By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by now seem like a distant memory, but among some Hassidic sects, the High Holiday season is still upon us. Can Hanukah – the holiday many simplistically see as a festival of jelly donuts and dreidels – really be a time of repentance and spiritual growth?
The story of Hanukah is widely known to have occurred some two millennia ago, during the time of the Second Temple. But in fact, the roots of the holiday are even more ancient, extending back many centuries earlier to the time of the patriarchs. These earliest origins of Hanukah, provide a deeper insight into the fundamental nature of this holiday – and the spiritual experience for which it is intended.
The Vision That Saved Yosef
In Parashat Vayeshev – the portion which is nearly always read on or just before Hanukah – the Torah relates the famous story of Yosef’s experiences as a servant in the home of Potifar, an Egyptian nobleman (Beresheet 39). Potifar’s wife set her eyes upon Yosef, and attempted to seduce him. The Midrash tells that she even changed her clothing twice each day as part of her seductive efforts. Yosef was a teenager at the time, away from his family, and the only Jew in all of Egypt. Despite the temptation, and despite living within the immoral culture and society of ancient Egypt, Yosef refused. He remained faithful to the values he learned at home and heroically resisted the advances of his master’s wife.
How did Yosef do it? In a pleasure-seeking society that championed unrestrained indulgence and shunned self-discipline, how did Yosef, a young teenage boy, withstand such a test?
The Midrash relates that after many fruitless attempts at luring Yosef, Potifar’s wife finally came close to succeeding. On a day when nobody else was home, she again approached Yosef, and this time he contemplated to consent. Suddenly, the Midrash tells, he beheld an image of his saintly father, our patriarch Yaakov. Seeing his father’s image jolted young Yosef and reinforced his moral conviction. At that moment, as the Torah tells, he fled from Potifar’s home.
What exactly does it mean that Yosef beheld Yaakov’s image? Yaakov was far away in Israel. How did he appear to his son? And why did this vision prevent Yosef from succumbing to Potifar’s wife?
The High Priest in the Graveyard
The answer emerges from a different comment in the Midrash concerning Yaakov’s image. The Sages teach that Yaakov’s image is engraved beneath Gd’s Heavenly Throne. The angels who ascended and descended the ladder that extended from Yaakov’s head to the heavens (Beresheet 28:12) were comparing the image on Gd’s throne with Yaakov’s face. They saw Yaakov and were amazed to discover that he is the person whose image appears on the throne. Thus, when Yosef saw Yaakov’s image in Potifar’s home, what he actually saw was Gd, the divine presence. Yosef went as far as he could in resisting temptation and avoiding sin. As he reached the end of his capabilities, Gd came to rescue Him. The Almighty Himself came to Egypt to save Yosef from Potifar’s wife’s trap.
Upon further reflection, the notion of Gd revealing his presence in Egypt at this time is most remarkable – akin to a kohen gadol (high priest) appearing in a graveyard. A kohen, who is required to maintain a certain level of kedusha (sanctity) and avoid (tumah) spiritual impurity, is forbidden from even being in the same room with human remains. Thus, the kohen gadol who embodies the highest ideals of kedusha (sanctity), would certainly not be expected to be found in a graveyard – a place with an abundance of human remains.
By the same token, although Hashem his of course everywhere, we would never have expected His discernable presence to be revealed in ancient Egypt, a nation characterized in the Midrash by depravity and corruption. The Almighty’s distinguishable presence in Egypt should be no less shocking than finding a high priest loitering in a graveyard.
Yet, this is exactly what happened. The story of Yosef established a revolutionary precedent of Gd revealing Himself even in the earth’s darkest corners to illuminate them with the light of holiness and spirituality. At the point when even Yosef, the pure sadik, was on the verge of yielding to his passions, in the darkest, most hopeless moments of impurity, Gd appeared to shine the light of kedusha. On that day, Gd demonstrated that He is prepared to disrupt the order of things, to lift His children from the depths of sin. A kohen gadol would never enter a cemetery, but Gd is willing, when necessary, to enter spiritual “graveyards” to save the Jewish people from sinking in the quicksand of impurity.
The First Hanukah
The Torah introduces the story of Yosef’s escape from Potifar’s wife with the words, “Vayehi kehayom hazeh – It occurred on this certain day” (39:11). The construction “kehayom” (literally, “like the day”) is peculiar. Normally, the Torah would write, “Vayehi bayom hazeh.” How are we to understand the unusual term “kehayom”?
