Core Of The Jewish Nation – Torah, Mitzvot And Our Belief In One Invisible G-d And His Commandments [Parshat Vayeishev, Erev Chanukah By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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What is the difference between a New Zealand bee and a Jewish grandmother?  One gives you Manuka Honey, and the other gives you Hanukah Money!

As Shabbat ends this week, we will move straight into Chanukah … the havdala flame is extinguished and the Chanukah ones are lit.

Every school child who knows the story will tell you that the key event we commemorate over these eight latke-filled days is to do with oil — a small cruse of oil, meant to last for a single day, miraculously stayed alight for eight full days. To remember this miracle we light the menorah (chanukiya), preferably with olive oil, we eat oil-fried foods like latkes and doughnuts, and when we retire we go on cruises to commemorate the cruse (ok, that last bit is optional).

The question is, what happened to the military victory over the Greek army?

Surely that was a much bigger miracle! That a small group of Jews was able to defeat a massive army, superior in numbers, weapons, tactics and training — they even had trained war elephants! — is surely a greater miracle? So where has it disappeared? Why do we make all the fuss about the miracle of the oil, and not about the miracle of this incredible military upset?

If you travel to the US you will know that in the seat pocket on the aircraft there is often a magazine called Skymall, full of weird and wonderful things to buy, like DNA tests to find out your dog’s pedigree and shower-heads that glow different colours. On a flight before Chanukah last year I found this very amusing, looking at the strange things people (who presumably have everything) are tempted to buy. Then I came across an item which gave me pause for thought … it was a “festive tree” ornament in the shape of a menorah. It was described as “the perfect way to celebrate both holidays together in this festive season.” Apparently these are quite common in America, but I had never seen them before and it saddened me (and not because at the price they were charging they would never get any Jewish customers!).

It bothered me because it seemed to go against the very essence of what the menorah stands for, of what the holiday of Chanukah commemorates, of what the Maccabees risked their lives for, of what Chana’s seven sons gave their lives for …

Chanukah was about an attack on our beliefs and traditions, an attempt to replace them with those of the host nation. Those Jews under threat could easily have survived if they would have simply assimilated, Hellenised – as many Jews did at that time. They had only to renounce Shabbat, Torah study, circumcision and kashrut, exchange them for Greek customs and pastimes, and they would have been spared. But they gave their lives, as did their families – in order to preserve the core of the Jewish nation – our Torah and mitzvot, our belief in one invisible G-d and His commandments.

Human nature is that we try to assimilate, we want to conform to those around us, not to be different. We crave social acceptance and integration. So how do Jews in the Diaspora integrate into society without relinquishing all of our precious traditions and heritage, without feeling the need for a festive tree next to the menorah?

Maybe the answer to that question is hinted at by the answer to the question on Chanukah observance, the strong focus on the miracle of the oil, rather than the miracle of the military victory.

Yes there was a military victory, but the continuity of the Jewish people depends on our following the call of Matisyahu, “Mi La’Hashem Elay – All those for G-d, join me!” by living a life which has spiritual and religious content, by being proud of who we are and where we come from. By lighting the Chanukah flames, we make sure our homes are filled with the warmth and light of Yiddishkeit, and that is the strongest defence against the assimilation that is whittling away our people.

If we want to ensure that our families stay true to what we believe in, we need to light those menorahs. We need to be constantly producing light and warmth, and we need to avoid complacency. If we light one today, we light two tomorrow; if we light two today, we light three the day after … always trying to move onwards and upwards. Like Yosef (Joseph) in our Torah reading this week, whose defence against the temptations of society around him was to follow the path of his fathers — the path blazed by Avraham, and reinforced by Yitzchak and Yaakov — we too have a clear path to travel, one that leads away from temptation and into holiness.

May we merit this Chanukah to see the lighting of the real menorah, lit by the Kohen Gadol in the Beit Hamikdash.  Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.


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