The significance of chanukah
(Based on the works of the rebbe.)
At War With The Soul
King Antiochus was not out to annihilate the Jewish people (G-d forbid) or to enslave us, or drive us from our land. The Greeks were at war not with our physical existence, but with our souls. Their aim was to strip our way of life of its spirituality, of its holiness. It was acceptable, in the eyes of the Hellenists, for Jews to identify as Jews, and even to study Torah and do mitzvas, provided that we were willing to forsake the G-dliness of Torah. The pragmatic materialism of Greek culture left no room for our special relationship with G-d.
This idea has particular significance in the modern world.
Today, thank G-d, the majority of world Jewry lives in relative material comfort. Democratic society affirms our basic rights of survival, and many opportunities are available to Jews that were denied us in more oppressive times. These blessings, however, have also made it easy to overlook the very source of our strength as a people.
Like the Hellenists of old, today's prevailing secular culture, with its emphasis on materialism and hedonism, can obscure the spiritual aspect of life.
The Chanukah lights are sacred. As we say in the prayer after lighting the menorah, "We are not permitted to make use of them, only to look at them, and offer thanks and praise... for Your miracles, for Your wonders, and for Your salvations."
We affirm the supremacy of spiritual light over coarse materialism, of Divine wisdom over human limitations. We recognize that the world in which we live is not an end in itself, but exists to serve a higher spiritual purpose.
Illuminating the Darkness
A great Rabbi once remarked that "You cannot chase away darkness with a stick, you have to turn on the light." The way to eliminate darkness -- to rid the world of ignorance, negativity, hatred and greed -- is to kindle the lights of knowledge, generosity, hope and love.
The Chanukah menorah is lit only after nightfall. This signifies that our purpose is to illuminate the darkness of this world, until the time when, as the Prophet says, "the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d." It may be difficult for us to perceive G-dliness in our everyday lives. But Chanukah reminds us, even in our darkest moments, that the light of knowledge can shine brightly, that redemption is at hand, if we will kindle just one more lamp.
Spreading the Light
The menorah is lit either in the doorway, or in a front window, so that it can be seen outside in the street. This teaches us that it is not enough to bring light into our own private domain. We must spread the light and warmth of Torah to the outer environment as well, as far as our influence can reach.
Brighter and Brighter
Each night of Chanukah, we add another light to the menorah, until all eight lamps shine on the eighth night. This signifies that in matters of holiness, we must always be on the increase. With every added flame, we go from strength to strength in deepening our commitment to the values and traditions of our Jewish way of life.
Defiling the Oil
The Syrian-Greek desecration of the Holy Temple was another example of their determination to destroy the sanctity of Jewish life. The worship of one invisible, omnipotent G-d was replaced with the worship of pagan deities made in the image of man.
The Torah tells us that "the soul of man is the lamp of G-d." Just as oil permeates the olive, the Divine soul permeates the Jew; and just as the oil burning in the menorah spreads light, the Jewish soul illuminates the world in the performance of good deeds. In defiling the sacred oil of the menorah, the Greeks tried to destroy the Jewish soul.
One Cruse of Pure Oil
But the soul cannot be extinguished. Miraculously, despite the best efforts of the oppressors, one cruse of pure oil remained in the Temple, and one cruse was enough to re-dedicate the Temple and renew the holy task of spreading light throughout the world.
Miracles For Today
The lights of the Chanukah menorah are more than simply a reminder of ancient miracles, they are meant to provide inspiration and illumination in our contemporary daily lives. In fact, in a very real sense, the Chanukah miracles of old are re-enacted in our observance today. That is one reason why we say, in the second blessing recited over the Chanukah lights, "...Blessed are You... who wrought miracles for our ancestors, in those days, **at this time**." By reflecting upon the significance of the Chanukah miracles, we can see, with ever-increasing clarity, the miraculous dimension of events in our own time.
What is a Miracle?
Ordinarily, the routine of our day-to-day existence suggests that life is predictable, that events take place according to a natural order, a chain of cause and effect. We may not readily recognize that even "natural" phenomena are, in essence, evidence of the miraculous hand of G-d, until our hearts are stirred by a beautiful sunset, or a glimpse of wildflowers in bloom...
But there is another sort of miracle: an event so striking, so far beyond rational explanation, that we cannot help but recognize it as miraculous. This is the kind of miracle that Chanukah calls to mind.
When one day's supply of oil lasts eight full days, we sit up and take notice. When an ill-equipped handful of Maccabees succeed in vanquishing all the assembled forces of a mighty imperial oppressor, we realize that nothing is impossible for G-d.
Redemption, Against all Odds
In the time of King Antiochus, the fate of the Jewish people seemed grim indeed. The vastly outnumbered Maccabees were up against the world's most sophisticated military machine. They faced opposition from within, as well. Many of their brethren were meek, complacent, and all too willing to forsake their heritage and assimilate into the Hellenistic culture. It was the proverbial "darkest hour before the dawn." Yet, sure enough, with the dawn, came the miraculous, unprecedented victory. With G-d's help and against all odds, the Maccabees were able to reclaim the Holy Land and re-dedicate the Holy Temple.
Throughout the ages, Chanukah has signified the miraculous triumph of the weak over the strong, the pure over the impure, the righteous over the wicked. Whenever the integrity of the Jewish people is under siege, no matter how dark the night, the Chanukah lights proclaim with confidence that the dawn of deliverance is near.
The Ultimate Miracle
Today, the Chanukah lights have special relevance. Many among us despair of ever witnessing the dawn of redemption. After nearly two thousand years, it may seem that the cold, hard realities of exile have all but erased our age- old faith in the coming of Moshiach, who will lead us toward a perfect world. But Chanukah reminds us that G-d grants redemption in the blink of an eye, that the light of G-dliness can brighten even the darkest night.
With every lamp we kindle, with each good deed we do, we shed more light upon the world, and the darkness has already begun to disperse. Who could have imagined, a few short years ago, that communism would crumble, that entrenched totalitarian regimes would turn toward democracy, that hundreds of thousands of oppressed Jews would suddenly be free to emigrate to the Promised Land? Isaiah's messianic prophecy was that the nations of the world will "beat swords into plowshares." It's been our dream for centuries; it may well be tomorrow's headline.
Eight Days, Eight Lights
Our Sages explain that there is particular significance in the fact that the Chanukah menorah has eight lamps, and that we celebrate the Festival for eight days.
In the Holy Temple, the golden Menorah kindled each day in the Sanctuary had only seven lamps. The number seven represents the natural cycle of time: the seven days of the week, corresponding to the six days of Creation and the seventh, the Sabbath Day. Throughout history, since G-d created the world, time has been measured according to this seven-day cycle.
The number eight, however, represents a level that is higher than nature, and above time. This is the level of the miraculous, which is not bound by the laws of nature. It is especially fitting that we celebrate the miracle of Chanukah with eight lamps, culminating on the eighth day... for the number eight is also associated with the revelation of Moshiach, may he come speedily, in our days!