The first two letters of this word, kaf and heh, which represent the number 25, are a prefix to the word “yom – day”. The word “kehayom” can thus be read as, “the 25th day.”It has been suggested that the Torah here alludes to the calendar date of 25 Kislev – the first day of Hanukah. It was on this day that Gd came into Egypt to save Yosef from sin. This was the first Hanukah, the day when Gd Himself descended into a world overrun by the forces of impurity to save His children from spiritual demise – just as He did centuries later, rescuing the Jewish people from spiritual strangulation at the hands of the Ancient Greek Empire. Like Yosef, the Jews under Greek oppression came to the brink of assimilation, nearly losing their religious identity forever. Just then, amidst the impurities of Greek pagan culture, the “image of Yaakov,” the divine presence, appeared and lifted the Jewish nation from the abyss of spiritual contamination.
Yosef understood the critical importance of his experience as a precedent for future generations. Later in Beresheet (chapter 50), we read that the brothers begged Yosef to forgive them for mistreating him and selling him into slavery. Yosef consoled his brothers and noted that although they had intended to cause him harm, these events were actually orchestrated by Gd: “You planned to cause me harm, but Gd planned it for the best – in order to do like this day [kayom hazeh], to sustain a large nation.” The plain meaning of this verse is that Gd had Yosef sold into slavery in Egypt so that he could sustain Egypt and the surrounding nations during the drought that ravaged the region. Additionally, however, Yosef refers here to the precedent he established of bringing the divine presence into places of impurity. The phrase “kayom hazeh – like this day” is reminiscent of the phrase “kehayom hazeh” used in reference to Yosef’s encounter with Potifar’s wife. Yosef hints to the fact that the salvation he experienced was necessary to establish the pattern of Gd intervening “to sustain a large nation.” He foresaw the times when the Jewish people, like him, would find themselves drowning in the oceans of impurity and foreign cultures. And then, “like on this day,” as in Egypt, Gd will descend into the impurity to rescue them.
In the al hanissim prayer recited on Hanukah, we proclaim that Gd performed for our ancestors a “teshu’a gedola ufurkan kehayom hazeh – great salvation and redemption, like this day.” The Sages inserted the phrase “kehayom hazeh” as an allusion to the story of Yosef, the first Hanukah. The story of the Jews’ triumph over the Greeks is the continuation of the story of Yosef, of Gd’s willingness to reveal Himself even in the lowest depths of impurity, to redeem His people and rescue them from spiritual demise.
The Symbolic Meaning of the Hanukah Lights
This theme is reflected in several halachot relevant to the Hanukah candles. The original institution of the Hanukah lights required kindling them outdoors, in the public domain. Throughout our nation’s exile, the “public domain” has been a place filled with contamination, with idolatry and immorality. The missva on Hanukah is to leave the security of our homes and enter the spiritually hostile public domain to shine the lights of kedusha upon it. This symbolizes Gd’s willingness to enter into the centers of impurity to rescue His nation with the light of holiness. Furthermore, the Hanukah candles are placed specifically on the left side of the doorway, opposite the mezuzah, the source of kedusha. The holiness of the Hanukah lights is needed not next to the mezuzah, but on the other side, the side bereft of spiritual substance.
It is also noteworthy that the candles should preferably be positioned within ten tefahim (approximately 35 inches) of the ground. The Talmud in Masechet Sukka teaches that the Shechina (Divine presence) does not descend lower than ten tefahim above the ground; it always remains a level above the earthly domain of human beings. On Hanukah, however, as we saw, Gd “bends the rules,” so-to-speak. During these eight days, He comes into our lowly existence to kindle our souls and ignite the dormant sparks of spirituality. The Hanukah lights, which symbolize the Shechina, are therefore placed within ten tefahim, indicating that on this occasion, unlike any other time of the year, Gd enters our domain and comes closer to us than ever.
Kindling the Impure Souls
Another beautiful expression of this theme is the halacha permitting the use of any wick and oil for the Hanukah lights. The Talmud in Masechet Shabbat explicitly states that one may use for the Hanukah candles even the oils and wicks that halacha disqualifies for the Shabbat candles. The Shabbat candles must be lit only with oils and wicks that produce a clear, steady flame, but on Hanukah, any kind of oil and wick may be used, even coarse materials that produce a flickering, irregular flame.
The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905) revealed for us the powerful symbolism underlying this distinction between the Shabbat candles and the Hanukah lights. The experience of Shabbat has the ability to inspire an individual and elevate him to great spiritual heights. This effect, however, is reserved for people of exceptional purity, for the sadikim. Many of us observe Shabbat as simply a day of food, relaxation and socializing, and we therefore cannot enjoy the full spiritual impact of this day. The sadikim, however, observe Shabbat as a day of spiritual devotion, and they are therefore lifted to greater heights through this experience.
