Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 24 December 2016 / 24 Kislev 5777

Chanuka: The Need for Pure Oil

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

The Gemara says that Chanuka was instated as a holiday to commemorate the miracle of the pure oil that lasted eight days (Shabbat 21b). The commentaries, though, question the need for this miracle. The halacha states that the service of the congregation supersedes the laws of impurity. According to one opinion in the Gemara, this means that it becomes completely permissible without any notion that one should even try to perform the services in purity (Yoma 6b). If so, we need to ask why did the Chashmonaim exert so much effort to search for a pure jar of oil when they were allowed to light even with impure oil? Furthermore, why did G-d go out of His way, so to speak, to perform a miracle to enable them to light with pure oil, when it really wasn’t necessary? (Re’em on Smag Hilchot Chanuka, Pnei Yehoshua on Shabbat 21b and Teshuvot Chacham Tzvi 87)

Before answering the above questions, we need a brief background in Jewish thought. Everything in the physical world has its source in the spiritual realm. Furthermore, everything in the spiritual realm is a direct outcome of our physical actions and moral decisions. This is the reason why the Jewish approach has always been to attribute spiritual reasons to our physical struggles with enemies. After all, the enemies are only an outer manifestation of an inner deficiency in the Jewish People. Therefore, since G-d always deals with the world measure-for-measure, by studying the method employed by the enemy in how they attack us, who attacks us, and where they attack us, we can gain insight into the deficiency within that was the real cause of their assault. This is the kindness of G-d dealing with us measure-for-measure, which allows us to understand exactly what to fix. (See Michtav M’Eliyahu II p. 51)

Based on this idea the Bach says that before the Chanuka miracle took place there was laxity on the Jewish People’s part in their services in the Beit Hamikdash. Therefore, G-d allowed the Greeks to defile the Beit Hamikdash and the oil for the Menorah, so as to hint to them their shortcoming in this area. It was also befitting for the Greeks to be the messengers because they preached denial in a spiritual reality, with only a belief in what may be seen, heard, or felt by the physical senses. Through the Greeks, the nation that denied the spiritual world, defiling the Beit Hamikdash, the ultimate place where the spiritual and physical met, G-d constructed the perfect consequence that was measure-for-measure for the Jewish People’s laxity in the Beit Hamikdash services.

The Gemara says that when someone repeats a sin, he becomes desensitized to it, and feels as though the act is actually permissible (Yoma 86b). Therefore, the way to perform proper teshuva for a sin is to go to the opposite extreme to counterbalance one’s natural desire for it, and thus re-sensitize him in that area (Chovot Halevavot, Sha’ar HaTeshuva, 1). Based on this, if a person is lax in observing a certain mitzvah he should go to the other extreme and observe that mitzvah with extra care, even when halacha does not require it. This is meant to instill within the person the importance of the mitzvah, and thereby prevent any sort of laxity in it in the future.

The kohanim personified this idea during the Chanuka story. They understood that it was their laxity in their services in the Beit Hamikdash that led to the Greek attack. Therefore, they decided to complete their sincere teshuva by risking their lives to battle against the Greek’s mighty army to rededicate the Beit Hamikdash. Also, following their victory, the kohanim understood that it was crucial to fix their past mistakes by going to the opposite extreme and performing the service in purity — even if was not halachically necessary. It is for this reason that they searched so tirelessly for pure oil to light the menorah.

And why did G-d respond with a miracle that seemingly wasn’t necessary? The commentaries explain that while certain conditions may become halachically permissible when someone is in a compromising situation, he must still ask himself why G-d put him there, as the very fact that he was put there may be an indication that his actions in that area are lacking (Alshich on Vayikra 4:1-2, Siddur of Rabbi Yaakov Emden, Peleh Yoetz “shogeg”). Based on this idea we can explain that while it was permissible for the Chashmonaim to light the Menorah with impure oil under their given circumstance, the circumstance itself may have signified that G-d was unhappy with them. Therefore, to show them that their teshuva was fully accepted, G-d performed a miracle and allowed them to light with pure oil. In this sense the miracle was a demonstration of G-d’s affection for them, thus indicating G-d’s acceptance of their teshuva.

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