Torah is hinting about something in the future. That in fact is how many commentators understands this. The ball in turn sees in this Parsha, a kind of remez, a hint, of holiday to come. He sees it, and the word for light, the word Ner for candle, or oil lamp, appears twice in this little Parsha about the menorah. The first time it appears, leha’a lot ner tamid, it’s singular. The second time it appears, ya’aroch et-hanerot – it’s plural, lights going from singular to plural. What does that remind you of? That’s Chanukah right? According to Beit Hillel, we start with one, but then we go to many. By the end of Chanukah, we have eight lights. Ner becomes nerot.
I would like to suggest to you here that it’s not just that Chanukah comes during the year in the winter cycle, during the time that night outweighs daylight. It’s not just about the 24 hour cycle, it’s that much larger cycles of history. There is light and there is darkness there too, times when daylight outweighs light, and times when night outweighs day. The events of the moedim, the miracles of the moedim, happened in a time when light did outweigh darkness, at least in terms of God’s presence in the world. These were times when miracle happened. They were times when prophets walked the earth, they were times for direct encounter between God and the entire people at a central place – the great temple in Jerusalem. These were times when in one way or another, humanity was focused on spirituality. Their focus indeed was spirituality more than it was the development of the mundane world, was before the scientific revolution, before the renaissance. The great enemy of the Torah in those days was not atheism, but avod hazarah. All cultures worshipped, the only question is, “What did you worship?” Do you have a corrupt approach to spirituality or an honest approach; but one way or another you have an approach to spirituality. You didn’t ignore the world of the spirit in those days, it was right there in front of you.
But that world gradually transformed into a world more focused on the human experience, then on human kind experience with the Transcendent. It happened around the closing of the biblical era; an era where prophecy came to a close, where open miracles ceased to exists, a time when man seemed to be on their own. You had the rise of Greek culture and Humanism, and the focus on the human experience, the beginning of science as we know it, the use of observation to learn about the world, to categorize it, to explore it, the quest to find the best mode of governance for mankind, Plato’s Republic, focus on objectively telling the story of humanity, Herodotus. Later on the Renaissance would take this focus on the human being and his immediate surrounding still further; and scientific revolution would take it further still.
With all the new era ushers in more advances in mankind’s ability to control his own environment, and to better dominate his world; it was also a time in which mankind came to feel more alone. It was a time when in Jewish tradition, it was known as a time of hester panim, when God hides his face so to speak. It’s less obviously present in the world. The Torah speaks of moedim, encounters, meetings between man and God. When you go out to meet people, you meet them in the day; night time is a time when you feel all alone even when you are in the presence of others, because darkness makes you feel like you are not sure if they are there.
So right after our Parsha of moedim and the negative space right out of the border of the Parsha of moedim, we seem to hear about a phantom moed – a time for lighting candles in darkness. In the winter months of the year, when there is no moed, and winter times of history when darkness abounds and God is not so easily seeing, a moed where God does not command us to encounter him like all the others, but where we seek to encounter him and we are not sure if it works. That in a nutshell, is what Chanukah is all about. There is no books for Chanukah! The books that were canonized in the Torah we have confidence that these were scared books, we didn’t have confidence that the book of Maccabees was a sacred book; people put it together, God’s influence was just questionable at best, and it wasn’t just God’s influence on books we couldn’t figure out, we couldn’t figure out God’s influence on the great events of history.
Here it was, the beginning of the dark times, deep into the second temple era, there hadn’t been prophets for centuries, there hadn’t been miracles for centuries. Our backs were to the wall, it was a confusing time, a dark time, a time when we were oppressed from without by Antiochus and within the Hellenizing elements that sought to destroy Judaism from within. At that time, a band of people came together, the Maccabees, to oppose all of this; and strangely they began to win. They beat armies many times their size, but in the wake of it all, no one could be sure, “Was this God? Or maybe it was just us?” It was a dark time in history, and in the dark, you are never sure whether you are alone, even when someone is right there next to you.
The war was won, but even as the Maccabees swept in to purify the temple, the nagging uncertainty persisted; “did we do this all by ourselves, or was God a partner in all of this”? Can we as men proclaim our own holiday here? You know when God proclaims a holiday, He sets up the meeting. Of course he is going to show up, God’s presence is taken for granted, but in the Parsha that comes right after the moedim, the light and the candles, it’s the humans that light the candles unilaterally. We light candles; where is God? We don’t know where God is, and that’s Chanukah; they didn’t know where God was- maybe we won the war, but maybe we are still all alone.
We weren’t invited by God to go to the temple to meet with him as it were, but then there came a miracle, an unnecessary miracle; we lit the menorah with just a bit of oil, but God made sure the light didn’t go out; it burned and it burned and it burned. The miracle itself was trivial, but the message itself wasn’t trivial at all. At the end of it all, after the war, and after the purification of the temple, when it was all done and it became time to bring the temple in operation again, it became time to light the menorah, something happened to show us that it wasn’t just us lighting the menorah alone; God was meeting us, He was our partner. It was subtle, you could miss it if you weren’t looking, but it was God’s way of winking at us, as if to say, “You thought you were all alone in the dark? Come on. I was right here with you the whole time.” And so we too light the lights ever year to commemorate this, this is our way of winking back, “We know you were here. Thanks for being a part of it.”
Are you in the darkness? Yes, you are in the time of history that is very dark. Will there be more darkness? Yes. But I can promise you that even in the darkness, you are not alone.
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