Monday, December 19, 2011

Chanukah: The Last-Minute Chag

A Facebook friend posted this week: "OK, have to get Chanukah gifts TOMORROW. This is just way too last-minute." This prompted an extensive shopping-related discussion that didn't much interest me (apparently, you can't order gifts online at the last minute and expect them to arrive on time) – but it got me thinking two things: (1) I too must get my kids something for Chanukah and (2) The whole holiday seems very last minute. I'll explain.
We all know the story well. The Jews beat the Greeks. They arrived in the Beit Hamikdash to find only one small cruse of oil untarnished by their idol-worshiping tormentors. So, with no other option, they lit the Menorah which miraculously lasted a full eight days. It's a great story. But it's got some holes.
First of all, did they really have no idea that they'd soon conquer the Greeks? Was the victory really that sudden? Perhaps it was, but it stands to reason that at some point – perhaps a week or two before their final victory – the Jews got a sense that the war was turning in their direction, and that they'd have to rededicate the Beit Hamikdash. Did no one think to prepare some oil in advance so that they'd be ready to rededicate the Temple?
Let's ask another famous question about the story: Why didn't they wait for enough oil? Why did the Chashmonaim consider it so essential to light the Menorah that they needed to light right away, without having the proper amount of oil in advance? Couldn't they wait just another week?
The answer, of course, is that they could not – and that's precisely the point. The Chashmonaim predicated the entire Chanukah war on a faith that not only drove them to rebel against the Greeks, but also compelled them to specifically not worry about the oil, and light the Menorah with what they had as soon as they possibly could.
In the very first section of his monumental work on Jewish thought called Kad HaKemach, Rabbeinu Bachya, explaining the fundamental nature of Emunah writes,
וכן מצינו אליהו שהיו כל דבריו חכמה מקובלת מאנשי החכמה והאמונה שבאר ואמר (איוב לד) כי עיניו על דרכי איש וכל צעדיו יראה. (שם) אין חשך ואין צלמות להסתר שם פועלי און. ומתוך אמונת ההשגחה יגיע אדם לאמונת הנבואה והתורה שיאמין כי יצא מאת הבורא יתעלה שפע ההשגחה אל האדם עד שיתנבא ותנתן תורה על ידו, והתורה הזאת הצלחת נפשו של אדם, בה יושע תשועת עולמים בה ילמד ליישר מעשיו ועמה ידע דרכי החיים בכל פרטי פעולותיו...
We find that Elihu – whose words were all wise, received from men of wisdom and faith explained and said, "For God's eyes are upon the ways of a man, and He sees all his goings. There is no darkness, nor shadow of death, where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves." (Iyyov 34:21-22) And, from faith in divine oversight a person will arrive at faith in prophecy and the Torah; that he will believe that from the exalted Creator emanates the flow of oversight to man, until he prophesizes and Torah is given through him. And this Torah is the salvation of man; through it he will be eternally saved; through it he will learn to straighten his deed, and with it he will know the paths of life in all details of his actions…
Interestingly, Rabbeinu Bachya compares one with a lack of faith to a person in darkness, and a person who has a sense of Emunah to a person who basks in the light of God.
Intuitively, we know this to be true. Have you ever taken a walk, at night, in the complete darkness? A couple years back on vacation in the Golan, the hotel took us for a night tour of a local ruin. While some found it fun to feel their way through the pitch black, I hated it. I found trying to find my way through the woods in the darkness a dangerous and off-putting. Each step brings a possible hazard, and you're never sure of your footing. But, as soon as someone shone a light ahead, enough to see just a little, I could walk with a degree of confidence.
Life is very much like that. How are we to know where the next step will lead us? Who's to say that we're walking in the right direction, taking the proper steps in life? That's where Emunah plays such a critical role. It's the candle of light that gives us the strength to take any steps at all. With confidence of the light of our faith, we do what we are commanded in the knowledge that when we do what God asks of us, He will, in His wisdom, light the way forward.
When we recite the Al Hanisim on Chanukah, we must marvel at the sheer insanity of the Chashmonaim: רבים ביד מעטים is an understatement. In reality it was the armed in the hands of the unarmed; the trained in the hands of the untrained; they literally had no chance. But they attacked nonetheless, from frustration and desperation, but also from a deep sense of faith which carried them to victory. Had they worried about the future – about military battle lines, and arms strength, not only would they have lost. They would never have fought in the first place.
That's precisely why they didn’t worry about provisions for lighting the Menorah before they conquered the Beit Hamikdash, and also why they wouldn't wait to kindle the lights for enough oil. They lit – and if God wanted it to last a day, it would. And if He wanted it to last longer, that could happen as well.
Chanukah represents a holiday of faith over logic; of placing our fate in God's capable hands, especially when the outcome is far from clear. Perhaps then, Chanukah might very well be the most important, relevant holiday for a Jewish people struggling to rebuild the State of Israel. Today, the drumbeat that we hear constantly from well-meaning Jews (both Israeli and American) who favor returning land to the Palestinians rests on a patently logical argument: Israel wants to be democratic, but it controls the lives of over a million Arabs. It can't annex the land because then Israel might not remain a Jewish State, but it won't withdraw from the land either. What then, is the endgame?
It's a great question to which there's no visible solution. And that's what troubles people, so they insist on solutions (like giving away parts of Eretz Yisrael) that the Torah forbids. "Well," they ask, "if you don't like my solution, what's yours? How do you solve the problem?"
To tell you the truth, I don't have an answer that will satisfy them, because we're approaching the problem from very different places. They think that they have to have the problem solved on their own. I, on the other hand, know what I must do, and trust that He who solved our problems in the past, will properly solve our complicated problems in the future.
This is the light of Emunah that we must kindle in our homes each night on Chanukah. (What Oleh moves to Israel because it makes sense? We did it because it was what we were supposed to do.) We must rededicate ourselves to not only living lives of greater faith, but worrying less about how it will all end up. No, I'm not advocating not buying presents for the kids in advance. God's not going to do that for you. But we must continue to do that which we know is right, with the faith and confidence that the light of our Emunah will shine down upon us, showing us that we did indeed walk along the true and proper path.