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15 Kislev 5763 - November 20, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
The Lesson of The Flask of Oil: A Shmuess For Chanukah

by HaRav Sholom Schwadron zt'l

22 Kislev 5763, His Fifth Yahrtzeit

Introduction: Centrality of the Flask of Oil

The gemora (Shabbos 21) asks, "What is Chanukah?" Rashi explains, "On account of which miracle was it instituted?" for there were two of them. A small handful of Chashmono'im were victorious in battle against thousands of Greeks, and a flask with just one day's supply of oil lasted for eight days. According to Rashi, the gemora is asking which of the two was the main reason for the festival.

The gemora responds, "Tonnu Rabbonon, the Rabbonon learned: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev are the days of Chanukah [of which] there are eight, on which there is no eulogizing and no fasting. For when the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oils in the Temple and when the rulers of the house of Chashmonoi gained the upper hand and defeated them, they searched and found only one flask of oil that remained with the seal of the Cohen Godol. It only contained oil to light [the Menorah] for one day. A miracle took place in it and they lit from it for eight days. A year later, they institutionalized them and made them festive days of praise and thanksgiving."

Rashi explains that this festive character is not in the form of a prohibition against working but in saying Hallel and in adding al hanisim to the brocho of Thanks in the Amidah.

We need to understand why the apparently greater miracle of the victory over thousands of Greek soldiers is not made more prominent. Moreover, every single day of the year the Ner Maarovi of the Menorah in the Temple burned miraculously. All the other lamps burned for twelve hours and, with the same amount of oil, the Ner maarovi burned for twenty-four hours. There would thus also seem to be greater novelty in the victory in battle than in the oil.

From Hashem Alone

In order to answer these questions we shall first quote Medrash Eichoh (4:15): "There were four kings. Each had a different demand. They were Dovid, Yehoshofot, Asa and Chizkiyohu. Dovid requested, `I shall pursue and catch my enemies and I shall not return until I have destroyed them' (Tehillim 18:38). Hakodosh Boruch Hu told him, `I shall do so.' Thus the posuk says, `And Dovid smote them from the evening until the end of the following night' (Shmuel I 30:17) . . .

"Asa came and said, `I don't have the strength to kill them; I shall pursue them and You do [the rest].' [Hakodosh Boruch Hu] told him, `I shall do so,' as it says, `And Asa pursued them . . . for they were broken before Hashem and before His camp . . . ' (Divrei Hayomim II 14:12), not `before Asa' but `before Hashem and . . . His camp.'

"Yehoshofot came and said, `I have strength neither to fight not to pursue; I shall say shiroh and You do [the rest].' Hakodosh Boruch Hu told him, `I shall do so,' as it says, `And when they started singing and praising . . . Hashem set ambushers . . . and they were smitten' (Divrei Hayomim II 20:22).

"Chizkiyohu came and said, `I have neither strength to fight, nor to pursue, nor to say shiroh; I shall sleep on my bed and You do [the rest].' Hakodosh Boruch Hu told him, `I shall do so,' as it says, `And it was on that night; and an angel of Hashem went out and smote the camp of Assur . . . ' (Melochim II 19:35)."

What is the explanation of the differences between these four kings? The great mussar teachers explain this medrash in the light of the posuk in parshas Eikev (8:12-3). "Lest you eat and be sated . . . and your cattle and flock increase and your gold and silver grow very great . . . and your heart grow proud and you forget Hashem . . . and you say in your heart, `My strength and the might of my hand have gained me all this wealth.' "

Dovid Hamelech was a mighty warrior who had killed eight hundred men at one time. This is the meaning of his prayer (Tehillim 69:2-3), "Save me Hashem, for the waters have reached danger point; I have sunk in the mud of the depths . . . " Rashi explains that "the waters" refer to the nations. [Because he relied solely upon Hashem to save him from his foes, as this posuk shows] Dovid, in his humility and faith was able to say, `I shall pursue and catch my enemies,' without being at any risk of thinking that he had his own strength and might to thank.

Asa was different. He said, "I don't have the strength to kill," because he was worried that if he killed his enemies himself, he might chas vesholom attribute the victory to his own strength. He thus said, "I shall pursue them and You do [the rest]."

Yehoshofot was concerned that if he even just pursued his enemies, he would feel proud of his own strength. He thus said, "I shall say shiroh and You do [the rest]."

Chizkiyohu was afraid that even if he said shiroh, he would begin to think, "The power of my shiroh . . . " so he said "I shall sleep on my bed and You do everything!"

Once, when I went to see the Brisker Rov zt'l, I asked him about the posuk, "And you shall say, `My strength and the might of my hand have gained me all this wealth.' " In parshas Vo'eshchanan however, the posuk (6:10) says, "Great and good cities that you did not build . . . houses filled with every good thing that you did not build . . . " How is it then possible to say, "My strength and the might of my hand have gained me all this?"

It is well known that the Brisker Rov was a man of very few words. This time however, he spoke at length. He cited proofs that it is possible to believe in one's own might in amassing even things which one had no hand in building. One can believe in "my might and my righteousness" [he said]. In other words, a person can believe that he has merits that make him deserving [of his gains]. This too is "My strength and the might of my hand," chas vesholom [and it explains Chizkiyohu's concern].

