5754 - #11

"Masarta...tmayim b'yad t'horim, He placed the unpure in the hands of the pure." On Chanukah we mark the victory of Judaism over the forces of Hellenism. In the words of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb 2:34, this holiday marks the spiritual preservation of Israel in the galut, the Exile. "Thus the darkened courses of Israel are lit up by this message: 'The spiritual light of Israel will never be dimmed'." More than anything else, we celebrate the victory of Torah over all other philosophies and/or faiths. It is the celebration of our unique way of life and thought emanating from the Divine.

It, therefore, is most bizarre that of all the holidays of the Jewish calendar, the one that has been most influenced by the forces of the galut that surrounds us is Chanukah. Paradoxically, its very placement in December has contributed to Chanukah's wide celebration within the Jewish community. How strange that this holiday that stands for the uniqueness of Torah should benefit from the influence of the external and that, thereby, even the most assimilated Jew marks these days? Even more bewildering, though, is that this chag, which stands for purity in Torah, is associated with this other holiday in the minds of the world around us - "Happy Chanukah, Merry ______". Would we not expect the day that is to protect us from spiritual danger in galut to protect itself from these very influences? Travesties (such as 'Chanukah bushes'), whereby outside influences attempt to affect practice, are not even contemplated in connection with any other Jewish holiday yet it is with this Festival of Lights, which stands for our very apartness in thought, that we have seen these attempts. We wonder if other effects of this timeperiod have crept into Chanukah in the past although possibly in a more subtle form. How is it possible that this holiday that marks the victory of the t'horim is the one most affected by the forces of the tmayim? How is this holiday, so affected by assimilation, to spiritually protect us in this galut?

Among the many reasons presented for the worthiness of our forefathers to be redeemed from Egypt (see Michlul Hama'amarim v'Hapitgamim, "B'zchut arba'ah devarim nigalu..."), three that are referred to frequently are that our forefathers did not change their names, clothing, or language, maintaining a unique Jewish presence in all three. Without minimizing the importance of these z'chutim -in fact, recognizing that they may have some halachic significance (see, for example Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, chapter 178) - we must wonder about the first person who entered this exile in Egypt. Yosef HaTzaddik, Joseph who is perceived to be inherently connected with righteousness and who maintained his allegiance to G-d, spiritually survived in this foreign land with its idolatrous culture yet he did not abide by these three standards. His name was changed. See Bereishit 41:45. His clothes were changed. See Bereishit 41:42. He spoke Egyptian. See Bereishit 42:23 with Rashi thereon. The question is not how did he survive but what is the real lesson?

In T.B. Sotah 36b, we are told that when Potiphar's wife attempted to seduce Yosef, he was ready to succumb until he saw the image of his father presenting him with the challenge of destiny: do you wish to be remembered with the righteous or with the promiscuous? Ultimately, how we define ourselves is depended upon our actions. In presenting ourselves as Jews, we define ourselves as Jews. But from Yosef, there is a further lesson. How we act is dependant on how we wish to define ourselves.

This is the remarkable lesson of Chanukah. It is true that the maintaining of unique Jewish behaviour will give strength to our commitment as Jews. But the real essence of our desire to withstand the forces of galutarises from that which causes us to adopt unique behaviour. It is our commitment to the identity of Jewishness that is the force of Chanukah. How strange that even the most assimilated Jew, the one who simply wants to participate in the revelry of this time of year, who wants to exchange presents and have a tree in his/her home, who wants to experience the festive cheer, is still motivated to do so as a Jew - to declare that it is Chanukah that is being celebrated. Why? Why wave the flag that one is a Jew? Why not simply fully assimilate and celebrate like everyone else? It is the very desire to identify with the destiny of the Jewish people that provides the answer. This is Chanukah's very strength - in spite of all else, the voice that declares that one is a Jew. (See my Crisis in Jewish Identity, Nishma Journal 4 - 7 for a further discussion on the role of emotion and intellect in this matter. In this light, it is not surprising that Chanukah is also associated with Torah study, specifically that of Torah she'b'aal peh.)

Throughout Jewish history we have taken that which is good within the world culture and made it part of our existence. The problem of Hellenism was not that it had no redeeming characteristics. We were open to what it could teach us. Hellenism, though, wished to eradicate our Jewishness, to remove our base. We could not tolerate this for at the core of everything must be our identity as Jews. That is the lesson of Chanukah; and, even in the face of assimilation itself, it is this holiday that paradoxically reminds us that while imitation incites us, we still feel compelled to declare our uniqueness as Jews.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Return to top