Hanukah, as we all know, celebrates two miracles.
First, it celebrates the supernatural military victory of the small, untrained and barely-armed Hashmonaim over the powerful Greek army. In response to the Greeks’ harsh decrees banning religious observance, and their defilement of the Bet Hamikdash – even bringing idols into the sanctuary – the Hashmonaim waged a heroic war, and miraculously succeeded in ousting the Greek occupiers from the Land of Israel.
Secondly, of course, we celebrate on Hanukah the miracle of the oil. Upon liberating Jerusalem from the hands of the Greeks, the Hashmonaim cleansed the Bet Hamikdash, and rededicated it so they could again perform the service. When they wanted to light the lamps of the menorah, they discovered that all the oil ha been defiled by the Greeks, except for a single small jug, which contained only enough oil for one night of kindling. A miracle occurred, and this small amount of oil sustained the lamps for eight nights, until new oil could be produced and shipped to Jerusalem.
It appears, at first glance, that these two miracles are celebrated in two different ways. The nightly candle lighting, of course, commemorates the miracle of the oil, and the festive hallel prayer, which we recite each day of Hanukah, gives praise to Gd for enabling the Hashmonaim to triumph over the Greeks so our nation could again study and observe the Torah without fear.
There may, however, be a different way of viewing these two miracles and the way we commemorate them.
The Mystery of the First Night
The Bet Yosef (Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulhan Aruch, 1488-1575) poses what is undoubtedly the most famous question asked about the Hanukah celebration. He asks, since the lone flask of pure oil discovered by the Hashmonaim contained enough oil for one night, why do we celebrate eight nights, and not seven? After all, there was nothing miraculous about the menorah’s kindling on the first night; the miracle occurred on the second night, after the oil should have been depleted, and the miracle was then repeated on the next six nights. Seemingly, then, we should light candles in commemoration of this miracle for only seven nights, not eight. Why, then, did the sages enact an eight-day celebration?
The Bet Yosef offers three answers to this question, all of which have been subject to a great deal of analysis and scrutiny by later scholars, many of whom suggested other explanations.
Of interest to us in this context is the theory advanced by the Peri Hadash (Rav Hizkiya Da Silva, 1659-1698), who explained, surprisingly enough, that the candle lighting on the first night of Hanukah does not, in fact, commemorate the miracle of the oil. Rather, it celebrates the Hashmonaim’s victory which preceded, and facilitated, the rededication of the Bet Hamikdash and the miraculous kindling of the menorah. According to the Peri Hadash, then, the kindling of Hanukah lights on the first night celebrates one miracle, and the kindling on the other nights celebrates a second miracle.
To illustrate just how revolutionary a theory this is, let us imagine the home of the Peri Hadash before candle lighting on the first two nights of Hanukah. On the first night, as the family prepares for lighting, the rabbi told his family that they were lighting to celebrate the Hashmonaim’s miraculous victory over the powerful Greeks. On the second night, the Peri Hadash turned to the family and said, “Tonight we’re lighting for a different reason – to celebrate the miracle of the oil, that should have sustained the lamps of the menorah for just one night, but they burned for eight nights!”
We must wonder, according to this explanation, why would the sages want us to commemorate the military victory by lighting candles? Since when is candle lighting the appropriate manner of celebrating a triumphant war?
The Rebbe, the General, and the Four Species
It is told that following the liberation of the Jews from the Nazi concentration camps, General Dwight D. Eisenhower – who, of course, later became President of the United States – visited a displaced persons camp. A ceremony was held in honor of the general, and the one chosen to speak as representative of the thousands of Jewish survivors was the renowned Klausenberger Rebbe (Rav Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam, 1905-1994). After the Rebbe’s impassioned speech, General Eisenhower approached him and asked if he had any request, if there was something he needed.
The Rebbe asked him that he provide sets of arba’at haminim – the four species – for the Jewish inmates. Sukkot was approaching, and the Rebbe wanted to be able to observe this precious mitzvah.
General Eisenhower was very moved. Of all the things that the Rebbe could have requested at that time, after his entire family had been murdered, and he had no home and no possessions, he asked specifically for a set of four species. The general ordered that a special plane be sent to bring sets of four species for the Jews in the camp.
