The problem with looking a life just from the surface and the miracle of Chanukah
002 – The Torah Podcast – Finding Life’s Deeper Meaning – Chanukah and the Inner Light
I’m very happy to be here today to speak about the wonderful holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah is a very special time in Judaism. I’m going to start here with the Rambam in Hilchos Chanukah, halacha number 12. He says like this, I’m going to read it to you. “The mitzvah of kindling Chanukah lamps is very dear,” and the loshen, language there in Hebrew is chaviv. Chaviv means very special and dear. “A person should be very careful in his observance to publicize the miracle and thus increase our praise of God and our expression of thanks for the miracles which he wrought for our behalf.” Now, listen to this. “Even if a person has no resources for food except what he’s receives from charity, he should pawn or sell his garments and purchase oil and lamps to kindle them in the fulfillment of the mitzvah.” Now, that is a very special mitzvah. It’s very chaviv. It’s very – chaviv means dear. The question is, what’s so chaviv, what’s so special and dear about the mitzvah of Chanukah?
Rav Shimshon Pincus explains “We know that the loshen chaviv is specifically by the words of the Rabbis. And Chanukah happens to be a holiday that is brought down by the Rabbis. It’s not actually in the Torah itself, it came much later. So, we know this statement from Chazal that says, Chaviv divrei sofrim. The words of the Rabbis are more special than the actual words of the Torah.” And that makes sense because what it means is it’s what’s being added on for the sake of God is more than what God actually wrote Himself. It’s adding on, it’s showing our love towards God. That’s why it’s chaviv. Rav Pincus explains that the holidays, for example Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos which was before Chanukah, way before Chanukah and the Jews did it for thousands of years, that could be, God-forbid, being done because of habit. That’s a very bad thing. Came along Chanukah a new holiday to break the cycle, to make something special, to create closeness to God in a new and special way, to rebuild the relationship. He explains that the Rambam did not say it was a big mitzvah. He said it was a chaviv mitzvah, a special mitzvah. He wants to say that Chanukah is the time to internalize the idea of chavivim divrei sofrim, the specialty of the words of the Rabbis, betoch kol hamoadim, inside of all the other moadim. In other words, it’s to create a desire and a love for God, im koach havivos ha’or, with the novelty and the specialty of the light that it produces. It should create a special closeness to God as if the person is doing the mitzvah and it’s not dependent on anything, just purely for the love of God, the way a child loves his son even if he’s only one day old – pure love. Chanukah is supposed to produce pure love of God.
I want to explain why that’s specifically true by Chanukah. And another point. You have hear the Magen Avraham. The Magen Avraham says, “Just like Shavuos we know is the accepting of the written Torah, Chanukah is an the accepting of the oral Torah. Chanukah is connected with accepting the words of the Rabbis. I want to explain these two ideas, why first of all it says so chaviv, and second of all, what does it have to do with the oral tradition, as compared to the written tradition?
The great and holy Maharal explains that the Greeks rejected divine wisdom. They had a lot of wisdom, they had a lot of good ideas. But they did not accept the fact that wisdom could be beyond in its source, a divine source. Only sense perception, the idea, very pragmatic – whatever you see exists. If you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist, according to the Greeks. Now, the Greek exile was called darkness, a lack of light. Pure darkness. Why is that? Because nothing existed outside of the senses. It was purely sense perception. All reality outside of the senses didn’t exist. That was part of the Greek philosophy. This philosophy crept into the Jewish people. This was part of being in exile under these ideas that had influenced us. Now, along with that came these ideas from the Greeks that beauty is the number one top priority. Not only that, but entertainment, plays, sports, Olympics, YouTube, all these kinds of things came in and we are still under this Greek idea that the purpose of life is to entertain ourselves.
There’s a verse in Parshas Noach that goes like this. “And may God expand Yafes,” that’s talking about the Greeks. God should expand them, “And he may dwell in the house of Hashem.” There is a connection between the Greeks and the Jewish people. He’s going to dwell in our tents. Rashi brings down that God will beautify Yaphet, which means he’s going to bring him to the foreground and he’s going to show off like today’s world is all focused on beauty and looks. We are constantly entertaining ourselves and filling ourselves up with things beside what we’re supposed to filling ourselves up, and avoiding the real connection to life and the connection to God.
