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Chanuka – The Menora and the War

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein



This shiur is dedicated in loving memory of Pesa Wolfowicz, z"l, on the occasion of her yahrzeit, from the Okon family.


 Adapted by Shaul Barth with Itiel Gold

Translated by Kaeren Fish



The joy of Chanuka focuses on two miracles: the miracle of the menora and the miracle of the war.  These two elements would seem, at first glance, to contradict one another.  The menora stands inside the Holy Temple, in a place that only the kohanim are permitted to enter. The war, in contrast, is waged outside: everyone participates in it, and it influences the entire region.


However, there is also an aspect of each of these concepts that makes them compatible. The Gemara attributes to the lighting of the menora a task that is directed towards the whole world: “It is a testimony to the people of the world that the Divine Presence rests in Israel” (Shabbat 22b). The menora has relevance for all nations; its function is to illuminate outward, and not only within the Sanctuary. The Chashmonaim, who fought outside of the Temple, did so in order to purify the Temple. Thus, despite the seeming contradiction, the two phenomena also share an essential connection.


In fact, severing the two concepts carries great danger. It would be disastrous for each party to focus only on its own problems, ignoring those of the other side – the kohanim interested only in purifying the defiled Temple, in finding “pure olive oil," while making no effort to help mold the surrounding culture and nor to connect with those outside of the Temple, and the rest of the nation caring only about external matters, with no thought for the Temple.


Such divisiveness would be bad and dangerous, and therefore the Chashmonaim – who understood the problem – took upon themselves the responsibility for political leadership along with their priestly role, in order to create a bridge between the two sides. While Ramban expresses harsh criticism for their taking this step, in view of the clear biblical indication that the king of Israel should be a descendant of the tribe of Yehuda (Bereishit 49:10), it seems that the Chashmonaim regarded it as a necessity in light of their situation. They aimed to lead to an optimal situation amongst Am Yisrael, whereby they would be connected to the Temple and what it symbolizes, on the one hand, while maintaining contact with the nation and its culture in accordance with the guidelines of Torah.


Today, too, we encounter a similar problem in our society. There are people who occupy themselves only with the “pure olive oil," taking no interest in matters of the world – including contributing to Jewish culture and art in Israel, or lending assistance in areas that are not "pure." On the other hand, there are other people who lean too far towards secular and universal trends and values, abandoning their tradition and severing themselves from the "pure olive oil."


We are obligated – each of us personally, and also communally – to engage in both tasks: both our inner, spiritual development and the building of Am Yisrael, its culture and its land, in the spirit of the Torah.


This message has become especially pertinent in recent years, as we witness an ideological trend towards redefining the State of Israel as a secular entity, severed from Torah. In the wake of this grave development, each of us is obligated to contribute towards the building and molding of the land – even if this entails rendering one’s “olive oil” slightly less “pure."