MA'OR YESHIVA HIGH SCHOOL of the Jersey Shore Celebrating 10 Years of Educational Excellence
By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
Contrary to popular belief, Hanukah is not just about parties and donuts. It is, in essence, a time for teshuvah, to leave our state of “darkness,” to recognize where we need to improve, and to make the necessary changes in our lives.
There is something unique about Hanukah that sets it apart from other holidays on the Jewish calendar. Other holidays commemorate an occasion when the Jews faced a crisis, pleaded to Gd for help, and were miraculously rescued. In Egypt our ancestors were enslaved, and in Persia they were condemned to die. In both instances, they prayed, Gd heard their cries, and a miracle occurred. During the time of Hanukah, however, most Jews did not even realize they were in crisis.
Living in Darkness
The Midrash comments that when the second verse of the Torah describes the “darkness” that prevailed before the six days of creation, it alludes to the “darkness” brought about by the Greek Empire. While there have been many nations who persecuted or sought to destroy the Jewish Nation, only the period of Greek persecution is known as “darkness.” The reason is because the Greeks blurred our vision and distorted our perception, to the point where we were submerged in “darkness.” They made us believe that their way of life is desirable and the correct lifestyle. The Greeks championed hedonism, unbridled indulgence, promiscuity and immorality, and they wanted the Jews to accept their beliefs and lifestyle. As human beings are naturally drawn to indulgence in physical pleasures, this was not an especially difficult task. And so the Greeks succeeded in “darkening” the Jews of that time. By luring the Jews to their indulgent lifestyle, the Greeks managed to blind them to the beauty and truth of Torah. The Jews were in the dark, unable to see what was really happening. They were convinced that they were living in a perfectly acceptable way by following the Greeks’ example and embracing their culture and mores. And so whereas in Egypt and Persia the Jews knew they were suffering or in danger, and they pleaded to Gd for help, the Jews living under the Greeks were “in the dark,” totally oblivious to the fact that they were in danger and on the brink of spiritual destruction. It was only the small “jug of pure oil” – the handful of Hashmonaim who remained pure and loyal to Gd – who recognized the danger, prayed, and took arms to overthrow the Greeks and rekindle the magnificent light of faith and spirituality.
Developing this point one step further, the Greeks succeeded in denying the Jews access to their most precious asset – teshuvah. The Egyptians denied Beneh Yisrael their freedom, and in Persia, Haman condemned the Jews to death. But they did not recognize the power of prayer and repentance, how the Jews can earn Gd’s miraculous assistance and salvation by rededicating themselves to His service and pleading for help. The Greeks, however, knew this secret, which nearly made them successful in their campaign of persecution. They convinced the Jews that everything was just fine, there was nothing to pray for, and there was no need for them to change their lifestyle. And this is perhaps the greatest danger of all for a Jew – the feeling that he does not need to improve, that he is doing everything just right. When a person lives with this mindset, he lives in “darkness,” unable to see the truth and find his way back to the proper path of conduct.
The Most Incomprehensible Mitzvah
This aspect of the Greek persecution is alluded to in the Al Hanissim paragraph which we add to our prayers and birkat hamazon text throughout Hanukah. We describe how the Greeks sought “lehashkiham Toratach uleha’aviram mehukeh retzonach– to have them [the Jews] forget the Torah and move away from the statutes of Your will.” The term “hukeh” (“statutes”) generally denotes those Torah laws which defy human logic, as their reason lies well beyond our comprehension. It has thus been suggested that the phrase “hukeh retzonecha” refers to the ultimate “hok,” the mitzvah that is more baffling than any other, namely, the mitzvah of repentance.
If we think about it for a moment, teshuvah really makes no sense. After all, if we betrayed the King who rules over the entire Earth, what right do we have to ask for forgiveness, and that the stain on our record should be wiped clean? If a person is caught speeding and handed a $200 ticket, he can apologize for hours, but no matter how sincere he is, he will still have to pay the fine. Gd, however, if He sees that we are sincere and truly commit ourselves to try to change our conduct, will tear up our “ticket” and not charge us a thing. Does this make any sense? In fact, if a person sins, repents, and repeats his sin, he can still repent and have his repentance accepted. No matter how low one has fallen and how many times he has repeated his misdeed, Gd eagerly awaits the sinner’s teshuvah and will welcome him back. This concept is well beyond our comprehension. It is the ultimate “hok.”
