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Chanukah: Why Do We Celebrate?
Video 4 of 4
Okay, there's the clue. When else does Moses lead sheep through a desert on his way to the Mountain of God? Sheep belonging to his father. The answer of course, is 'at Revelation'. Except the sheep aren't sheep; the flock this time is the Jewish people. The Jewish people belonging to Moses's Father. Not his father-in-law, his Father in Heaven. And he leads them through the desert until they get to the Mountain of God, until they get to Horeb, and what do they find there? They find something on fire.
Fast forward 16 chapters. Chapter 19, verse 18: v’har Sinai ashan kulo, the mountain was engulfed in smoke, the mountain was ablaze; but not because the mountain was the fuel for the fire, no! Mifnei asher yarad alav Hashem baesh, because God had descended upon it, because there was a transcendent source for the fire. The burning bush gets replayed again, all of this is just practice for the real thing. The real thing is the Revelation, which explains something. It explains why Moses had to be able to see the burning bush, he had to be able to see the 53rd card. Because if you can't open yourself to the possibility of a transcendent source of fire, even if it's right in front of you, you aren't really seeing. There could be a huge Revelation with fireworks - whatever you want - but if you're not open to the possibility of the transcendent God coming into this world, you'll ignore all evidence of it. It's just the 53rd card - you just won't see it.
You'll explain it: "It's probably a volcano. No, no! Something going on at Sinai over there, I think I'll check it out one day. Let the month move on." The one who is going to bring Israel to that meeting place between God and man, that was Moses - this was his test. Can he see fire that doesn't burn?
Moses, as we know, had two great tests. Two surpassing qualities that God was looking for in two events. One: standing up for the underdog. Standing up for someone whose life or livelihood is threatened, or the Jew who is being struck by the Egyptian, the daughters of Yitro when they were being harassed by the shepherds. And when would that trait shine brightly in Moses's stewardship of the Jewish people? At Sinai. When in the wake of the terrible sin of the Golden Calf, Moses was called upon to side with the Jewish people and defend them, so to speak, against the Almighty Himself. As we said before, it's almost as if God was laughing, "Of course! That's why I picked you."
But something else happened at Sinai beside the Golden Calf; and it was Revelation. And here the second surpassing quality of Moses shines brightly - his ability to see, to not allow his mind to deceive his eyes. To see the other-worldly fire for what it really was. Both those tests come to fruition at Sinai. At virtually the same moment of time. It kind of makes you wonder, whether it was two qualities, or really maybe just one? The ability to see. Revelation and the Golden Calf. One: the ability to see God on this world. The other: the ability to see a fellow man.
We're very comfortable in our little world; we don't like seeing things that are outside of that. One thing that is outside of that is the transcendent God. But there are other things that are outside of our little world too - people suffering. People who aren't so much like us. What if I'm an Egyptian prince ensconced in the palace and hear the cries of these slaves outside? "Who are they? They are the other guys!" It's just like noise, just blends into the background. You are walking on your way, there's some Midianite woman getting her rest. It's just like noise, you don't really hear it. Moses was someone who heard what there was to hear; who saw what there was to see; both in his relationships with people and in his relationship to God. It's what made him special, and if we amulet that quality, if we too learn the lesson of the burning bush, of Revelation, of Chanukah - it can make us special too.
What was the great dispute between us and the Greeks? What did it really evolve around?
The Greeks shared many things with the Jews: an appreciation for beauty, an appreciation for art. Beauty and art - seem like very transcendent things. Listen to the words that we use to describe something beautiful: that symphony was 'unreal'! There was something 'magical' in that performance! - To describe someone beautiful: You look 'unbelievable'! What do all these words have in common? They're about transcendent! Beauty leads us to transcendence; it's our bridge to something beyond this world.
The Greeks were very attuned to beauty, we are too. But we’re attuned to things like beauty and fire, in a way that the Greeks aren't. The Greeks celebrated them in and of themselves, we celebrate them as a bridge to the transcendent.
You know, I asked back in our first video, what's the connection between these two seemingly different miracles of Chanukah? The miracle of the lights and the miracle of the war? I think the connecting point is the idea of the unobvious - the notion; a physical thing not being a force in and of itself being a vehicle for a force. The bush wasn't the fuel for the fire, it was a vehicle upon which the fire rests.
What about the military machine of the Maccabees? Was that the force that caused the victory? Or, was it a vehicle upon which the force rests? The Al HaNisim prayer describes the victory as one in which the weak beat the strong. But why did the weak beat the strong? Not because they have better sharpshooters, but because they have an unseen transcendent force that battled with them. The military machine of those few Maccabees is just the earthly vehicle for that force, just as the bush is the earthly vehicle for the fire that doesn't come from Earth, but comes from heaven.
One of the greatest, most mysterious questions that all scientists need to ponder is, why is anything here? Why does anything exist? So, there's basically two possible answers. One possible answer is: it just exists; it always existed - that's just the way it is. Another possible answer is: someone put it here. A being outside of space and time, created space and time and everything inside it. There's a realm beyond our own.
That's the dividing point between the Greeks and the Jews. We say, "Someone created it. There's a reality to transcendence." The Greeks said, "It just is." Aristotle: "The world is eternal." That was the great battle between Maimonides, the Rambam, and Aristotelian thought. Rambam says, "It's not true that the world just is." Aristotle is a very smart guy, but he got that wrong. The world had a beginning, the world was created, a thousand or so years after the Rambam.
In 1978, as the Big Bang Theory was finally beginning to gain some traction, Robert Jastrow, an astronomer-physicist, wrote in his book 'God and the Astronomers', "For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream." He scaled the mountains of ignorance, about to conquer the highest peak, and as he pulls himself over the final rock, he's greeted by a band of theologians who’ve been sitting there for centuries.
The world isn't Eternal, it had a beginning. There was a moment of Creation, a moment when time and space began. Maybe there is something outside of time and space.
This is the great debate between the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks - when confronted with transcendence, when confronted with fire, when confronted with those ethereal things - can't conceive of them, except as products of the physical world. We allow ourselves to see something else - a possibility, a beauty, a fire that could be a bridge to the transcendent world. And that was the miracle of Chanukah. A little jar of oil burning and burning but the oil is not being consumed. It's a hard miracle to see, by it's nature you have to really sit and look at it, to ponder it, and then you understand.
Even the Jews - the Jews looked at it, they didn't spontaneously proclaim a claim. Pondered it, and then said, "Yes! That's what happened.” Lashanah acheret, the next year, kovum, they made these days, days of hallel v’hodah - Days of Thanks and Praise." Thanks and Praise are associated with Chanukah in a way, they are not associated with any other holiday because it's part of the miracle. It's our response to the miracle. When the transcendent comes from another world to meet you here in this world, when God says, "Here I am, in your world," what does that require of us?
It requires of us to see the light for what it is, to not take it for granted, to not mistake it for something else. It requires of us to see the 53rd card, to understand how remarkable it is and how privileged we are to have experienced it. It requires us to say 'thank you' for an awesome experience. It could have just as easily been written off.
Lahodot u’lehallel, to give 'thanks' and to give 'praise', in our willingness to rise to that challenge, to do that, is what makes us defend from the Greeks. And that's why we celebrate this holiday.
Hey, thanks so much for watching this course. I really hope you enjoyed that. I want to let you know we got another course on Chanukah; I want to encourage you to take a look at that one too. In the second course, I take a look at a story that the Gemara tells, that I think seems to be the outlines of a second - almost alternative - Chanukah story. A Chanukah that might have been, but wasn't.
Please check it out, you can find it right here. And please share your feedback with us. You can use the comments right below; we always love hearing from you.
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