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  • USIEA Team

Chanukah



Israel Update – Week of December 3, 2023

Chanukah: 

For eight days between December 7 (corresponding to the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev) until December 15, Jews around the world will be celebrating the holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah is celebrated by lighting the menorah (candelabrum), eating sufganiyot (donuts), and, probably due to its proximity to Christmas, giving presents. There is a positive commandment to rejoice during Chanukah – eulogies and fasting are not permitted, and on each day the Hallel (literally “Praise,” a prayer consisting of six Psalms (113–118), which are recited as a unit, on joyous occasions) prayer is recited. What is the source of our gladness?


Surprisingly, two very different answers are given to this question. The Talmud relates the following explanation: “What is Chanukkah? ... That [which] our Sages taught: On the 25th of Kislev - the days of Chanukkah, they are eight, not to eulogize on them and not to fast on them, for when the Greeks entered the Temple, they polluted all the oils in the Temple, and when the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and defeated them, they checked and they found but one cruse of oil that was set in place with the seal of the High Priest, but there was in only [enough] to light a single day. A miracle was done with it, and they lit from it for eight days.  The following year [the Sages] fix those [days], making them holidays for praise and thanksgiving.” According to the Talmud, Chanukah commemorates a miracle in which one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days. This is by far the most popular explanation. Ask any Jewish schoolchild why we celebrate Chanukah, and he will tell you that this is the reason.


Another point of view is given by Maimonides, one of the greatest codifiers of Jewish law, who lived a thousand years ago in Spain and in Egypt: “In [the era of] the Second Temple, the Greek [Seleucid] kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people, [attempting to] nullify their faith and refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its commandments. They [expropriated] their property and [raped] their daughters; they entered the Holy Temple, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure. The Jews suffered great difficulties from them, for they oppressed them greatly until the G-d of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame [them], slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand. They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.” According to Maimonides, Chanukah commemorates the battle between the Israelites against their Greek adversaries in which the Jews emerged victorious. Maimonides dispenses with miracles. As far as he is concerned, Chanukah was the day on which the Israelites used military means to regain political control over their homeland and their Holy Temple. His explanation helps explain the source of the name “Chanukah”, which means “Dedication.” On Chanukah, the Israelites rededicated the Holy Temple that had been ravaged by the Greeks. 


So what does Chanukah celebrate: a supernatural bottle of oil or a very natural military victory? 

A synthesis of the two reasons is found in the “Al HaNissim (On the Miracles)” prayer recited by Jews three times each day: “[We thank You] for the miracles and for the wonders and for the mighty deeds and for the salvations and for the victories that you wrought for our ancestors in their days and in this day. In the days of Mattathias son of Yohanan the high priest, the Hasmonean, and his sons, when the evil kingdom of Greece stood against Your people Israel in order to make them forget your Torah and violate Your laws. You, in Your enormous mercy, stood up for them in their time of great need, upheld their cause, judged their case, and avenged their oppressors. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the degenerates into the hands of those who cling to your Torah. And You made for Yourself a great and holy Name in your world and performed a great salvation and miracle for your people Israel, as You do today. And afterward, Your children came to the Holy of Holies in your House, and they cleansed Your Palace and purified Your Temple and they kindled lights in the courtyard of Your Sanctuary and they established these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and to praise Your great name.” 


While the “Al HaNissim” prayer is reminiscent of Maimonides’ explanation, it adds another layer. Maimonides is factual: this happened, then that happened, and as a result, the Israelites regained control of their land for 200 years. G-d is mentioned almost as an afterthought. The “Al HaNissim” prayer, on the other hand, brings G-d directly into the front and center of the picture: “We thank You for the miracles… You, in your enormous mercy, stood up for them… You delivered… You made for Yourself a great and holy Name… as You do today…” Suddenly, history takes on a new flavor. Things did not just happen – they were guided by a Divine Hand.


The problem with the explanation of Maimonides, even as embellished in “Al HaNissim,” is that it is so hard to see the Hand of G-d on a daily basis. It is much easier to explain things “rationally”: When Iron Dome intercepts 95% of Hamas and Hezbollah rockets, thereby reducing a potent threat to a mere nuisance, it is due to “brilliant Israeli engineers.” When the IDF demolishes northern Gaza in less than one month, losing one tenth the number of soldiers that military planners had assumed they would lose (Don’t get me wrong – each life is a treasure and each death is a horrific tragedy, but the death rate is stunningly low), it is because “Hamas is in disarray.” When the IDF manages to kill more than two thirds of the Hamas leadership via targeted killings, it is because of “good real-time intel.” 


On Chanukah, we celebrate the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days specifically because that was an incontrovertible miracle. Through this miracle, we can understand that all of our military prowess is also miraculous. Without a steady diet of miracles, Mattathias and the Maccabees could never have defeated the Greeks. In the very same way, without a steady diet of miracles, [Head of Joint chiefs of Staff] Herzi HaLevi and [Chief of the Air Force] Tomer Bar could never have defeated Hamas. 


In a piece of required reading for all Israelis, Dr. Netanel Flamer writes, “Without a profound cultural shift within the intelligence organization and its personnel – specifically, the integration of humility into the organizational DNA – [military intelligence] will not deliver the desired outcome.” What enabled the massacre of October 7 to occur was hubris. We knew that Hamas was deterred. We knew that the Gaza Barrier would stand up to anything the Hamas could throw at it. We knew that the Hamas wanted peace and quiet so that they could go about the business of ruling over Gaza. Junior intelligence officers saw signs that something was wrong. The Egyptians sent warnings. And yet the upper management did not listen, because, according to Flamer, they lacked humility: “Humility is a fundamental characteristic that affords the willingness to break systemic thought patterns and be open to interpretations that are not the consensus and likely will require a profound change in perceptions and actions.” We were arrogant, and we paid for our arrogance. Penitence lies in humility.


The Talmud teaches us that G-d cannot abide with arrogance. G-d and an arrogant person cannot exist simultaneously because the arrogant person leaves no room for the other. 


The message of Chanukah is clear: If we open our eyes, if we leave room for the possibility of a benevolent G-d steering this world, then we will be blessed with miracles that will simply blow us away. 

Good things,

Ari Sacher

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