Hanukkah

The Midrash (included in Yalkut Eliezer) quotes one passage from the verse (Psalms 13:6) יגל לבי” בישועתך” (my heart will exult in Your deliverance) and associates the passage with Media (מדית i.e., the miracle of Purim), and then quotes the next passage of that verse “אשירה לה’ כי גמל עלי” (I will sing to the Lord because He has been good to me) and associates the next passage with Greece (יבן, i.e., the miracle of Hanukkah). [In other words, the verse explains why we do not recite Hallel on Purim, simply rejoicing in our hearts, but we do recite Hallel on Hanukkah, as implied by the words “אשירה לה’” (I will sing to the Lord) in the second passage that is associated with Hanukkah.]

Our master explained that the difference between the miracle of Hanukkah and the miracle of Purim is that on Purim it was clear that the Holy One Blessed Be He provided the cure before the onset of the disease, Vashti having been killed, thereby allowing Esther to enter the house of the king. It was through this turn of events that Haman was killed. “And in the destruction of the wicked there is rejoicing” (Proverbs 11:10), because it led to the salvation of Israel. Public reading of the Megillah is therefore a sufficient celebration of this miracle, because through the recounting of those events, everyone discerns God’s hand miraculously guiding everything, saving them from the sword and keeping them from being conquered by their enemies.

However, concerning the miracle of Hanukkah, it could be insinuated that it was military power that saved them, that these few overcame their numerical disadvantage through sword and spear, throwing themselves against their enemies to ensure their spiritual survival. But in truth, human salvation is futile (Psalms 60:13); the spirit of strength and valor in which they were clothed was Divinely inspired. And without God’s support support, all hope would have been lost. 

This potential for misunderstanding obligates us to thank God and to praise Him audibly on Hanukkah, to counter those who might say that it was our hand that was raised in victory. By reciting Hallel, we thankfully proclaim that our salvation came from God.

This is the meaning of the verse, referring to Media and the miracle of Esther, “my heart will exult in Your salvation.” Because only concerning that famous episode does my heart, on its own, understand that the salvation emanated from God. But concerning the miracle of Greece and Hanukkah, I must sing praises unto the Lord out loud, because a special recitation of thanks and praise to God is necessary to publicize the miracle, because otherwise, it would be possible to err and say that victory over their enemies was gained by their own power and courage.

Alternatively, one could say that concerning the miracle of Media (Purim) it is only “my heart that exults in Your salvation,” because only my heart can rejoice in a salvation that did no more than avoid Israel’s extermination. Such a salvation, however, does not require us to go out singing and chanting, because we, nevertheless, remained the servants of Ahasueros, and were still subject to the scorn and derision of the Gentiles that ruled over us, considering us slaves with whom they could do as they pleased. How then could we recite the Psalms of rejoicing?

But concerning the miracle of Greece (Hanukkah), “I will sing unto the Lord.” To celebrate the salvation of Hanukkah, it is appropriate to sing aloud in public, because the victory over the enemy led to the rule of the Hasmoneans and our gaining freedom. While reading the Megillah suffices to celebrate the miracle of Purim, on Hanukkah, in gratitude for our liberation, we must recite Halllel.

The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) asks “what is Hanukkah?” Rashi understands the question to be asking  “in commemoration of which miracle did they establish it as a holiday?” The Gemara explains that it was established to commemorate the miracle of the cruse of oil that burned for eight days. This is astonishing, for why would God perform a miracle, a violation of the laws of nature, just to allow fulfillment of a commandment? Did God require the light of the Menorah in the Temple? Is it the Almighty that benefits from our righteousness (Job 35:7). The miracles performed for our ancestors in olden days were for their benefit, to save their lives from peril or to sustain them in famine, for example the miracles at the Red Sea and in the desert. What would God have lost had they not performed that commandment? Were not the commandments given only to purify us by performing them, as Hazal say “the Torah was given only to purify mankind.” But if we are unable to perform one of the commandments, we are considered to be under duress, and one under duress is under no obligation to perform the commandment. As the Sages said, one who intended to perform a commandment, but was prevented from doing so, is considered by the Torah to have performed it. If so, why did God overturn the laws of nature to allow an amount of oil sufficient to burn for just one day to burn for eight days?

Our master suggests that the commandment to kindle the Menorah is different from other commandments, as the Sages remarked in the Talmud (Shabbat 22b) about the verse (Leviticus 24:3) “מחוץ לפרחת חעדות באהל מואד יערוך אותו אהרן מערב עד בקר לפני ה’ תמיד” (Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before the LORD regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages). Does He then require the light? For the entire forty years that the Israelites travelled in the wilderness they surely traveled only by His light. Rather, it was a testimony to mankind that the Divine Presence rests in Israel’s midst.

The Maharshah writes concerning that passage that it is impossible to say that the eternal light, like other services performed in the Temple, was a ריח ניחוח (pleasing odor) to God. See the sublime and precious comment that we have written in seder Be-ha’alotkha, whose upshot is that the Menorah was not a commandment that the people performed for the sake of God. On the contrary, God commanded the High Priest who served Him in the Temple to light it as a sign for the people that God would shine His face upon them and would allow His glory to dwell in their midst.

After Abraham our father returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and his forces, God said to him (Genesis 15:1): “אל תירא אברם אני מגן לך שכרך הרבה מאוד” (Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you, your reward is very great). Rashi explains that Abraham was afraid lest he had already received his full reward for all his righteous deeds, so that even if he had, this time, defeated his enemies, perhaps he was unworthy of all the kindnesses that God had performed for him, his victory would not be permanent, so that his enemies would ultimately rule over him. God therefore promised him that his reward would be very great, that it would be everlasting.

Similarly, when the Hasmoneans, empowered by the spirit of God, triumphed over their enemies, they feared that their rule would not long endure, their reward from God having been exhausted after He delivered their enemies miraculously into their hands. God therefore showed them a miracle through the Menorah as a sign that He would seek their peace and well-being for all time. The miraculous burning of the Menorah for eight days announced that God would dwell in their midst and would lift up His countenance unto them for their good. The miraculous kindling of the lamps of the Menorah signified that God would shine His face unto the Hasmoneans and desire their well-being, the light of His countenance containing life, favor and kindness. With reassurance that God would watch over them and protect them from evil, the troubled spirit of the Hasmoneans was calmed. They therefore commemorated the miracle by prescribing the kindling of the lamp of Hanukkah, the lamp having reassured them that God had granted a lasting salvation and that their rule would long endure, as, indeed, it came to pass, the reign of the Hasmoneans lasting for many years.

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