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Thursday, 29 December, 2016 - 2:00 pm

 The festival of Chanukah commemorates the extraordinary victory of the Maccabees, a relatively small and dedicated force of fighters, against one of the great imperial powers of classical antiquity, the Seleucid branch of the Alexandrian empire.

The story takes us back 2,100 years to 164 BCE, some 150 years before the birth of Christianity and 200 years before the destruction of the Second Temple, when Israel was under the rule of Alexander the Great. Then, Syrian ruler Antiochus the 4th Epiphanes ascended the throne and imposed his values on the Jews. He forbade the practice of Judaism, put statues in the Temple, and desecrated Jerusalem's holy sites. Jews caught practicing Judaism were tortured to death. This was tyranny on a grand scale. Sadly, his endeavor was helped by two Jewish high priests, Jason and Menelaus, who helped him ban the Jewish lifestyle and turn the Temple into an interdenominational house of worship on Greek lines.

To put it into historical perspective, had Antiochus succeeded, Judaism would have died. Its daughter religions—Christianity and Islam—would have, of course, never come to be.

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 recaptured Jerusalem, removed sacrilegious objects from the Temple, and restored Jewish autonomy. It was, as we say in the Chanukah prayers, a victory for "the weak against the strong, and the few against the many." Religious liberty was established and the Temple was rededicated. Chanukah means "rededication."

This was a remarkable event and an extraordinary triumph. We, the Jewish people, are here today only because of the courage and vision of this small group of determined Jews who would not allow their G-d and their Torah to be reduced to the dustbins of history by the Syrian-Greek tyrant.

Yet astonishingly, the Talmud, the classical text of Jewish law and literature, gives us a very different perspective on the Chanukah festival.

“What is Chanukah?” asks the Talmud. The answer given is this: “When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all its oil. Then, when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over them, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the High Priest—enough to light the menorah (candelabra) for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving for G-d.”

So, according to the Talmud, the festival of Chanukah is less about the military victory of a small band of Jews against one of the mightiest armies on earth, and more about the miracle of the oil. The Talmud only references the military victory (“when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious”), and focuses on the story of the oil, as if this were the only significant event commemorated on Chanukah.

This is strange. The miracle of the oil, it would seem, was of minor significance relative to the military victory. If the Jews would have been defeated by the Greeks, there would be no Jews today; if the oil would have not burned for eight days, so what? The menorah would have not been kindled. Would the latkes taste any worse?

Yet, the sages chose the candles to commemorate, because they represent the true victory of Judaism over the Syrian-Greek regime.

The Kabbalah teaches that each of our holidays embodies one of the ten faculties and characteristics of the human soul. Chanukah embodies attribute number eight—the quality of Hod.  What is Hod? The word has a paradoxical interpretation: Hod means gratitude. But it also has another meaning: Glory, grandeur, splendor.

There are two very different ways to understand glory. What does it mean to live a glorious life? Chanukah was a time in our history when we battled the Greek Empire, both physically and philosophically. The battle that took place was over the true expression of Hod—glory.

The Greeks were a people who worshipped glory—they cherished splendor, grandeur and beauty. They cherished the glory of the human body and the glory of human achievement. Yet, they saw glory as the result of achieving a particular feat—cultivating a perfectly symmetrical body or playing a particular sport very well. For the Greeks, glory was received as a result of what one accomplished. There is a certain amount of glory that can go around and it is reserved for he who performs best. The entire concept of the Greek Olympics was based on this concept. We compete, and the one who wins, shines.

The Torah sees glory in a different light: My glory is innate to my soul. My very being, my core, is a radiant spark of the whole, a fragment of the Divine, a reflection of the ultimate source of all reality. My glory is not a result of my accomplishments, but instead, my actions are my opportunity to express G-d’s glory through my unique self. Light doesn’t shine upon me because of my accomplishments; my accomplishments are a result my unique expression of G-d’s light into the world. I am shining and expressing the light which is already in me, my individual life, personality and actions.

Therefore, from the Torah’s perspective, you can never take my light from me, nor can I take your glory from you. Not only am I not threatened by your success, but on the contrary, I need and crave for you to be fully successful.

A follower of Rabbi Meir of Premishlan once complained to him about a man who had started a competing business on the other side of the city. “He is depriving me of my livelihood!” cried the man. “You must tell him to close his shop!”

Rabbi Meir responded, “Have you ever noticed how a horse behaves when he is led to a water hole? He begins to paw angrily at the water with his hooves; only when the water is well-muddied does he begin to drink. Why does the horse do this?

“Because the horse sees his reflection in the water and thinks that another horse has come to drink his water. So he kicks and paws until he has ‘chased away’ the other horse. What the horse doesn’t understand,” concluded Rabbi Meir, “are three truths”:

"1) In reality, there is no other horse trying to usurp him. What he perceives as his enemy is merely a reflection of himself.

"2) By kicking the water, all he is doing is making his own water dirtier and murkier.

"3) G-d created enough water for all the horses.”

The sages chose the flame as the eternal commemoration of the Chanukah victory because the flame's lighting captures the true meaning of glory and the deeper story of the Jewish victory over Greece. When we use the flame of a candle to light another candle, the first is not diminished. Instead, there is simply more light. My flame does not get diminished by yours; on the contrary, your flame adds so much to my flame. When you burn brightly and glow with your full majesty, it only enhances my glow. I want your candle to shine, because your candle can never reduce my light.

Did you grow up in a home, and are you raising your children in a home where siblings can truly celebrate each other's successes? Or do they each feel that the light will only shine on the one at the top? If we do not learn the true meaning of glory, gratitude becomes difficult. It becomes hard for me to openly acknowledge the greatness of another, because that represents a diminishment of myself. If I do not appreciate my own true value, then I feel that acknowledging and appreciating your greatness takes away from mine.

A Russian peasant once said to his friend: "You know, Ivan, I have been thinking, it is really very stupid for us to pay taxes to the Czar."

"Why is that, Igor?" asked Ivan.

"Because do you know where all our rubles come from? Well, I'll tell you where from. The Czar himself has them minted in his palace, that's where."  "So what?" asked Ivan.

"So what? So why doesn't he just keep all the rubles he needs in the first place, and we'll keep ours!"

"Ah, Igor, you are very stupid" replied Ivan "That's the whole point! The Czar doesn't want his rubles. He wants your rubles!"

That is the Jewish version of glory. I know that my entire light is His. But He wants me to express it in my own way, through my medium. He wants my ruble.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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