The candles lit on Shabbat and Hanukah represent the kindling of the human soul (“The soul of man is a candle of Hashem” – Mishle 20:27). On Shabbat, the flame must be pure, clear and steady, because the full spiritual impact of Shabbat requires a high level of piety. On Hanukah, however, no such restriction applies. On these eight days, even the shaky, unstable souls are kindled. The spiritual effects of Hanukah can be felt by each and every Jew, regardless of his level of observance. Even if a person’s soul is tarnished and soiled through sin, Gd descends to light the flame of kedusha within it. Unlike on Shabbat, the inspiration of Hanukah is available even to those with coarse “wicks” and impure “oils,” even to the fractured souls among us. During the week of Hanukah, Gd descends to even the darkest areas of the Jewish people to kindle their souls and offer them a chance to improve, to repent and to grow. It is no coincidence that Hanukah is observed, on one level or another, by virtually all Jews, including those who otherwise have no connection to Jewish tradition. For these eight days, every Jewish soul is kindled, regardless of its spiritual condition. Like the Hashmonaim who discovered the lone canister of pure oil hidden deep in the defiled Mikdash, Gd locates the kernel of purity buried deep within the soul of even the estranged and unaffiliated Jew. On Hanukah, everyone is given a chance to shine and radiate with the light of kedusha.
The Culmination of the High Holiday Season
We generally assume that the period of the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) ends with the sounding of the shofar in the final moments of Yom Kippur. In the teachings among some Hassidism, however, the High Holidays do not end after Yom Kippur; they continue for another two-and-a-half months, through the eight days of Hanukah.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are called upon to raise ourselves to return to Gd. We extend ourselves to our outermost limits of religious commitment and work to improve ourselves to be worthy of a renewed relationship with our Creator. On Hanukah, however, Gd comes to us, even in our state of defilement. Even if we did not succeed in our efforts to purify our souls on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Gd comes to us on Hanukah and offers us His hand, as it were. This time, He initiates the process of reconciliation. He comes into our homes to lift us, just as He came to Potifar’s palace to rescue Yosef.
In this sense, Hanukah is more of an occasion for repentance and religious growth than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Hanukah, Gd draws nearer than He does at any other time, making repentance more accessible than at any other time. This is what should go through our minds as we kindle the Hanukah lights each night of the holiday: just as we light candles that illuminate the dark, winter night, Gd similarly has come to illuminate the dark areas of our souls. During these eight days, we are given the unique opportunity to lift ourselves from our state of impurity and recommit ourselves to a life of kedusha and devotion to the Almighty.
A Dark Season in a Dark Society
Somebody once asked me whether Mashiah can really come in our generation. Today’s society has deteriorated to such depths of depravity and perversion that the yesser hara (evil inclination) itself probably marvels at its success. Immorality is rampant, and crookedness is so pervasive that it is virtually impossible to avoid its influence. Indeed, tragically, even among religiously observant Jews we are witnessing alarmingly low standards of commitment. Can Mashiah come under such conditions?
My response is that to the contrary, these are precisely the circumstances under which Gd will come to rescue us, just as He rescued Yosef in Egypt and the Jews under Greek tyranny. Specifically when the forces of impurity are practically unavoidable and seemingly insurmountable, we can rely on the precedent of Yosef and anticipate Gd’s salvation. We need only exert our best effort and Hashem will do the rest.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Hanukah is observed in mid-December, around the time much of the world also celebrates a major religious holiday. This, too, is alluded to in the story of Yosef. As Rashi comments, on the day that Yosef nearly succumbed, nobody was at home because it was an Egyptian holiday, and everyone had gone to the houses of worship to celebrate. Even back then, the 25th of Kislev fell around the time of a major foreign celebration.
We light the Hanukah candles facing the outside of our homes, in a dark society, and in the darkest season. All the while, the powerful influence of the outside world is apparent in the overwhelming holiday displays of our neighbors across the street. With this, we remind ourselves that Gd is prepared and willing to enter any environment to lift us spiritually. The light of the Hanukah candles, which shine brightly in the darkest time of year, inspire us with hope and faith in our ability to rekindle the flames in our souls, regardless of how dark they have become.
 According to a 1743 treatise by German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski, December 25th was originally chosen as a holiday because it corresponded with the pagan solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which itself was an outgrowth of other longstanding festivals marking the winter solstice. Scholars believe that continuing to honor this day made it easier for missionaries to convert pagans in Roman times.