This was the “law” that the Greeks took away from us. They blinded us to teshuvah. They made us believe that we didn’t need it, that we were perfectly fine the way we were, and there was no need for change.
This analysis of the Hanukah story is not simply a matter of historical intrigue. It has a profound impact on how we approach the celebration of this holiday.
The Kedushat Tziyon comments that Hanukah is a particularly auspicious time for having our teshuvahaccepted. Although we generally think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the season of repentance and forgiveness, the truth is that Hanukah, too, is a special time for teshuvah. After all, this is precisely what the Hashmonaim’s revolt and miraculous victory was all about – recognizing the danger of spiritual destruction and working to prevent it. The Hashmonaim’s battle cry was that the Greek lifestyle was not the proper way to live, that there is a higher purpose to life beyond physical gratification and material extravagance. Hanukah was – and still is – all about teshuvah, about recognizing the need for change. Indeed, the gematria(numerical value) of the word “Hanukah” is 89, and if we multiply this figure by 8, corresponding to the eight days of this holiday, we arrive at a total of 712. According to the rule of gematria, we may add 1 (the “kollel”), which brings us to 713 – the gematriaof the Hebrew word “teshuvah.”
Hanukah and Yom Kippur
The scholars of Kabbalah went so far as to associate Hanukah with the period of repentance from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.
Although we commonly speak of “Ten Days of Repentance,” which begin on Rosh Hashanah and end on Yom Kippur, the truth is that, in a certain sense, there are really only eight days of repentance. The two days of Rosh Hashanah are observed as a time of joy and festivity, when we focus not as much on teshuvah as on Gd’s kingship over the world, which we joyously reaffirm as we celebrate the world’s anniversary. Thus, the official “days of repentance” actually begin the day after Rosh Hashanah, and span eight days. The rabbis of Kabbalah taught that the eight days of Hanukah correspond to these eight days of repentance – because the eight days of Hanukah are also days of repentance. Just as the days from after Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are a special time for introspection and teshuvah, the eight days of Hanukah are likewise a unique opportunity for us to undergo a meaningful transformative experience and earn Gd’s forgiveness.
Probing even deeper, the Rashash (Rav Shalom Sherabi, 1720-1777), the renowned Yemenite kabbalist, taught us that the seven days after Rosh Hashanah serve to atone for the sins committed on the seven days of the week throughout the year. Meaning, our prayers and repentance on the Sunday of this week atone for all the misdeeds we committed on Sunday throughout the year; our prayers and repentance on Monday atone for all the wrongful conduct on Mondays, and so on.
This concept gives rise to the obvious question of why we require the eighth day. If the purpose of this period is to atone for the sins committed on each day of the week, then we need only seven days. For what reason do we need the eighth and final day – the day of Yom Kippur?
The answer is that teshuvah occurs in stages. Once a person begins the process of repentance, and then he gradually comes to recognize and sense the gravity of his misdeeds and what it means to betray his Creator, he is ready for the second stage of teshuvah. Now that he realizes the implications of violating Gd’s word, now he must perform a higher level of teshuvah, with even greater remorse and a stronger commitment to improve his conduct henceforth. This intensive teshuvah cannot be experienced without the first, simpler stage of teshuvah. We therefore ask three times each day in the Amidah prayer, “Return us, our Father, to Your Torah…and bring us back before You in complete repentance.” After we pray that Gd help us “return,” we ask for His assistance to help us achieve “complete repentance.” This ultimate level can only be attained after we first achieve the more basic level.
This is the reason for the eight days of repentance. The first seven days lay the groundwork for the intensive teshuvah of Yom Kippur. Once we have gained a clearer perspective on Gd and what our relationship with Him should be, we are ready for “complete repentance” which we seek to achieve through the Yom Kippur experience.
