Ask the rabbi about Chanukah

December 8, 2014 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi  RaymondApple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation.

He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

He explains certain aspects about Chanukah…

SEEING & BELIEVING

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

The Chanukah blessings are followed by “HaNerot Halalu”, a meditation about the lights we kindle. It is both a moment of spirituality and a halachic summary reminding us that the Chanukah lights are to be looked at and not to be used.

There is quite a different rule concerning the Shabbat lights, which are not only there to be seen but to bring illumination to the home. There are other differences between the two types of lights, but that is for another occasion. Today let us focus on the rule that says the Chanukah lights are to be seen.

On a deeper level this law is telling us that we need two gifts in order to see – sight and insight.

The distinction is made in a Midrash about the Binding of Isaac.

Approaching Mount Moriah, Abraham asks his servants, “What do you see?” Their answer, put in colloquial English, is, “What do we see? Another old hill!” He turns to Isaac and asks the same question. Isaac’s answer is, “I see a majestic mountain with clouds entwined about its summit!” To the servants Abraham now says, “Isaac and I will go yonder, but you stay here with the donkey. Donkeys have no spiritual perception and neither do you.”

The servants had sight – but little insight.

I am often reminded of this distinction when the media report on Israel. They see a troublesome little Middle East state: we see Biblical prophecy come true, Divine promises fulfilled, a stage in the unfolding of world redemption.

We see Israel’s defects and deficiencies; we also see visions of what Israel can and will be.

TISHAH B’AV & CHANUKAH

There could hardly be a greater contrast than between Tishah B’Av and Chanukah – sadness and joy, subdued emotions and exuberant rejoicing, darkness and light. Not only is the mood different: so are the prayers. Yet a Tishah B’Av poem unwittingly suggests a new angle on Chanukah.

Divide the word into two and you get “chanu kah” – “they encamped (or ceased fighting) on the 25th”, i.e. 25 Kislev. The letters “k-h”, with the numerical value of 25, can also be read “koh”, “Thus”. Which brings us to Tishah B’Av, when a piyyut offers a play on the word “Echah”, the Hebrew name of Jeremiah’s Book of Lamentations.

The piyyut divides “Echah” into “Ai Choh”, literally, “Where is the ‘thus’?” Many Biblical promises begin with a “Thus” – e.g. “Thus shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15:5). On Tishah B’Av the poet confronts God; the Temple is in ruins, the people are suffering – where are all the promises of blessing and prosperity?

Let’s borrow the “Thus” approach and apply it to Chanukah. A novel play on words could suggest that the purpose of Chanukah is to bring about a further “Thus” – “Thus says the Lord”, which is another common Biblical phrase in the books of the prophets.

The original Chanukah celebrated the return to the Temple on 25 Kislev. May it inspire us to strive further to hear the “Thus says the Lord” that will enable us to merit the rebuilding of the Temple in our days!

THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR

Writing about Chanukah, Morris Joseph said, “It is good for Jewish lads to include warriors of their own race in their galaxy of heroes”. Obviously what he had in mind was Judah and the Maccabean band, with all their subsequent incarnations down the centuries.

However, with all that is said and written about the Maccabean exploits, it seems most strange that there is one person whose courage no-one thinks of, an unsung hero, an unknown warrior.

Who is he? He is a kohen whose name the history books do not record. He is the kohen who, when the enemy was at the gates of the Temple, hell-bent on destroying the sanctuary, hid away a little jar of pure oil. It was his jar of oil with which, when the victory was assured, the Eternal Light was rekindled. It was his jar of oil from which the torch of Jewish freedom and hope was re-lit.

His was an epic deed, as valiant in its way as the military deeds that repulsed the enemy. That kohen was a man of faith. There would come a day, he firmly believed, when the struggle would be over, when the light could be rekindled. He was a man of vision who took the long-term view, who provided for the future when most others thought only of the present. He simply could not imagine that the people of Israel and its faith and heritage would be annihilated.

There is much that his example can teach us. Life brings us all our share of disappointment and defeat. There are times when we feel everything around is black. It is then that we should think of the unsung hero of Chanukah and find the hidden reserves to fight on, to live and persist.

In Jewish life generally we may never have officially admitted what we owe to the unknown priestly hero, but our instinct has recognised his message. In every generation we have needed hidden resources to inspire us to determine that Judaism had to and would survive. When Maimonides’ thirteen principles were formulated with the introductory words, “I believe with perfect faith” – “ani ma’amin” – would anyone have thought that Jews would have needed to go into gas chambers singing, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashi’ach”?

But thanks to the Temple priest, we knew we had no option but to believe – even when belief was most difficult; to hope – even when despair seemed more natural; to hold onto Judaism – even when the temptation was to sell it for a mess of pottage. Unsung kohen, we salute you!

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