For the Klausenberger Rebbe, the highest priority was mitzvot. Now that he was finally extricated from the unspeakable torment of Auschwitz, he did not ask to relax, to be served a nice meal, to be given fine clothing, or to spend time in a luxury hotel. He viewed his newfound freedom as an opportunity to once again serve Hashem as he wished. This is what mattered.
An ancient example of the Rebbe’s inspiring request is the Hashmonaim’s rededication of the Bet Hamikdash.
After successfully waging a fierce, difficult battle against a large, formidable army, the Hashmonaim proceeded immediately to the Bet Hamikdash and began the process of cleansing it. Their highest priority wasn’t sleep, food, rest, or other comforts. Their first order of business was the Bet Hamikdash, the service of Hashem, for which they had waged this war.
This perhaps explains the otherwise perplexing text of the Al Hanissim prayer which we add to the shemonah esreh and birkat hamazon during Hanukah. In this prayer, we tell of the Hashmonaim’s victory, and of how they then went to the Bet Hamikdash to purify it, “and they lit candles in Your sacred courtyards.” Astonishingly, this text omits entirely the miracle of the oil, stating simply that the Hashmonaim kindled the menorah. We must wonder, how could we mention the kindling of the menorah after the Hashmonaim’s victory without saying anything about the extraordinary miracle that occurred?
The answer is that the sages who authored this text emphasize that the Hashmonaim’s victory was precisely for the purpose of kindling the menorah. This is what the struggle was all about – the ability to serve Gd. After rising against the Greeks to fight for their religious freedom, the Hashmonaim proceeded directly to the Bet Hamikdash to rededicate it and serve Hashem.
We can now easily understand the Peri Hadash’s theory, that the candle lighting on the first night of Hanukah celebrates the military victory over the Greeks. What he meant, perhaps, is that on this night, we celebrate the fact that this was the first thing the Hashmonaim did after winning the war – light candles in the Mikdash. We light candles on the first night to remember that immediately after defeating the enemy, the Hashmonaim did not have a banquet or hold a tickertape parade. They went straight to the Bet Hamikdash and made it functional again, because this is what they were fighting for – for the opportunity to serve Hashem.
This might also explain the concept of “mehadrin” that applies to the Hanukah candle lighting. The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) teaches that the basic requirement is to light a single candle each night, but the mehadrin – those who observe a higher level – light one for each member of the household, and the mehadrin min hamehadrin – those who observe an exceptionally high standard – light an additional candle each night. Of course, the accepted practice is to fulfill the mitzvah at the level of the mehadrin min hamehadrin.
Rashi explains the word “mehadrin” as a reference to those who pursue mitzvot, who always seek more opportunities. On Hanukah, when we commemorate the Hashmonaim’s heroic struggle, we observe the level of “mehadrin min hamehadrin” – of those who, like the Hashmonaim, make mitzvot their very highest priority. We are not satisfied with fulfilling our minimal obligation. Instead, we reach higher, striving for excellence. Following the example of the Hashmonaim, we do not want to be just “ok.” We recognize the singular value and importance of mitzvot, and so we extend ourselves to perform them on the highest standard possible.
Seen from this perspective, Hanukah is a time for us to focus on overcoming our spiritual lethargy, our acceptance of mediocrity in our Torah observance. Many of us relegate Torah learning and mitzvot to items on our “to do” list, things that need to be taken care of, along with our other responsibilities. The rededication of the Bet Hamikdash immediately after the victory over the Greeks shows us that mitzvot are to be our highest priority, the single most important area of our life, to which we must devote as much time, energy and attention as we can.
As we kindle the Hanukah lights, let us kindle as well a flame of spiritual passion and devotion, and ignite within ourselves energy and enthusiasm for Torah. Let us approach Hanukah as an opportunity to defeat our lethargy, and to revitalize our commitment to Gd. Just as the Hashmonaim dedicated the Bet Hamikdash anew, let us renew our dedication to mitzvot, placing them at the top of our priority scale, where they belong.