Monday, December 10, 2018

Another Answer to the Bais Yosef's Chanukah Question

This was forwarded to me by Reb Yossel Friedman who received it from a group post by Reb Baruch Kelman. All I would like to add is that before seeing this post I told my chevrusa that this can serve as yet another answer to the Bais Yosef's question as to why we celebrate eight days of Chanukah: It is is the zeh l'umas zeh of the Solistice Holiday. V'yesh l'ha'arich!

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From: Jeff Bienenfeld 

Hi All,

The Chanukah story took place in the 2nd Century B.C.E. However, there is a fascinating historical antecedent to this eight-day festival, a primeval Chanukah if you will, that harks back to the dawn of Creation. Here’s how the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) relates the tale (in loose translation):

When Adam experienced the first winter of Creation and saw the duration of daytime gradually decreasing, he said, “Woe is to me; perhaps because I have sinned, it is becoming a darkened world for me and the cosmos is returning to a state of astonishing emptiness, and this then is the form that the death sentence decreed upon me from Heaven will take.” Adam then arose and engaged in fasting and prayer for eight days. However, once he experienced the Winter solstice and saw the daytime gradually increasing, he said, “This phenomenon is evidently part of the natural cyclical occurrence of the world.” In thanksgiving, he went and established eight festival days. The following year (l’shana acheres), he established both these and those as festival days (l’Yamim Tovim).

The phrase, “the following year (l’shana acheres), …” is found almost verbatim in only once other source in the entire Talmud; to wit, when our Sages discuss the miracle of Chanukah (Shabbos 21b), “The following year, they [the Chashmonaim] established these eight days as festival days (l’Yamim Tovim).” The comparison is striking and no mere coincidence. If Chanukah then can be traced back to primordial man, what message inheres in this startling linkage.

An answer might be found in part in an insightful essay by R. Shlomo Volbe (20th C., Israel) in his acclaimed Alei Shur (Vol.I:22). For all the similarities between these two accounts, there is one clear difference. In the Chanukah of Creation, it is Gd and He alone who establishes the laws of Nature. Man looks on passively, and in perceiving the orderly and fixed cosmos, is consoled by its predictability and undeviating regularity. Gd, the Creator, notwithstanding the periodic darkness, has not abandoned the world. His daylight returns.

In the Chanukah of the Maccabees, the story also begins with an impending darkness. The Hellenistic influence on Jewish life was denominated metaphorically as an ominous, shady period. “Darkness – this refers to the Greek tyranny which imposed terrible decrees upon the Jewish people” (Bereishis Rabah 2:5). However, in this story, the marvelous turnabout, the transition from darkness to light, did not occur by the Hand of HaShem, but rather was a consequence of the intrepid courage of one small priestly family who, by their heroism, inspired their generation to rise up and defeat the overwhelmingly powerful forces of the Syrian Greeks. The famous Chanukah miracle only occurred - Gd only intervened - after these Maccabees acted first.

In this bold display of faith, the Chashmonaim behaved quite differently than the First Man. At Creation, man merged with the natural order, identified with its deterministic laws and, at this stage in his anthropology, viewed his reality as defined by his biological pushes and fantasies. Would he be, could he be anything more than a sophisticated animal? Could he ever apprehend the holy and majestic, the great transcendental experience of an expansive and free will existence through which he could forge ahead and rise to a level of moral behavior which would crown him as a “bit lower than the angelic?” Aboriginal man was comfortable within the natural order, but he was not great. In contrast, the Maccabees, by transcending - I would say, defying - the bounded biological and physical law, triggered the miraculous occurrence. Invited down by man’s seemingly futile effort to rededicate the Temple by an ineffectual act of kindling the Menorah flame with one small bit of pure oil, Gd destabilizes the natural law He created and thus demonstrates that Nature as such can be transcended through man’s daring initiative.[1]

The message then of both the Chanukah of Creation and the Chanukah of the Maccabees is plain. No person should ever feel he is compelled to behavior or act, that “he can’t help himself,” that nothing can change because “he is what he is.” To buy into this bankrupt philosophy is to endorse a Hellenistic view of man as a homo sapiens, just a smart animal and nothing more. Our Chanukah declares that man can be so much more, that he “reach beyond his grasp” because when he attempts to rise above his biology, he sets in motion HaShem’s miraculous interventions and is able to soar to unimaginable heights of greatness and holiness.

Such Godly involvement may not be as dramatic and as openly miraculous as a small cruse of oil lasting eight days, but HaShem’s intimate involvement in the affairs of man should never be questioned. At any moment, man’s valiant and righteous deeds can activate a Divine response - concealed perhaps, but no less real - that in the wink of an eye (k’heref ayin) can turn a bleak and gloomy night of defeat and failure into a bright and glorious day filled with promise and bathed with lasting meaning and worth.[2]

Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah.

[1] Rambam (Hilchos Chanukah 4:12) writes, "The mitzvah of the Chanukah lights is an extremely beloved commandment…" Rambam does not use expression for any other mitzvah. Why should Chanukah be so cherished? The Shulchan Aruch (OH 671:6) rules that the Chanukah lights should be lit below ten tefachim (~3 feet). In Chassidic lore, this halacha implies that HaShem is prepared to come down to our level notwithstanding the fact that the Talmud rules (Succah 5a) that generally the Divine Presence (Shechinah) does not descend below ten tefachim. On Chanukah, however, HaShem chooses to respond to man’s light and happily lowers Himself, as it were, to listen to us, to illuminate us with His light of holiness and elevate us to Him. And with that uplifting, miracles happen!

[2] The Chazon Ish was once approached by a man pleading poverty and desperate for a miracle but sadly understood that “לאו בכל יום מתרחש ניסא, that not every day do miracles occur” (Pesachim 50b). The Chazon Ish corrected him and said that this rabbinic phrase should be read as follows, “לאו, It isn’t so! Miracles do happen every day.” It all depends upon us!

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