Turning Darkness into Light: The Eternal Miracle of Chanukah

On Chanukah, we commemorate our victory over the Yevonim. What exactly was this victory? It would seem that the answer is simple. There was a war between the Jews and the Greeks and we won. However, the Maharal (Ner Mitzvah) reveals that the Yevonim waged war against both Am Yisroel and the Bais Hamikdosh. Whereas we had one enemy, Yovon perceived two, our nation and the Bais Hamikdosh itself.

A number of gedolim and seforim (see Ze’ev Yitraf 1:90) have pointed out that the baraisa in Maseches Soferim teaches that when the Torah was translated into Greek, the chachomim were forced to change 13 things to avoid offending the prevailing government and its leaders. Concurrently, when the Greeks broke into the Bais Hamikdosh, they made 13 incursions into the Soreg, the surrounding fence of the Har Habayis (Middos, chapter 2).

Since there are no coincidences in the Torah, this number 13 must be significant. In addition, when we triumphed over the enemy at the time of Chanukah, the sages instituted that we bow down 13 times upon leaving the Bais Hamikdosh at that spot. What is the message of this number?

It has been suggested that Rashi gives the answer. In his commentary on Chumash, Rashi (Devorim 33:11) reveals to us the incredible miracle of the victory of the Chashmonaim. Greece had an army numbering hundreds of thousands of armed professional warriors. We were a small band of 13 inexperienced but devoted talmidei chachomim. It is almost incomprehensible how those 13 even dared to go to war. In normal circumstances, it would not even be a battle; it would simply be a slaughter. Yet, the 13 were literally moser nefesh for the honor of Hashem, Klal Yisroel and the Bais Hamikdosh.

This explains a puzzling word that we recite throughout Chanukah in Al Hanissim: “And for the miracles and for the salvation and for the mighty deeds and for the victories and for the wonders and for the consolations and for the battles…” Now, the first six of these gifts from Hashem make sense. However, why would we thank Hashem for the battles themselves? Surely we would rather that there had not been any battles at all.

Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the Ponovezher Rov, answers that we thank Hashem for the very fact that we had the courage and fortitude to engage in the battle at all. The odds were so overwhelming and daunting that virtually any “normal” person would have simply given up. Nevertheless, Hashem gives the leaders of every generation the valor to stand up against evil, no matter the scientific evidence that we will lose. Hashem helps those who are already heroes not to be dismayed so that they can fight the good fight. That is the lesson of al hamilchamos.

Although this is indeed a gift and a lesson for all of Jewish history, there is a special meaning and connection to Chanukah. One of the primary issues separating Am Yisroel from the Greeks was the primacy of logic and empirical facts. Greek culture and philosophy were built upon the premise that all human beings have is the evidence of their senses. The Ramban (Vayikra 16:8) declares clearly, “‘The Greek’ [Aristotle] denied everything except what he experienced with his senses and haughtily thought – he and his wicked disciples – that anything that did not flow from his own logic is untrue.” In other words, the essence of Greek teaching is that nothing exists outside the realm of that which can be discovered empirically through the senses and science, which accepts the truths of those senses. Klal Yisroel, on the other hand, believes in a higher form of knowledge. It is the power of that which is revealed, that which G-d will do for us, which is otherwise impossible in a world limited to human logic and understanding. And so 13 Yiddelech stand up to the entire Greek empire…and win hands down. That is the gratitude for milchamos, which indeed could not have begun to be fought without Divine intervention. That is the significance of the mystical 13, which meant that the thirteen who were moser nefesh over the 13 incursions into the Torah and the Bais Hamikdosh brought about new obeisance to Hashem and His holy abode for all time.

But our triumph goes much deeper than that. First we must look at what appears to be a failure or at least temporary defeat in the war against Yovon. To return to Al Hanissim, we recite: “When the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Yisroel to make them forget Your Torah.” Now, it would seem that even based upon our own sources, they apparently won that skirmish. The Mishnah (Chagigah 16a) relates that during the period of the zugos – the pairs of Tannaim – the first incidence of machlokes – disagreement and discord – appeared in the world of halacha. Rashi, Tosafos and other Rishonim indicate that this was a consequence of the decrees of the Greek government against Torah study. This apparent diminution in limud haTorah resulted in the forgetting of certain halachic conclusions, eventually causing machlokes (see also Temurah 16a, Menachos 99b, and Bereishis Rabbah 65). So it seems that the Greeks win one.

