Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 9 December 2017 / 21 Kislev 5778

Chanuka, Light and Darkness

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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In the beginning of G-d’s creating of the Heavens and the earth. And the earth was surprisingly empty and darkness was on the face of the water and the spirit of G-d soared on the face of the waters. (Bereishet 1:1-2)

The Midrash explains that each of the four phrases that describe the world before Creation refers to one of the four kingdoms that would subjugate the Jewish People. Darkness, says the Midrash, is the kingdom of Greece (Bereishet Rabbah 2:4). This idea is not easily understood. Although Greek culture represents the antithesis of Torah values, they were nevertheless intellectual people who mastered many different areas of secular knowledge. Why then is the kingdom of Greece specifically referred to as darkness, a title that is normally used as referring to an absence of knowledge and depth?

The pasuk says that on the first day of Creation: G-d said, “Let there be light” — and there was light. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, comments on the pasuk: G-d saw that it is not fitting for the light to be used by the wicked, so He set it aside for the righteous to use in the future. The Gemara explains that with this light Adam HaRishon was able to see from one end of the world to the other (Chagigah 12a). What is the deeper meaning behind this? The commentaries explain that the Hebrew word for world, olam, shares its root with the word he’elim (hid) (see Rashi on Shemot 3:14). This is because the natural world is meant to hide G-d’s presence, enabling free will to choose between good and bad. As a result, when we look at the physical properties that comprise our world, it is very hard to see G-d’s Hand at work. Light is the medium that enables us to see. Ordinary light only reveals an object’s physical makeup. The ohr haganuz (the light that was later put away for the righteous), however, did not only reveal the physical properties of an item, but also its spiritual essence. The ohr haganuz had the unique characteristic of being able to reveal G-d in the world. This is the deeper meaning behind the Gemara that says Adam HaRishon was able to see from one end of the world to the other. The ohr haganuz shone through the mask of the world of nature that hides G-d, by revealing the guiding Hand of G-d everywhere (See S’fat Emet, Chanuka 5661 and Vayera 5663).

Even though the ohr haganuz was hidden away, there are times, places, and mediums that have the ability to make this special light accessible. One example is the Beit Hamikdash, where the ohr haganuz was readily available. This is why the Gemara refers to the Beit Hamikdash as “the light of the world” (Bava Batra 4a). Similar to the ohr haganuz, the Beit Hamikdash revealed spirituality in the physical world. In fact, the Beit Hamikdash was built in a way that symbolically portrayed this spiritual idea. Most buildings in those days were built so that the windows would capture the light from the sun, and project inside as much light as possible by being narrower on the outside than the inside. The Beit Hamikdash lit up the world with this special ohr haganuz, so its windows were wider on the outside to spread out this special ohr haganuz to the world (See Menachot 86b). Even though the entire Beit Hamikdash was reminiscent of the ohr haganuz, it was more specifically the Menorah that was in the Beit Hamikdash that shone the magnificent light of the ohr haganuz.

In addition to the Menorah and the Beit Hamikdash, the Torah is another medium that makes the ohr haganuz available to us even today (Tanchuma, Noach). This is why Chazal refer to Torah as light, as the Gemara says: there is no light but Torah (Ta’anit 7b). Just like the ohr haganuz revealed the spiritual depth behind everything in the world, so too the Torah has the unique ability to help us see beyond the physical. As mentioned before, on the first day of Creation G-d created the ohr haganuz. After 36 hours He removed this light from the world and hid it away for the righteous in the World-to-Come. The Bnei Yisaschar explains that the 36 masechtot (tractates) of Gemara hint to the fact that Torah can also reveal that hidden light that shone for 36 hours. Just like the hidden light had the ability to bring the spiritual essence to the surface, Torah learning too enables one to see the depth of the world’s spiritual core.

Greek philosophy clashed completely with the idea of the ohr haganuz. They embraced the physical world and shunned the notion that there is depth or hidden spirituality. This being said, it is quite clear why the Greeks came to defile the Beit Hamikdash, contaminate the oil for lighting the Menorah, and to try and make us forget the Torah. It is because these were the mediums through which the ohr haganuz shone in the world — the light that allowed us to see beyond the physical.

It should be clear now why Chazal refer to the Greeks as darkness. In the physical world, light reveals and enables people to see; darkness on the other hand hides what is truly there. Similarly, when Chazal refer to light they are referring to mediums that enable the spiritual world to be seen, and when they refer to darkness they are referring to mediums that prevent the spiritual world from being visible. With this new definition of darkness we can see that Greece, more than any other nation, personified the idea of blocking out the light through which spirituality can be seen with their evil decrees.

Based on the above we can gain a deeper understanding of the mitzvah of lighting the lights on Chanuka. The Maharal explains that as winter settles in, the nights get longer and longer until the 25th day of Kislev, at which point light begins to increase in the world. Based on the idea that what takes place in the physical world is a reflection of what is happening in the spiritual realm, this phenomena hints at the availability of the ohr haganuz at this time. The Chanuka lights are a continuation of the light of the Menorah of the BeitHamikdash that was itself a reflection of the ohr haganuz (Ran on Shabbat 9 in dapei HaRif; Ramban to Bamidbar 8:1). In fact, the Rokeach explains that the 36 lights that we light throughout Chanuka correspond to the 36 hours that Adam HaRishon experienced the presence of the ohr haganuz before it was removed. May we all merit utilizing this time to see beyond the physical world and ultimately overcome the Greek ideologies that still plague us today.

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