Nothing marks the holiday of Chanukkah as much as the flickering flame of the Menorah. Despite the fact that this holiday marks a notable military victory too, it is the miracle of the Menorah that dominates the day. Why? Contrasting this holiday with Purim it seems like they have many similarities while at the same time Chanukkah takes on a much quieter tone. No noise, loud singing, or Megillah reading. Just a candle. Considering the outstanding military victory the Maccabees experienced on Chanukkah one would expect more celebratory rituals boasting the great victories that took place during that holiday.
The great 16thcentury philosopher and Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Loew—the Maharal of Prague—argues that the essence of this holiday can be captured in the words of King Solomon: ”Ki ner mitzvah v’Torah ohr, the mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is the light” (Proverbs 6:23). Any mitzvah we do is likened to a candle and the Torah in its entirety is likened to light. Why a candle? A candle represents the non-tangible connecting to the tangible. The flame exists through its connection to the candle and the candle only has meaning if it is sustaining a flame. Similarly in our own human experience, the spiritual connects to the physical.
This is the exact opposite of what Greek cloture championed. Greek culture was the epitome of physicality; the body was to be worshiped, physical strength idolized, Greek gods represented various aspects of the physical world, and anything different was to be shunned. Alexander the Great charmed the world with the beauty of Greek culture and by its compelling logic. Indeed, there was a lot to be impressed by; the compelling logic and philosophy, the architecture, and the military strength were overwhelming.
Nation by nation, conquest by conquest, peoples abandoned their own cultures and accepted Greek culture as superior. Until a little people in the Judean mountains said no. The Jewish people valued philosophy, progress, and scientific breakthrough. Yet at their core, the Jewish people were the people of the candle. They believed that everything we do in this world—the candle—had to be connected to a higher spiritual purpose—the flame. They believed in God Almighty who chose us and has us and given us the Torah—a set of very physical commandments; commandments that give meaning to every material aspect of our lives.
The Jewish people did not believe in spirituality that comes from isolated ashrams or remote monasteries, they believe spirituality that comes from sanctifying the material world. From the mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah, to circumcision and Shabbat, Jews were committed to creating a heaven on earth. This rebellious people in the Judean mountains believed in the need to attend to our body only as a candle—a candle that enables a meaningful soul.
The Greeks on the other hand, the Midrash teaches, were the epitome of darkness. They were the people of the candle—without the flame. Just the tangible.
“Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish explained the verse(Genesis 1): …and darkness on the face of the depths. “This refers to Greece who darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees, in which they said to them: ‘Write upon the horn of a bull — that you do not have part in the God of Israel…'” (Midrash Bereishith Rabba 2:4)
Greece represented the greatest darkness because despite having the candle, they never discovered how to ignite the flame. They never looked beyond the amazing physical discoveries they made and examined the human spirit, the Godly spark that is in each and every one of us. This is why we don’t do much to celebrate the military victory the Maccabees experienced. After all, the Greeks had some great military victories too. The question then becomes what is it that you do with your victory and power. “And he answered and spoke to me, saying, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel, saying: ‘Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.”(Zechariah 4:6)
As we kindle the lights of the Menorah let us remind ourselves that the body and amazing physical world we have been given, are just a candle. If we don’t ignite them and give them the spiritual meaning we ought to, they will remind extinguished. Let us commit to lighting our candle each and every day, bringing light into this world. “the mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is the light” (Proverbs 6:23). Let us bring the quiet, gentle, and meaningful light into this world. Happy Chanukkah!
This article is dedicated in loving memory of Rabbi Dr. Chaim Schertz of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania whose breadth of knowledge, vast intellectual interests, and never-ending passion to learn were outmatched by his kindness, menschlichkeit, and compassion for all. I was honored to meet Rabbi Schertz on several occasions and was always taken aback by his greatness. Whenever we would speak he would love to discuss matters of Torah and inspired me by showing me the heights the human spirit can achieve. Yehi Zichro Baruch.