Our Rabbis teach us that this is true of the eight days of Hanukah, as well. The first seven days atone for our sins committed on each of the seven days of the week, but this then leads up to the higher level of teshuvah on the eighth day. The eighth and final day of Hanukah has been viewed as an especially significant occasion for teshuvah, resembling Yom Kippur. The Torah in the Book of Vayikra (16:3) begins its description of the special Yom Kippur service in the Bet Hamikdash with the words, “Bezot yavo Aharon el hakodesh – Aharon shall enter the Sanctuary with the following.” The word “bezot” is an allusion to the eighth day of Hanukah, when we read the final section of Parashat Naso, which begins with the words, “Zot hanukat hamizbeah…” Centuries before the Hanukah story even happened, the Torah already made reference to the eighth day of Hanukah, which would serve as the climax of an eight-day process of repentance, just like Yom Kippur.
This aspect of Hanukah explains the otherwise perplexing concept of “mehadrin” that applies on this holiday. The Gemara establishes different levels of performing the mitzvah of Hanukah candles. The basic obligation requires lighting just a single candle in every home each night of Hanukah. The “mehadrin” level, the higher standard of performing the mitzvah, is to light each night one candle for every member of the household. The third and highest standard, the “mehadrin min hamehadrin” level, is to add a candle incrementally each night, which is, of course, the way all Jews observe this mitzvah.
This feature of the Hanukah candle light seems very strange. Regarding what other mitzvah do we find three official standards of observance? Of course, all mitzvot can be performed on different levels of emotion and attention to halachic detail. But to my knowledge, this is the only mitzvah which was, from the outset, established with distinct levels and standards. What might be the message underlying the concept of “mehadrin” and “mehadrin min hamehadrin” on Hanukah?
The word “mehadrin” stems from the root “h.d.r.,” which means “enhance,” or “beauty,” but in Aramaic it means “return” or “rescind.” Hanukah is the time of “mehadrin” – the time to turn around, to regret our mistakes, and start fresh. It, too, is one of the “High Holidays,” a time when we are to be focusing our attention on self-improvement, change, and spiritual growth.
My intention here is most certainly not to put a damper on anyone’s Hanukah festivities, or to call for an end to Hanukah celebrations with family and friends. Quite to the contrary, Hanukah is a time of great joy and festivity, when we recite Halleland sing praise to Gd. Whereas on Yom Kippur we are required to fast, fasting is forbidden on Hanukah. This is a time not for somber reflection, but rather to exalt in the great opportunity teshuvahaffords us. We celebrate our power to turn spiritual darkness into light, to find that one remaining jug of pure oil which can ignite our souls and sustain the flame of spirituality and devotion to Gd.
Perhaps the most difficult obstacle to teshuvahis the feeling of despair, the presumption that one is too forgone and unworthy of any sort of relationship with Gd. It is easy to fall into this trap and feel incapable of growth and change. And this is precisely what makes Hanukah such a happy, festive occasion – because it celebrates the fact that even after being submerged in spiritual darkness, we are able to shine the light of sanctity and grow.
There is a halachahthat the Hanukah candles should preferably be placed no higher than 10 tefahim(handbreadths) off the ground. Underlying this provision, as the Rabbis teach us, is a profound – and exciting – message: the Shechinah(Divine Presence) descends to even the lowest levels on Hanukah. There is a general rule that the Shechinah cannot descend beneath the height of 10 tefahimabove the ground. On Hanukah, however, this rule is suspended. For eight days a year, the Divine Presence can descend upon all of us, no matter our current level, as long as we are prepared to “light the candles” and make an effort. Hanukah is celebrated during the darkest time of year, symbolizing the fact that we can kindle the light of holiness even amid the thickest spiritual darkness.
So, strange as it may seem, the High Holidays are once again upon us. But these are the High Holidays of joy and opportunity, when we rekindle the heroic faith of the Hashmonaim – the faith in the Jewish People’s ability to drive away the darkness and perform teshuvah. The Hashmonaim believed with all their heart and soul that even after the vast majority of the nation fell prey to the Greeks’ scheme and abandoned Torah life, spiritual recovery was still possible. Hanukah is the time to reinforce our belief in ourselves, in our capacity for change and in our ability to shine. The special joy of Hanukah is the joy of optimism and courage, of knowing that regardless of our past, we can build a glorious, bright future for ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation.