Dedicated to the memory of R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai
"These lights we kindle for the miracles, the wonders, the salvations, and the battles, which You performed for our forefathers in those days at this time, through Your holy priests. During all eight day of Hanukah these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, only to view them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great name, for Your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations."
- Psalm recited after the kindling of the Hanukah lights.
Sacred Candles in an Advancing World
In a bustling world of progress and development, in a day and age when the electric light bulb is taken for granted, we Jews continue to light the Hanukah candles - just as we did some two thousand years ago. Conversely, in this dark world of ours, a frightening existence which reveals, before our very eyes, the human beast in his most appalling nakedness - we light our candles. It is as if to say, "Come, let us, with these little candles, attempt to succeed where bright and mighty lights have failed." Yet what is it that causes us to pin our hopes upon these little candles, to long for their success in lighting up the darkness which engulfs us? What is it that distinguishes our candles, what sort of hidden might do they posses that we should prefer them to other, more powerful lights?
The reason, apparently, has to do with the fact that, "these candles are sacred." Yet what do we mean by "sacred," and what is it that characterizes sanctity? Here, too, our psalm provides us with an explanation - "We are not permitted to make use of them."
There are many kinds of "candles" lighting up the darkness of our world. Despite their mundane, practical nature, man's technological advancements are important indeed; while they do not receive the status of "sacred candles," they serve the important purpose of lighting up the world. When we proclaim with regard to our sacred Hanukah candles that we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, we are implying that the purpose of everyday, mundane candles, is their usefulness, their benefit, the pleasure that they bring us. Advancements in science and technology now provide us with the ability to obtain pleasure and enjoy leisure with much greater ease than ever before. In the past, much effort had to be invested in order to light the fire which was needed for heating the pot; we, for our part, need only strike a match.
"Technology's Candle" in a New Light
Furthermore, this task is of great value because of the positive effect it has on man's character. As a matter of fact, it is a "Mitzvah," a religious and moral obligation. For there exists in man a throbbing life force, energy which demands proper harnessing. These life forces find their "Tikkun," - their positive and productive channel - in the advancement and improvement of our physical existence.
Still, all this is true only in a limited sense. Because the purpose of technology is to find the easiest way to satsfy man's desires, it does not posses the capacity to change the natural course of man's essential direction. The necessity of clothing, for example, was present even in the most primal stages of man's development. The passing of time has not erased this essential need - it has merely improved and updated our clothes.
The need for celebration and joy existed even among the primitives. In our times, this need is even expanding. Because modern technology's objective has been to provide for man's pleasure seeking tendencies, it has broaden this realm - the realm of enjoyment and mundane gratification - without effecting its essential direction; man's true direction, therefore, remains unaffected.
Man's nature contains an evil element from its outset, and, here too, the effect of progress has been minimal. What's more, these evil and destructive inclinations have been provided with a most powerful weapon. The drive for annihilation and domination now posses the capacity of implementation. Men of savage nature and barbarous aims, by virtue of these weapons, have turned the world into a "valley overshadowed by death" (Psalms 23) - not only for us, but for they themselves: The weapon has become the enemy of it's holder as well.
No Ordinary Candles
"We light sacred candles." Our candles are unique in that they strike at the actual core of man's being, in that they are directed at splitting that atom, and changing the essential direction of things. These are not just ordinary, mundane candles - they are Mitzvah candles. God did not give us Mitzvoth for our enjoyment. The purpose of the Mitzvoth is not to provide us with a "comfortable life" in any ordinary or accepted sense of the term. Rather, they present us with a different sort of measuring rod altogether, they elevate and raise us up above our mundane daily actions, to a height at which these things appear altogether insignificant - like children's toys in the eyes of adults. Physical pleasure then receives the status of a means towards a higher goal. Yet, even as a means, pleasure does not enjoy high standing, for under difficult circumstances it is possible to do without it altogether. The concept of eternal life puts our transient existence in its proper perspective, for none of us would choose to forego eternal life for the sake of a fleeting one - even if it meant foregoing all worldly pleasures.
"These lights we kindle." The Jewish people are called upon to light these candles, to demonstrate true self sacrifice without any exterior motives.
"We are not permitted to make ordinary use of them." These candles must be lit without any intention of benefit, but with a sensitivity for the value of the light in and by itself, to view it without benefiting from it. This is the task given over to the Chosen People. And, while we do not belittle the importance of ordinary candles, we cannot deny our unique and essential responsibility with regard to these sacred candles.
Holy and Mundane: Interdependent Forces
Not only do the holy and mundane realms not contradict each other - they are meant to compliment each other. The mundane is not self-sufficient: The physical world could not exist were it not for a metaphysical, spiritual world underlying and supporting it. In the same respect, holiness, "Kedusha,"serves as a mere foundation, a starting and stepping off point for mundane existence. This idea can be discerned in the words of our Sages when they taught that, "One who dedicates his entire storehouse of grain [to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem], has, in effect, done nothing." It is possible to sanctify a portion of the grain, but not the entire lot, for the sanctified produce must remain attached a mundane, ordinary portion.
The problems begin when the distinction between the two becomes blurred, the mundane professing to be holy, the holy renouncing its unique status, when the Jewish people begin to forget their true nature, and the big lights blind their eyes to the point where they shun their assigned task and disregard the unique content of the Jewish nature.
The True Nature of Hanukah
The miracle of Hanukah, according to the Talmud, does not lend itself to writing. It is difficult to put it down in writing. The essentials of the story of Hanukah, of all that befell our people, must be passed down orally, master to disciple, generation to generation. The nature and necessity of the miracle of Hanukah give rise to depressing thoughts concerning ourselves. The sages teach us that the Greek empire "darkened the vision of the People of Israel." The true anguish of Hanukah stems from the fact that the tragedy did not come from the outside, but from within. The events of Purim, because then the enemy found us united from within, lend themselves to writing: the Scroll of Ester shares a place amongst the other books of the Bible. In the case of Hanukah, though, we had to deal with a most dangerous "fifth-column." There was a "crumbling of the front" due to a lack of faith in our inner strength, do to the blinding glare of bright and misleading lights, a superficial and incorrect understanding of the true nature of Greek culture. We were faced with a darkening of our vision which took its toll on the highest and most honored stratums of our people - complete self destruction from which only a miracle could have saved us.
The appearance, at that time, of the Hasmonean family in the Judean village of Modiin, was indeed a miracle. Were it not for the appearance of this family on the scene it is doubtful whether their name would stand out today amongst those of the other priestly families. And who knows what would have become of the evolution the nation as a whole. This thought of it is disheartening. Through intimate discussion of a both supportive and convincing nature, the mentor brings his pupil into the covenant of those mighty individuals who are prepared to guard the undefiled oil at all costs. This is a covenant of suffering and hope, a covenant which demands a willingness to struggle and to build, to suffer and to wait.
Our period, too, is characterized by blinding lights. The most active echelons of the nation have become infected by an admiration for all that is foreign. With little self-respect, easily drawn to superficial splendor, they forego the values of generations. Holidays and Sabbath alike are drained of their true essence, indifferently falsified. In our time the "holiday of courage," Hanukah, suffers falsification as well: The name "Maccabee" has been stripped of its true significance - the complete dedication of all inner human faculties to a lofty ideal, self nullification and spiritual elevation for the sake of heaven.
The true message of Hanukah must be seen as the banding together of the faithful for the sake of purification, for the sake of guarding the still-undefiled flask of oil, for restoration of the true essence and significance of the holidays and special occasions of the Jewish calendar, right down to the simple weekday. Let us pray for the return of the great cry of the Maccabees - "Who is like You among the heavenly powers, O God!"