However, my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanukah, Maamar 3), demonstrates that this is a complete misunderstanding of Jewish history. In fact, just as Moshe Rabbeinu received a yasher koach for breaking the Luchos, despite the fact that initially many halachos were forgotten, so too, the so-called forgetting during the Greek exile caused more Torah to blossom. The phenomenon of machlokes not only created divergent opinions, but also brought about the expansion of Torah through the process known as “eilu ve’eilu divrei Elokim chaim – these and those are the words of the living G-d” (Eiruvin 13b). Thus, the darkness of Yovon was turned into the bright light of the Torah through the process of appropriate argumentation, pilpul and seeking the truth of Torah. Loss became gain, defeat was turned into victory. This, too, was something the Greeks could not understand, for it negated their obsession with logic and the human senses. This victory, like the war itself and the miracle of the menorah, was supernatural and out of the range of the Greek mind.

But we must plumb even deeper. There is another change that came to Klal Yisroel that coincided with the beginning of the Greek empire which seems to have been a terrible blow to our nation. In the Medrash known as Seder Olam, which was authored by the Tanna Rav Yossi Ben Chalafta (chapter 30), it is recorded that in the first year that Alexander the Great reigned – the very nascence of the Greek empire – the last of the nevi’im, Malachi, passed away. With that sad event, following upon the deaths of Chagai and Zechariah, Klal Yisroel could no longer seek immediate access to divine guidance. Surely, that was a loss to bemoan and a fate to mourn. Rav Nissim Gaon (introduction to his commentary on the Talmud) and the Rambam (Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh 17:24) seem to allude to this major event, but they do not lament or place it any derogatory context. The reason is apparently that in the new era of Klal Yisroel’s relationship with Hashem, the study of Torah now became the replacement for prophesy.

The Gemara (Shabbos 92a) tells us that the Shechinah only rests upon a chochom – a wise man – and in fact “chochom adif minovi – a Torah scholar is superior to a prophet” (Bava Basra 12a). Thus, what seemed to be a tragedy is actually a blessing in disguise.

Even more importantly, this new era of Torah Shebaal Peh saved Klal Yisroel from the lure of the Greek Lyceum, where the students of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle walked and discussed their philosophies. With the end of prophesy and the advent of the Mishnah and Gemara, Klal Yisroel was not enticed by the Greek discussions, for we had our own, but on an infinitely higher level. We could now use the human mind to explore thoughts of Torah, but it was all based upon the word of G-d, something that the Greeks could not understand or appreciate. However, the exchange of a chochom for a novi allowed us to develop ideas and thoughts that followed divine guidance but utilized the human mind and thought process. That was the best antidote to the dangerous captivation the Hellenized Jews were spreading in Klal Yisroel.

Perhaps this is what Rav Tzadok Hakohein (Pri Tzaddik, Chanukah 3) means when he suggests that Aharon was the connection to Torah Shebaal Peh, since Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu, “Aharon will be your peh (mouth)” (Shemos 4:16). That would certainly explain the words of the Ramchal (Derech Hashem 4:8) that the miracle of Chanukah was brought about by the “power of the kohanim.” It was the force of Torah Shebaal Peh, the Oral Torah of Shimon Hatzadik and the early Tannaim, that helped to render the Greeks without anything with which to entice Am Yisroel (see, also, Yemei Chanukah, Maamar 2, from Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Chevron).

As Rav Tzadok shows, the Aron represented Torah Shebiksav in the Mishkon, while the menorah symbolized Torah Shebaal Peh. This is also alluded to by the phrase in Al Hanissim, “The wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah,” which Rav Cohen understands as those who study Torah Shebaal Peh.

We see that the Yom Tov of Chanukah celebrates not only our triumph over Yovon, but how at each step, Hashem turned something seemingly disastrous into great victory. That is ultimately not only the greatest miracle, but the prize that we carry with us for all eternity. Even when we are down and apparently all is lost, Hashem not only saves us, but turns the darkness into the bright light that blinds our enemies and points on the way to Moshiach and redemption.

A lichtigen Chanukah to all.