I want to show you what the Jewish perspective is on this, and I’m going to read from here the famous Ramchal in his sefer Mesillas Yesharim, the Path of the Just. The opening move, my Rebbe used to say, “Pawn to King four,” the opening move of Path of the Just, is a little chapter here called Man’s Duty in the World. He says, “The bedrock of piety and the root of flawless Divine service,” in other words the foundation of serving God, “lies in man’s effort to clarify and verify what his duty is in this world.” Again, it lies in man’s effort to clarify and to verify what his duty is in this world. He must determine what he is aiming for, and how to achieve this in all of his labors throughout his lifetime. You have to have a clear goal. Every business person will tell you that you have to have a clear goal, and every Rabbi will also tell you that you have to have a clear goal. If you don’t have the goal, you’re not going to succeed. The goal is to determine what am I doing here? What is my obligation?
Where do we see this? We also see this by the Pesach Seder. For example, by the Pesach the wise son, what did he ask? What is my obligation? Now, Rav Moshe Shapiro explains that that is the opposite of what the Greeks are doing. The Greeks are not looking at all what is my obligation. As a matter of fact, God is not even in the picture. What do you mean, my obligation? What obligation? I am here to enjoy myself. I am here to entertain myself. I’m going to go to the Olympics. The Olympics was Greek, right? Sports, plays, entertainment. We’re just going to constantly feed ourselves with things, and look at the beauty of them and to see them for what they are at face value. Everything is face value. I’m going to fill my life up with things at face value, and then I’ll talk about those things and everybody will all talk about the different things. Everybody’s talking about the movies. Everybody’s talking about, “I saw this movie, and I saw that movie.” Most of the conversations you hear is about this movie, this book, “I read this thing.” Everything’s at face value. Nobody is looking underneath the surface to what do things mean, things that happen in life? What does that mean? Where’s the meaning? What is my obligation?
But it’s not just my obligation because I’m obligated, I don’t have to be goody two-shoes. It means, what is my relationship to God? We hold that everything that occurs in a man’s life comes directly from God. Now, if I’m just looking at the entertainment value, I’m going to miss the point. I’m going to miss the boat. I have to look at it, what is it coming to teach me? What do I need to learn from this? Not in a crazy way, God’s talking to me, and everything God speaks to me. I have to just understand what direction I’m supposed to take based on what’s coming at me.
It happens to be true, that God does direct our lives. But it’s not crazy like I have a voice in my head, God is telling me to do this, God-forbid. But the point is, we look at things for what they mean. For example, a person hears that his neighbor gets divorced. What’s he thinking? What should he be thinking? He should be thinking, “What did I have to do with this? Maybe I could have been nicer to him. If I was nice to him he wouldn’t have been in a bad mood. He wouldn’t have fought with his wife. Maybe he could have been nicer to her.” What’s my obligation? What does it mean, why are people getting divorced? Maybe we have to be nicer one to the other. Maybe society has to grow. I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s a question of what’s my obligation? What does God want from me?
Now, Rav Moshe Shapiro further explained that the word “ugly” which is the opposite of beauty in Hebrew is said, meuchar, which literally means clouded or muddy. The Jewish perspective on what is beautiful and what is ugly, something is ugly if it’s clouded. And something is beautiful if it’s transparent, which means you can see into its inner being, into its inner meaning. And also we know that the Maharal explains that the greatest beauty is modesty. Why is modesty the greatest beauty? Because a modest person you can see them for who they are. They’re not covered up with all these fancy clothes and fancy pocketbooks and watches, and all kinds of things to show off. They are who they are, and you can see clearly who they are. That’s what makes them beautiful. Modesty is beautiful.
Now, I want to explain a little bit, al pi kabbalah, how this works. We know that the world from our perspective seems round. Everything about it is round. The world itself is round, everything’s running in cycles. The universe is spinning around. Everything’s moving in a round motion, which means in a certain sense there’s no beginning or end. That is exactly what the Greeks held. The Greeks held there was no point where the creation was created. The creation was always here. But the Jewish perspective is, even that we know that the world is round but according to the kabbalah the world is created inside of a hey, and a hey is square. It’s open on the bottom. What does that mean? It means that the world is created in a way, it’s completely open. If you want to sin, go ahead. You know, you can sin from the day to the night, you could do whatever you want, and God will let you. Derech adam rotzei leilech malichin oto, the way that a man wants to go, God will help him. God helps the thief, he helps the murderer, he helps everybody. That’s what it means that it’s open on the bottom. If you notice on the left of the hey there’s a little door on top. If a person wants to return and repent from his bad ways he has to climb back up in the door on the left, and he has to go in through the hey. Now, what does it mean? The world itself is inside of a square. The round world that we perceive if you just look in terms of sense perception, is purely round. But the reality is that it’s inside of a square.
