The Stolen Chanukah!

By: Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik

Chanukah, 2018

As we gear up for Chanukah (Hannukah), with Menorahs, dreidels, presents and latkes, I wonder if we realize that Chanukah was stolen! Hopefully, we will enjoy the Festival of Lights – the candle-lighting, the family time, the delicious foods, and yes, even the Chanukah Gelt (coins.)

But what is Chanukah really all about? Of course, many will say it is about fighting for freedom. Others will talk of the miracles of a few Jews battling and defeating the Greek army, and of the miracle of the oil, in which one day’s worth of oil for the Bais HaMikdash’s (Temple) Menorah, lasted for eight!

Although these reasons are correct there is something else: the purpose of Chanukah and what it really commemorates. This is what was stolen from the Jews. Chanukah was not about physical freedom. In fact, the Jews of Israel that adopted the customs and lifestyle of the Yevonim (Greek Assyrians) had relative freedom and were not persecuted. Chanukah was about fighting for religious freedom. The Maccabees were not macho weight lifters as drawings would depict –rather they were scholars and rabbis!

Throughout history the Jewish People have unfortunately endured many persecutions from before the time of the Purim story through the Holocaust until today. In the vast majority of them it made no difference whether we were secular or religious. It was simple; if we were Jews, we were persecuted. But Chanukah was different. The Greek Assyrians wanted the Jews to adopt their lifestyle, their mode of dress, and their customs. And if the Jews did, they left us alone.

The “problem” for the Greeks was those stubborn Torah and Mitzvah-observant Jews! So, the Greeks banned the observance of Shabbat, the performance of Brit-Milah (circumcision), the celebration of Rosh Chodesh (the new month) and the study of Torah, hoping to break the Jewish people spiritually, not physically. Some of the Jews, succumbed to the temptations of the Greek Hellenist culture, others however, held fast to Jewish religious life and observance. There were many that were even willing to give up their lives to continue observing the Mitzvot (the commandments).

Then, under the leadership of the Maccabees, the observant Jews fought to restore Jewish religious life. By understanding what really took place at that time the appreciation of the miracles of Chanukah is deepened. Physical self-preservation is a natural human response. Therefore, for people to put themselves in physical danger to preserve G-d’s Torah and Mitzvot is quite extraordinary.

Rav Dessler described the Jews who battled against the Greek Assyrians as having “Holy Chutzpah.” And because they transcended human nature (self-preservation) to uphold Yiddishkeit (Judaism), G-d responded by transcending nature. He allowed the few to beat the mighty and the oil to miraculously last eight days.

The Chassidic masters teach us that the eight days of Chanukah also remind us of what the Greek Assyrians tried to destroy. We should remember the eight days of Chanukah correspond to the eight days from birth when we do Brit Milah; there is always a Shabbat in the eight days of Chanukah; and there is always a Rosh Chodesh during Chanukah.

So now is the time! We need to steal Chanukah back! This year, as we celebrate Chanukah, let us remember its deeper significance:

  • As we spin the Dreidel, we should remember that it was used to disguise the study of Torah of children during the rule of the Greeks. We should commit ourselves and our children to greater Torah study.
  • As we eat the Latkes fried in oil, we should remember the miracle of the oil that transpired because of the commitment to fight for the light of Torah. So too we should take a stand for Torah and Mitzvot.
  • When we think of the oil, we should remember that just as oil floats to the top and doesn’t stay mixed, we should be inspired to remain distinct from the society we are in. Not every fad or gadget needs to be ours to “fit in” to American Society. We need to feel and project greater pride in what is unique about us and rise to the top, as the oil teaches.
  • As we count eight days with Shabbat in it, we should count ourselves to greater Shabbos observance.
  • As we spend time with our families and light the menorah let us reflect and ask, are we doing enough to light the flames of Yiddishkeit and Torah learning within our communities, homes, lifestyles and selves? Are we brave enough to put our spiritual existence above our physical one? If we can even just contemplate this question then Chanukah can be stolen back and truly be ours!