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WHY CHANUKAH?

Friday, 23 December, 2022 - 1:07 pm

A few weeks ago, one of my dear friends was on his way to Israel. When he got to JFK airport, he went through the EL AL security. The security guard asked him regular questions. Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you going to Israel? And then he asked him “Are you Jewish?” He replied yes.

"Are you affiliated with any congregation?” Yes. “Which one?” Chabad. "Which Chabad?" Chabad of Great Neck. "Well," the guard said, "which Jewish holiday did we just celebrate?" My friend answers "Gee, I don’t know." So, the guard says "Well, which Jewish holiday are we going to celebrate soon?" So my friend answered: "Thanksgiving…"

At that point, the guard called his superior and a few other guards and they took my friend to another room where they checked all his bags and clothing from top to bottom.

As Jews, we thank G-d all the time. We celebrate Thanksgiving every day, not just once a year. However, when an EL AL security guard asks you which Jewish holiday is coming up, PLEASE know that the answer is Chanukah!

What was at the core of the conflict between the Jews and the Greeks during the Chanukah time?

The facts of the story are known: This story takes us back 2100 years ago, to the year 164 BCE, some 150 years before the birth of Christianity and two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Israel was then under the rule of the empire of Alexander the Great. A Syrian ruler Antiochus the 5th ascended the throne, and he was determined to impose his values on the Jewish people. He set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple, and systematically desecrated Jerusalem's holy sites. A small group of Jews, led by the elderly priest Matityahu and his sons, rose in revolt. They fought a brilliant campaign, and within three years they had recaptured Jerusalem, removed sacrilegious objects from the Temple, and restored Jewish autonomy. It was, as we say in the Hanukah prayers, a victory for 'the weak against the strong, and the few against the many.' Religious liberty was established, and the Temple was rededicated. Hanukah means "rededication."

But what was at the core of the conflict? This is how we describe it in the prayer on Chanukah:

“For the miracles, for the redemption... for the wonders You have wrought for our ancestors, in those days, in this time. In the days of Matityahu... when the wicked Hellenic regime revolted against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will...”

Why the emphasis on “Your Torah” and “the decrees of your will?” Because this conveys what the essence of the conflict was about. The conflict persists till today. It revolves around the question of what the true essence of Judaism is.

Why did the Maccabees revolt? It was not political independence they sought, nor was taxation--with or without representation--the issue. Matityahu and his sons took up arms because the Syrian Greeks, who ruled the Holy Land, wished to “make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.”

It was not the Torah per se that the Hellenic regime wished to uproot from the people of Israel, but Your Torah. Nor was the Greek against the Jews' practice of the Torah's precepts, the mitzvot, as a moral and ethical code; it was specifically the decrees of Your will that he wished to outlaw.

To the Greeks, the human being was supreme. The body of the athlete, the mind of the philosopher—was the pinnacle of existence. If Man was perfect, he was God. To have suggested that there might be anything more transcendent than man's crowning glory, the intellect, was heresy.

Torah? By all means. The Hellenist respected the Jews' philosophy as part of the great human quest for knowledge. He also recognized the philosophical, psychological, and social value of their “lifestyle.” Laws? The backbone of any civilized society. Testimonials? Also, important. Decrees? Ah, this he cannot accept. He must understand the rationale behind the mitzvah. He can’t accept it simply because it is Divine law.

The essence of Judaism is the conviction that G-d, the author of reason, transcends the universe and even logic. The ultimate value of the Torah is that it is an inner will, His intimate desire, beyond reason. We do the mitzvah to connect and be one with G-d in His intimate essence and purity.

This is the ultimate meaning of Chanukah:

On Chanukah, the historical Hellenist threat was overcome by a handful of Jews who insisted the Torah's decrees are “the decrees of Your will” and Your will only. They further believed that all of Torah is Your Torah: that also the most rudimentary “law” is intrinsically supra-rational, its “rational” husk external to its Divine essence.

The Chanukah lights remind us that there is the Hellenist within that must also be vanquished, a Hellenist coachman who insists that nothing exists beyond his narrow perception of reality.

And that is why we do not care if the light goes out.

Chanukah represents that the objective of the Torah and mitzvot is not only its utilitarian benefits; the light it adds to our hearts, homes, and lives. The mitzvah itself –that is the objective. Kindling the light in and of itself is the purpose. Whether it lights up my home or not, is not of main importance. It is the kindling, not the results, which matters most.

Chanukah is a holiday for children because it is a holiday that represents the “pure oil,” the essential purity and holiness of Judaism.

Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov, & Happy Chanukah,


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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