Had that brave band of Maccabim not vanquished the Greek troops through Hashem’s miracle more than 2,100 years ago, the entire world would look different

 

I

once heard a story from the renowned darshan Rav Shlomo Levenstein that might sound like a simple tale, but has an underlying profound message.

A nonobservant Israeli family had decided to send their daughter to a religious kindergarten. The child came home on Friday and told her mother, “My teacher says you should light two candles today, lichvod Shabbat.” The mother brushed off the request, but the little girl persisted: “If you won’t light, then I will.”

The girl went off to the corner grocery and asked for two candles. The storekeeper knew that this was a non-religious family and that the mother didn’t light Shabbos candles. He thought perhaps they had a yahrtzeit, as many Israeli families, even secular ones, do light a memorial candle, a ner neshamah, for a deceased loved one. And so he sold the child two yahrzeit candles.

She went home and lit them. “Look, Ima,” she called to her mother. “I lit two candles — one for you and one for Abba.”

The mother wasn’t so far from Yiddishkeit that she didn’t know what those candles were for. She was overcome with fear, and starting that same day, she began lighting Shabbos candles every week.

I thought about that story recently when pondering the Chanukah lights — for aren’t Chanukah licht also a kind of ner neshamah? Doesn’t our own neshamah glow with the light of the Chanukah candles we’ve lit? For “Ner Elokim nishmas adam…”

There’s one type of Jew who lights the menorah out of habit or ritual, because that’s just what we do at this time every year. He feels no differently about it than he felt last year or the year before that. Of course he’s fulfilled the mitzvah, but nothing much is happening in his neshamah. His candles may be glowing brightly, but their light is reflected only dimly in his soul.

Then there is a second type, who recalls and relives the miraculous victory of the Chashmonaim, who went out to do battle with the Greeks against all odds. Thirteen men with no military training against the mighty forces of the Greek empire. And when this type of Jew lights his menorah today, he feels the thrill of that miracle. When he recites the brachah of “She’asah nissim” and sings “Maoz Tzur,” his soul is truly thanking HaKadosh Baruch Hu and singing His praises.

A third type of Jew stands before the Chanukah lights with his soul feeling greatly expanded. The little lights of the menorah speak to him of all the miracles that have saved our People from the persecution and hate of our enemies throughout history. And he feels a sense of unity with all other Jews around the world who are lighting their menorahs too, with the same flame that quietly proclaims the same message of salvation — the salvation of the Torah in every generation from those who sought to stamp out its fire.

And then there are those who see the miracle of Chanukah in deeper perspective. They realize that HaKadosh Baruch Hu stepped in not only to save the Jewish People and defeat the enemies of His Torah, but to leave a lasting mark on world history.

Let’s imagine what would have happened if the Greeks had crushed that little band of rebels in the hills of Modiin. If the Greeks had won that war, as they ought to have done by the laws of nature, Torah-true Jewry would have been wiped out. The ideals of Greek culture  — idealization of the material world, worship of the body, idolatry — would have reigned unchallenged over most of the world to this day. The miraculous victory of the Maccabim chased the Greeks out of Judea and restored Toras Yisrael as the dominant influence on the Jewish People’s life. And hundreds of years later, two new religions developed — Christianity and Islam, both based on Judaism. These religions spread and grew phenomenally, and although many adherents of both faiths have rivers of Jewish blood to account for, it must also be said that these religions established monotheism and eradicated idolatry wherever they have held sway. Albeit with many distortions, these faiths include a basic belief in the Torah given at Sinai. According to the Rambam, they play an important role in preparing the world for the Kingdom of Mashiach, for they have taught broad segments of humanity to believe in the concept of redemption.

Thus, the victory of the Chashmonaim is really the victory of all people in the world whose values originate in Judaism, as many historians have demonstrated. And that victory has served as inspiration for many freedom fighters throughout the ages who have drawn courage from the example of the Maccabim to stand up against tyrants and oppressors. All these influences stem from Hashem’s brachah to Avraham Avinu: “And all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”

When a Jew gazes at the little flames of his menorah and his soul takes in the full breadth and depth of the story they tell, the miracle and salvation are magnified and multiplied.

 

Under the Lights

How deep is the United States of America’s connection to Chanukah?

In a ceremony held just a few weeks ago at America’s oldest shul, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the US Postal Service and Israel Post jointly issued a special Chanukah stamp. The excitement surrounding the event certainly testifies to the historical, cultural, and political significance of the Chanukah story as part of the American heritage.

At last year’s Chanukah reception in the White House, President Trump said:

The miracle of Chanukah is the miracle of Israel. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have endured unthinkable persecution and oppression. No force has ever crushed your spirit and no evil has ever extinguished your faith.

And when President Obama hosted his final Chanukah celebration in 2016, he said:

In every generation, we take heart from the Maccabees’ struggle against tyranny, their fight to live in peace and practice their religion in peace. We teach our children that even in our darkest moments, a stubborn flame of hope flickers and miracles are possible…. George Washington himself was said to have been stirred by the lights of Chanukah after seeing a soldier seek the warmth of a menorah in the snows of Valley Forge….

Ambassador Henry F. Cooper wrote:

As Jews worldwide complete their celebration of the Maccabee victory that liberated their Temple over two millennia ago, all Americans should remember our common love of liberty, the heritage that has set the West apart, and the common enemy that threatens our very existence and freedom today. We need modern Maccabees to preserve that heritage of liberty for our posterity. So may it be…

Yes, the Chanukah menorah has cast its light far and wide, but let us now get back to ourselves, to our own neshamah. What are those quiet flames, which have illuminated the world, saying to us? The Rambam says of the Chanukah lights, “Mitzvah chavivah hi ad meod” (Hilchos Chanukah 4:12). It is a most beloved mitzvah, for in the year 5779, those lights still speak to us of netzach Yisrael, Jewish victory, Jewish eternity. They are harbingers to our future hopes telling us what can be achieved with mesirus nefesh to the service of Hashem. And that is why it is such a mitzvah chavivah.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 738)