Translated and adapted by Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Believe it or not, Chanukah existed before the beginning of time. In order to understand this, a brief introduction, based on the Nesivos Shalom, is in order. The Gemara (Shabbos 21b) asks: “What is Chanukah?”
It answers this question by quoting a passage in Megillas Ta’anis:
“The Greeks entered the heichal and made all the oil impure. When the Chashmonaim became strong and defeated the Greeks, they searched and could only find one flask of oil with the seal of the kohen gadol. The next year they established this time as days of Hallel and thanks.”
- This Gemara requires explanation. Why? Because it indicates that the essence of the holiday was on account of the miracle of the flask of oil, and not on the miracle of the military victory where the mighty were delivered into the hands of the weak. Why is this so?
- The Maharal’s question in his sefer Ner Mitzvah also needs to be addressed. Just because a mitzvah was miraculously not left neglected, we make an entire holiday of Chanukah with Hallel and thanksgiving for it? Hallel is only said for a miracle where we were saved, not over the fulfillment of a mitzvah!
- We must also understand why the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights is specifically when the sun sets, as opposed to other mitzvos where the mitzvah is primarily in the day.
One can answer all this with the following idea: The main war of the Greeks was in their attempt to destroy us through the fact that they “darkened the eyes of Israel.” They knew that it was not through military victories that they could succeed in ruling over the nation of Israel. Rather, it was through their darkening of our eyes.
As If They Are Dead
Just as a blind person is considered as if he is dead in matters of gashmiyus (physicality) even if he has all of his limbs intact, so, too, in matters of the spiritual. Even though a person is involved in Torah and in avodah, if he is considered among those who are “a nation walking in darkness, not seeing light” (see Yeshayahu 9:1), he is considered as if he is dead.
The purpose of creation is so that people will see the Divine Light of Hashem that shines as a bright light throughout the creation. As we find in the very beginning of creation itself, “And the world was null and void, and darkness was upon the void. And Hashem said, “Let there be light … And Hashem saw the light, that it was good.”
This light was not a physical light; rather, it was a Divine light. With this light, man can see from one end of the universe to the other.
The response to tohu va’vohu is “Let there be light”—that a person can see with this light that the entire world is Hashem’s G-dliness, “ein od milvado,” there is nothing else beside Him. The entire Creation is solely of His Power, as it says (Nechemia 9:6), “V’Atta mechayeh es kulam — and You give life to them all.”
A Unified World
From this perspective, where he sees the power of the Creator throughout the entire world, he does not see a divided world where all things are separate. Rather, everything is one, sustained from a supernal power that sustains everyone and everything. There is thus no place for tohu va’vohu and darkness.
This was the essential battle of the Greeks—they darkened the eyes of Israel. If this Divine light is not present, any nation or people could have dominion over them. Their tactic was thus to darken the eyes of Israel.
This is what the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 2:4) has to say on the pasuk “V’ha’aretz haisa tohu va’vohu.”
- Haisa tohu — this refers to the Babylonian Empire
- Va’vohu — this refers to the Persian Empire
- V’choshech — this refers to the Greek Empire, which darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees.
- Al pnei tehom — this refers to the evil empire (Rome) whose depth of evil cannot be fathomed, just like tehom, the abyss
- V’ruach Elokim merachefes al pnei ha’mayim — this is the spirit of Mashiach.
It further states in the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 44:17) regarding when Hashem revealed himself to Avram in Parashas Lech Lecha (Bereishis 15:12), “And it was when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, a dread, a great darkness, fell upon him.” This great darkness was Yavan, the Greeks, who darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees.
From these statements of Chazal, we see that this was the essential nature of Yavan — to darken the eyes of Israel, that they should know that through that darkening of their eyes they will be able to defeat them.
The light of the menorah is a Divine light that shines forth from the menorah to light up the hearts of Bnei Yisrael when they see it. The Greeks, therefore, abolished the light of the menorah of the Beis HaMikdash and they specifically made all of the oils impure in order to destroy them. It is as the Bach writes (Orach Chaim 670:4) citing the beraissa [see Otzer HaMidrashim Eisenstadt p. 93]:
“That evil one [Antiochus] decreed to abolish the korban tamid and he further said to them: They have one particular mitzvah in their hands; if you abolish it from their hands, then they will already be lost. Which one is it? The lighting of the menorah, as it states, ‘L’ha’alos bah ner tamid — to light in it a constant lamp.’ There is a derashah that the entire time that they will light it, they shall be constant — they shall always endure.
“They then went and made all of the oils impure. When Klal Yisrael returned and did teshuvah, risking their lives for the avodah, then Hashem saved them. This happened through the kohanim, those who served Hashem. And then a miracle happened also with the lamps.”
That is, the matter of the menorah was not simply the observance of a mitzvah; rather it is the very life force of the nation of Israel!
The Light of Continuity
This answers the question of the Maharal as to why Chazal established a day of thanks and Hallel on the miracle of the performance of a mitzvah and not on the actual miracle of the salvation. It is because the miracle pertained to the very essence of the continuity of the nation of Israel — the light. For they have no merit of continuity without that light; the entire time that they kindle the menorah, they will continue to exist and endure.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.