Lives of flame and fortune
The Passover Seder may be the most-celebrated event in the Jewish calendar, and Yom Kippur may have the highest synagogue attendance, but there is no question that Hanukkah is the most popular of all the Jewish holidays. And why not? Eight days with absolutely no ritual restrictions, filled with song and tempting fried food – proof positive that we Jews struck oil a long, long time ago! – so what could be bad? And in the Diaspora, Hanukkah takes on even greater significance, allowing us to compete favorably with the 12 days of Christmas in the annual “gift-off” with our non-Jewish neighbors.
Of course, there is no shortage of significant and meaningful messages to this holiday. It has always been associated with freedom, as the upstart Hasmonean community threw off the yoke of Greek domination and reclaimed its independence. And it highlights the ever-present miraculous hand of God, evidenced by both the against-all-odds victory in the war, as well as “the little cruse that could” – the oil that astoundingly lasted eight full days.
Yet I want to suggest another theme to Hanukkah that goes to the heart of this festival: The struggle for purity in an often diluted and deluded world.
The reason why we light eight lights in our hanukkiah is because it took eight days to secure new oil. But why so long? One opinion is that the oil was produced in a region four days’ travel from Jerusalem. But another opinion is that, due the war and its many casualties, the people were tamei, in a state of ritual impurity, and were required by Jewish law to wait a full seven days before they could become tahor, ritually pure. Only then could they process new oil – which took an additional day – and thus the eight-day wait.
Yet the rabbis question if this delay was necessary, for there is a halacha that explicitly states that if the entire nation is impure, then, in effect, no one is impure! Thus the Temple officials could have immediately secured new oil and re-lit the menorah! So why did they wait?
The essential answer is that, while this permissibility – this loophole, if you will – did indeed exist, the victorious Maccabees did not want to rely upon it. They felt that if they were going to re-dedicate the Temple, if they were going to jumpstart the spiritual engine of the Jewish people, they should do so in a first-class manner, without relying on any shortcuts or quirks in the law. Better to wait, they decided, and thereby adhere to the very highest of standards.
Some years ago, when I visited the refusenik community in pre-perestroika Russia, among the ritual items I took with me were a number of ketubot. As there were no rabbis at the time in that community, I offered to perform the weddings for a number of couples who had married civilly, but not in a religious ceremony.
One of the refuseniks raised the issue that none of the women would be able to go to the mikveh (ritual bath) before the ceremony. He explained that it was dangerous for Jews in the USSR to use the mikveh, as they would be photographed as they entered and targeted as “social deviants” and enemies of the state. As such, they stayed away. I explained to the couples that, while mikveh was indeed a prerequisite for Jewish marriage, my rabbis had instructed me that in this extenuating circumstance, it was preferable for the couples to perform the religious ceremony now, and visit a mikveh later, when it was safe.
At that point, the group huddled together for quite some time, arguing about something among them. Then one of the women, who also spoke Hebrew, stepped forward and told me: “With all respect to you, rabbi, we appreciate your offer and accept that we would be allowed to marry religiously, without the mikveh. But we have decided that we are going to wait until we can wed in a full-fledged, 100% manner, no less than the most observant of Jews would do. That day will come, we believe, and then there will be no ‘footnote’ or ‘asterisk’ by our names.”
I was impressed beyond words, and placed the ketubot back in my briefcase.
We, today, live in a society that is continually searching for ways to massage, streamline, tweak and adjust the law – both Jewish and secular – so that it becomes as palatable as possible to our tastes, without crossing the red line of disobedience or illegality. And that is not necessarily a bad thing; the teachers at our yeshiva in Skokie always taught us that our task as rabbis was to make Judaism as accessible and attractive as possible to the wider Jewish community.
But somewhere along the way, it is also imperative that there be those select individuals who reject the path of least resistance and choose instead to always take the high road, people whose conduct is unsullied and unadulterated, free of shortcuts and compromises – politicians who take no bribes; Israeli soldiers who enthusiastically choose combat roles at the risk of their lives; rabbis who look straight ahead at the truth and not continually over their shoulders; men and women who demonstrate there are no upper limits to our ability to conform to God’s will and man’s law. These rare and outstanding personalities are the Maccabees of history, rays of brilliant light that show us mere mortals the way, models and monuments for all of us to emulate.
Yaakov Kirschen of Dry Bones fame asks: “The question is not how the cruse of oil lasted for eight days; the question is how we Jews lasted throughout the centuries!” The answer, I suggest, are the living jars of pure oil and pure faith whose flame can never be extinguished.
These rare and outstanding personalities are the Maccabees of history, rays of brilliant light that show us mere mortals the way
THREE-YEAR-OLD Eliana Peretz of Modi’in lights her hanukkia.