Comforting Lights – Chanukah 5778
The Midrash Rabbah in Eicha (2:13) tells us:
חכמה בגוים תאמין תורה בגוים אל תאמין
Wisdom among the non-Jews, believe. Torah among the non-Jews, do not believe.
This became very clear to me while listening to a certain politically Conservative podcast. The program host, a Christian who considered himself well-versed in Judaism, was lauding the virtue of Christmas in comparison to other holidays around this time of year. Starting with Kwanzaa, he discounted the newest holiday because it was started by a well-known communist extremist, and is meant to celebrate Black Power – hardly religious in nature.
I nodded my head in agreement as I listened. He then moved on to the Winter Solstice (also known as midwinter) which is an astronomical phenomenon marking the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. It was celebrated by Pagans in Scandinavian countries. It has now become popular in New-Age movements to celebrate “Mother Nature” along with other Paganistic ideas. Again, I was nodding my head in full agreement.
Then he moved down the list – to Chanukah. The holiday on which we commemorate both the great miracle of the oil, and the extraordinary military victory over a foreign invader. The host, forced to admit that it was obviously much older than Kwanza, and more religiously-themed than the Winter Solstice, began explaining how Chanukah is a “less significant” holiday in the Jewish calendar. This is marked by its non-biblical origin, the fact that it does not have a prohibition of work (איסור מלאכה) like on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and that there is no completely distinct prayer service to commemorate it.
He went on to explain that the tradition of gift-giving was really started by a Reform Rabbi in Cincinnati, in an attempt to mimic the practice of Christmas. Thus, the host concluded that Christmas is far more superior, the birthday of his “savior”, the day of gift giving and merriment.
At this point my blood my was boiling. It disturbed me tremendously to hear this assault on our beloved holiday; to hear his faux triumphalism in his promotion of Christmas over other holidays. Nevermind that Chanukah predates Christmas by hundreds of years, or the paganistic origins of Christmas. Not to mention its unhistorical and arbitrary claim to be the birthdate of Jesus. It bothered me so much to hear such a warped characterization of Chanukah – what we as Frum Jews live each year.
But after further contemplation, hearing this unfounded critique ultimately led me to a much deeper and meaningful appreciation for our respected Chazal and for the נס of Chanukah which we celebrate.
We find in Parshat Beha’alotcha, in reference to the lighting of the Menorah in the Mikdash: “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Speak to Aharon and say to him: When you kindle the lamps, towards the face of the Menorah shall the seven lamps cast light’” (Bamidbar 8:1-2). The task of lighting the Menorah in the Mikdash was entrusted to Aharon HaKohen.
The preceding parsha, Parshat Naso, featured the inaugural offerings of the נשיאים, where each tribe was represented. The juxtaposition of these parshiot raises a question: The portion featuring the Menorah and its directives appeared earlier in the Torah, prior to the parsha of the Nesiim. Thus we would have expected the chapter on preparations for the Menorah to occur earlier as well. Why is it here instead?
The Be’er Basadeh (a commentary on Rashi) tells us that the placement of these parshiot one after the other shows that there must be a direct connection between the lighting of the Menorah and the offerings of the Nesiim. Therefore, Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma: Why was the passage dealing with the Menorah placed next to the passage of the Nesiim? Because Aharon saw the inauguration, and he felt badly, for neither he nor his tribe was represented among them. G-d, seeing Aharon’s sadness tries to comfort him:
“I swear by your life, your portion is greater than theirs, for you kindle and prepare the lamps.”
The Ramban asks a very strong question: Why is Aharon only comforted now – by the Mitzvah of the Menorah? Why wasn’t he comforted with the Ketoret, a service done everyday – morning and night? Why isn’t he comforted by the entire Yom Kippur service – the holiest of the year! Only he was privy to entering the Holy of Holies, something the other tribes were not allowed to do. In light of these questions, the Ramban (quoting Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon) says that the mitzvah of Menorah is not only that of the Menorah in the Mikdash, but it is also referring to the miracle of Chanukah, and the mitzvah of נרות חנוכה, which would last forever. That is Aharon’s everlasting comfort.
Chanukah is not a new invention. It’s manifestation was preplanned thousands of years before. And its performance would continue long after, under any and all circumstances. Whether it would be the Jew kindling flames in the concentration camps under intense fear of being caught, or myself – blessed with the opportunity to light in ירושלים. These candles serve as a comfort to the Jewish People, just as it did for Aharon so many millennia ago.
Our Chazal, in the tradition handed down to us, give us the lense with which we perceive and approach our Holidays. To even begin to compare and contrast Chanukah’s characteristics with the more modern-day, man-made holidays is to cheapen it beyond belief. This holiday, rooted in an idea from Hakadosh Baruch Hu himself, was enacted by Chazal. They help us to truly understand our history and imbue our daily lives with the lessons we have learned. This holiday, far from being less significant, is an opportunity for us to appreciate the legacy which we carry, and the wisdom from whom we have received it. A whole body of tradition that goes all the way back to Har Sinai – something no other holiday or other religion can ever claim.