By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Chanukah is meant to be a time to feel our freedom and serve as a release from the oppression of our enemies. I’m anticipating having a hard time feeling that way this Chanukah, with the recent events in Israel which, although there’s a temporary lull in the action, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere good any time soon. The threat of a nuclear bomb from that madman (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) is only growing and the Arab Spring has only brought our sworn enemies to power, with Europe and the rest of the world condemning Israel and the Muslim presence, and sentiments growing everywhere. I just feel like we’re completely outnumbered. Can you help me find joy despite this situation?
— Seeking Joy
Dear Seeking Joy,
The truth is, Chanukah is not meant to feel freedom and be a release from oppression. The Chanukah miracle of winning the battle against the Assyrian Greeks was, in fact, only that: the winning of a battle, but not the war. Although they did win back control of the Temple in Jerusalem, the war continued to rage on in other locales, and the Jews remained under Greek oppression.
The message of Chanukah is the message of hope. It teaches us that, despite the oppression, the hatred and subjugation to our enemies, we never lose hope and the hope in our hearts is the redemption.
This message is implicit in how Chanukah is celebrated. The celebration of Chanukah, the lighting of the menorah to commemorate the miracle of the oil, is performed at night. Night, the time of darkness, symbolizes the darker times of Jewish history. The symbolism of lighting the menorah at night is that we can always find light despite the darkness, we can feel hope even in the most difficult times. We can seek and find God even when He is “hiding’ from us.
This is why Chanukah and Purim, the two rabbinical holidays, are celebrated in the winter, unlike the three Torah-based holidays, (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot), which fall in the summer. The Jewish concept of summer is that the days are longer than the nights; the light overtakes the darkness. The three Torah-based holidays celebrate times that God revealed Himself to us openly and clearly. They reflect times of tremendous clarity and illumination, so they take place during the time of light.
Chanukah and Purim took place during times of exile and darkness, when God hid His countenance from us. Chanukah symbolizes that a little light can displace a lot of darkness. God remained completely hidden throughout the entire Purim story; hence, the name of God is absent from the Book of Esther. It necessitated a deep focus to piece together the puzzle of years of Persian exile to realize a tremendous miracle had occurred, behind the scenes, and God had, in fact, not forsaken them.
This is one of the reasons we (ideally) light oil menorahs on Chanukah. The obvious reason is to commemorate that the miracle transpired with oil. The deeper message is that the oil is hidden within the olive. Only when you squeeze the fruit and get out what’s inside do you extract a liquid that sheds light.
During Chanukah, we peer deeply within the miracle of our existence despite all the odds and myriad attempts to destroy us. Our history and the message of Chanukah teach us never to give up hope, both on a national level and in our own personal lives.
In the “al hanissim” prayer recited on Chanukah, praising God for the miracles we witnessed, we mention, “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few … ”
We truly have much to be concerned about the events surrounding Israel and worldwide, and this should constantly be in our prayers. This situation, however, is precisely the message of Chanukah: Not to lose hope, to retain our trust in the almighty and His protection, and to experience tremendous joy deeply within our hearts that no darkness is powerful enough to extinguish the Light of the Jewish people. Am Yisrael Chai.
With wishes to you and all readers for a truly joyous Chanukah, with peace and tranquility upon our brethren in Israel and throughout the world.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.