There’s nothing square in this world, nothing. You cannot produce for me a perfect square, it doesn’t exist. But there are square things in the Torah. For example, the mezuzah goes on a square door. And tefillin are square. And tzitzis are square. Those three things are mentioned in the Shema which we say twice a day, to remind us to look a little bit outside the circle and remember the square. Now, what else is in the square? The mitzvah of Chanukah, because the mitzvah of Chanukah has to be on the door, on the opposite side of the mezuzah. It’s also part of that square. It is that idea that is supposed to penetrate into us into the darkness of Greece. The light of the Menorah is supposed to penetrate, to wake us up, to realize that there is a God and everything that’s happening is coming from God. And deeper than that, we have a relationship with God.
I want to go back to my second question. What does this have to do with the Torah she ba’al peh? The Ohr haChayim explains in Vayikra that the Torah she ba’al peh can really be found inside the Torah shebiktav. The main work that students do in the yeshiva is to study the Torah she ba’al peh, and inside the Torah she ba’al peh we see, Chazal, the Rabbis are trying to figure out where this halacha, where this law, comes from inside the Torah itself. So, in a certain sense the Torah she ba’al peh is the inner part of the Torah she biktav. That is exactly why Chanukah is the acceptance of the Torah she ba’al peh, because the idea is to go inside the inner meaning of things, to see the light inside and not to look at it at surface value. Because Torah she ba’al peh is working back and forth and struggling, exerting oneself getting to the deeper understanding of what’s being written in the text. It’s not just looking at the text at a surface value. That’s what it has to do with Torah she ba’al peh. The same idea by Chanukah, and this also answers why the mitzvah of Chanukah is chaviv, dear. It has to do with the inner penimius, inner part of our relationship with God and not at the surface level.
And the Menorah itself, the light shows that wherever the Jews went through all the exiles, we had with us the light, the shechina, the presence of God, our relationship with God, wherever we are. And we refused to accept this Greek view of the world that life has no meaning, but to fill yourself up with nonsense. And the Menorah which Chazal tells us is the remembrance of the Menorah in the Temple, is also connected with God’s presence, because that’s where the Menorah was – in the Temple where God’s presence was.
This also comes to answer another famous kasha as to why was the focus of Chanukah specifically on the candles when it could have been really on the war? The fact that a few Cohanim in guerrilla warfare beat an entire Greek army is also a miracle, so why specifically the miracle of Chanukah, why on the oil? Why does the Gemara in Shabbos say Chanukah was fixed because the oil burned for eight days? The answer is because God wanted to make a break in reality. He wanted to show us that reality as we know it is all based on Him. The fact that the oil burned for eight days which was something above nature is a glimpse into the underlying reality beyond nature, from the circle into the square.
The Beis Halevy also says that the krias Yam Suf , splitting of the Red Sea, what did the Jews see? They saw that that the world is digital. There’s no continuity between cause and effect. Reality as we know it, is solid. For example, if you like looking at a solid waterfall, the waterfall looks solid. But we know logically every second there’s another drop of water. Also a candle burning. The candle looks like you see a flame. What do you see, a flame. A flame looks almost solid. It’s not solid at all. Every second is another pulse of the flame. So too, our reality is being created every second digitally. It’s not analog. It looks like it’s analog. It looks like it’s solid, but the reality is at every second it’s being created by the Creator Himself.
This also explains the famous kasher or Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz as to why did Yosef have faith in the fact that he saw that the Arabs who normally carry tar and stinky stuff, they instead were carrying perfume. I mean, what did he care? He was going to the Holocaust. Every Chanukah that same parsha falls, the parsha of Yosef. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains, When Yosef saw the break in the natural order, the fact that they were carrying spices that smelled good, when he was going to exile, it gave him faith because he saw it was a “kiss from God”. God showed him that He is with him. What we call reality is solid but don’t forget, underlying that reality is the all-powerful God.” This is the mitzvah of Chanukah, and that’s why it’s so chaviv, and it’s so dear and it’s so important, because it gets us into the inner connection and relationship that we have with our Creator. The Jewish people are a people of miracles. We’re a people of faith. We lit the candles for hundreds of years, even in dangerous situations, to show our faith and to show our love of God, and to show our love of the mitzvos and the purpose for what we were created for.
God should help us and He should end this exile of nonsense, of constantly filling ourselves up with things that have no meaning. And we should get back in line, and get on to the purpose of our lives.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff