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Chanukah: Why Do We Celebrate?
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So, the Jews are enslaved in Egypt for centuries. Then, 10 plagues descend upon our adversaries. Huge plagues unknown to the civilized world. It all combines with the splitting of the red sea. The Egyptian tormentors were destroyed, the Jews go to Freedom - Big miracle, Small Miracle?
That's pretty big miracle.
Let’s look at Purim. The Jews gathered through a 127 provinces face a threat, by Haman, a man on a crusade to destroy every Jew - man, woman and child, on a single day, a holocaust of epic proportions. Through the workings of Mordecai and Esther, the Jews are saved, and Haman is hanged. Big Miracle, or small miracle?
Again, pretty big Miracle. Maybe not as overt as the splitting of the Red Sea, but in terms of it's consequences, pretty big miracle.
And now let's look at Chanukah. So the Jews are trying to light the menorah. The Greeks have defiled all the oil. Only one little jar of oil that's pure. It's enough to last for a single day. It’s not enough time for the Jews to make new oil. The menorah is supposed to be lit continuously. But will they lit the menorah from that little jar of oil enough to last just a day, it didn't last for just a day. It lasted for eight whole days. Is that a big miracle, or a little miracle?
It kind of seems like a little miracle. Don't get me wrong, it's a very nice miracle, but how does that stack up against being saved from an eminent holocaust, the Red Sea, the ten plagues, the birth of the Jewish nation? Okay, so the oil lasted a little longer. I mean, because of that, for centuries, for millennia, Jews will celebrate this? And by the way, you can imagine - somebody just celebrate this on the eighth day. And remember, it doesn't go for eight days, that would be enough. But to celebrate it for centuries, an eight day long holiday? Millions of Jew throughout time had to commemorate this forever? Why is this such a big deal? Is this really a small miracle, or is it a big miracle?
Okay, so that's question number 1 for you. Here's another question I would like you to consider. You know, in most holidays in the Jewish calendar it's pretty clear what it is that we're celebrating. Pesach - we're celebrating the Jews going free from Egypt. Purim - we're celebrating the Jews being saved from holocaust. In Chanukah, what exactly are we celebrating?
Turns out, there actually is really two miracles that we are celebrating. We are celebrating the miracle of oil. But we are also celebrating the miracle of the war. And if you look at the Al HaNisim prayer, which we talk about what it is we're commemorating. We're commemorating the victory of the little over the small, the weak over the strong. We're also commemorating the candles; v’hidliku nerot bechatzrot kadshecha; the Jews came afterwards; they lit candles. So, it's a little confusing. Like, what is it that we're celebrating? Are we celebrating, like, this miracle of the candle; or are we celebrating the miracle of the war? We're celebrating both, apparently. So, how did they live together?
Somebody asked you, "What do you really celebrate on Chanukah?" It's a little strange to have one holiday in celebration of two entirely different things. Or maybe, they aren't entirely different things. Maybe these two are somehow related. It would be kind of satisfying if somehow the victory in the war and the miracle with the candles were both kind of reflections of the same things in some kind of way. There's one unified thing that we are celebrating on Chanukah; the candles is one aspect of it, the war is the other. But what is that unified thing?
If we could somehow isolate the common denominator in both, we might have an insight into what it is.
I think we will get some clues to answer these questions if we take a look at the Gemara, the piece of the Talmud that describes to us the miracle of Chanukah, and what it is that we are commemorating, and how it is that we commemorate it? So, read this with me and I think we may find it puzzling, but the puzzling aspects of this Gemara may provide us with some clues. Let's take a look.
Reading out from masechet Shabbat, daf-chaf-alef amud bet, 21B, Tractate Shabbat. Mai Chanukah, the Gemara says, "What is this Chanukah that we celebrate? Shekashneknesu Yavanim lehechal, and the Greeks came in to the Holy Temple; timu chol hashmanim, they have defiled all of the royals; u’keshegavrah malchot beit hashmonai vanitzchum, and when the Hashmanim prevailed over them; badku velo mitzu ela pach achad shel shemen , they found only one jar of oil; shehayah munach bechosmo shel kohen gadol, and the seal of kohen gadol testified it was still pure, the seal had been unbroken. Velo hayah bo ela lehadlik yom echad , but it was only enough in that jar of oil to light the menorah for one day. Na’aseh bo nes vehadliku mimenu shmonah yamim, a miracle occurred and they were able to light the menorah continuously with this oil for eight days."
And now, here we get to the part that's a little curious. Leshanah acheret kavum va’asom yamim tovim behallel vehodah, the following year, they established that this would be a holiday. They made this into a yom tov, behallel vehodah, with thanks and with praise.
So, I have two questions for you. The first is, why wait until next year? This miracle happened, the one that is recognized, "Why! This great miracle happened. Let's have a holiday?" Why does it go out of it's way to tell us, "The next year, they established this?" That's question number 1.
Question number 2: notice how the Gemara is emphasizing that the day the Chanukah was established was not the days we are holidaying, not just days of celebration; but days of hallel v’hodah, of thanks and of praise? Somehow, that idea of these days are days of thanks and praise is baked into the holiday itself, almost in a way that doesn't occur with any other holiday.
Take Purim for example. If you look at the Al HaNisim prayer, which we insert into Shemona Esreh and into Birkat Hamazon. You won't find this aspect of the day, that the holiday was established for prayers and for thanks. The structure of the Al HaNisim prayers, we say it was this great miracle; then we describe the miracle of the days of Mordecai and Esther - there was a threat of a terrible holocaust and at the end, it was Haman, the one who was hanged on a tree. V’talu oto vaet-banav al haetz, that's the way Al HaNisim ends. That's not the way Al HaNisim when it comes to Chanukah.
After the description of the miracle, after the talk of coming into the temple and relighting the menorah, we don't end with that description of the miracle. The Al HaNisim prayer continues: v’kavu shmonat yemey Chanukah elu lehodot ulehalel leshimcha hagadol, someone says, like, "This is part of the miracle; this is part of the description of the event that we are celebrating; that after this all happened, they established these days of Chanukah; lehodot ulehalel, to praise you." Why is that itself part of the thing that we commemorate? It's like we are commemorating the act of commemorating. That's weird, commemorating that. Commemorating in the miracle - what's going on here?
Okay, those were kind of similar questions I want you to think about. And I want to suggest a key to answering them. The key is: we've seen Chanukah before. It's all happened one time before.
You see, Chanukah is a Rabbinic holiday, it happens in the Rabbinic period long after the Torah is canonized. But if you look carefully in Biblical text itself, you will find a precursor for the events of Chanukah. You will find an event that occurs, that reminds you eerily of the events of Chanukah, of the miracle of the oil. It almost seems like that Biblical event is a kind of Biblical prototype for what will happen centuries later in the times of Chanukah. If we can understand what that Biblical event was, and what its significance was, we might gain an unprecedented insight into the meaning of Chanukah - the event later in time that echoes it.
What was that Biblical event and what did it mean? That - we'll take about in the next video.
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