To return to our original question: We can now answer why the miracle of the flask of oil was chosen for commemoration rather than the military victory. Others could come and attribute that success to human strength and prowess, for after all, the Chashmono'im really were mighty warriors. On the other hand, no human intervention whatsoever was involved in the miracle of the oil. The Cohen merely lit the lamps of the menorah which contained enough oil for one day and they burned for eight days. Here it was clear that was no other agency; it was pure, unadulterated miracle!

The Miracle of Nature

Another approach can be suggested, based on the famous question asked by the Beis Yosef: Why are there eight days of Chanukah, implying that the miracle lasted eight days? The flask contained enough oil for one day, so the miracle only took place on seven, not eight, days. The Alter of Kelm zt'l answered that the extra day is to teach us that oil's property of combustion, all the time and even for one day, is itself a miracle. All natural phenomena are miracles for, after all, they all come from the hand of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

This is the lesson conveyed by the Ramban at the end of parshas Bo (13:16): "As a result of the major miracles a person acknowledges the hidden miracles, which are the foundation of the entire Torah. For a person has no portion in the Torah of Moshe Rabbenu until he believes that all our circumstances and experiences -- both collective and individual -- are miracles, having no connection whatsoever with the natural order and the way of the world . . . "

A certain talmid chochom who learned in Yeshivas Ponovezh as a bochur, told me that he used to accompany the Mashgiach, the gaon and tzaddik, HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein ztvk'l. Once they passed a garden where a sprinkler was watering the vegetation. Apparently with the intention of imparting a lesson, the Mashgiach asked his companion whether he knew how the sprinkler worked, how it revolved etc. The bochur replied that when the handle is opened a stream of water is released and the nature of the water is that the force of the ejected stream drives the sprinkler's head in revolutions in the opposite direction.

The Mashgiach took exception to this answer and responded, "No, no, there is no cause and effect. The Creator makes it happen. There are no natural forces whatsoever in operation" and he quoted the words of the Ramban, as above. [Clearly, this lesson can only be conveyed through the miracle of the oil.]

The Shechinoh is With Us

Another idea that can be mentioned in this connection is one that I have discussed in parshas Behaalosecha. I shall repeat it here briefly. In the course of its discussion of Chanukah, the gemora (Shabbos 22) quotes the posuk (Vayikro 24:3), "He shall arrange it [the menorah] outside the curtain of the [Oron of] testimony . . . "

The gemora asks, "Does He need its light? It is however, testimony to all the world's inhabitants that the Divine Presence rests upon Yisroel." The gemora then asks which aspect of the menorah's lighting is the testimony. Rav replies, "It is the ner maarovi, into which he would put the same amount of oil as the other lamps, yet [twelve hours after they had all gone out] he would light from it and would finish with it."

Certainly this was miraculous! But besides this miracle, there were ten others that took place regularly in the Beis Hamikdosh (Ovos 5:5). Why is this particular one cited as testimony to the resting of the Shechinoh upon Klal Yisroel?

The ten miracles however, testified to the Shechinoh's presence in the Beis Hamikdosh, for they only pertained to things belonging there. The ner maarovi showed that it rested upon Klal Yisroel!

This is illustrated by what happened after the inauguration of the Mishkon. The Torah tells us that, "Moshe and Aharon . . . came out and blessed the people" (Vayikro 9:23). Rashi tells us that the blessing was, "May the pleasantness of Hashem rest upon you and may the work of our hands be established for us . . . " (Tehillim 90:17). Aharon's hands were imbued with such great holiness that a miracle took place in a lamp that he lit. Had his hands had less holiness -- had the Shechinoh not been resting upon them -- the miracle of the ner maarovi would not have taken place. This was why Moshe and Aharon blessed Klal Yisroel with this particular blessing.

The miracle of the flask of oil thus shows us that all the miraculous victories in battle only took place because the Shechinoh rests upon Klal Yisroel; this was revealed by the oil's burning for eight days.

Purpose of the Miracles

Another question I have is, if there was a miracle with the flask of oil, why isn't it mentioned in the prayer of Al hanisim? [After recounting that,] "You handed the mighty over to the weak, the pure to the unclean, the wicked to the righteous," all it says there is, "Your sons came to Your sanctuary . . . and lit lamps in Your holy courtyards . . . ". No mention whatsoever is made of the oil's burning miraculously for eight days.

The answer is that the whole purpose of the miraculous victory was to acknowledge Hashem's greatness by coming into the Mikdosh, lighting the Menorah and thanking and praising Hashem's name.

The purpose of all miracles is so that we recognize Hashem's greatness. This is why we conclude [Al hanisim] with, "And You performed miracles and wonder for them and we shall thank Your great name." If they wouldn't have "come to Your sanctuary and lit lamps in Your holy courtyards," this would have meant that they didn't realize the purpose of miracles such as the victories in battle, namely, in order to praise Hashem. There is thus no reason to mention the details of the miracle of the oil. What is important is to stress the purpose of all the miracles -- that they came to the Mikdosh, lit lamps in purity and holiness and thanked Hashem and praised Him.

Victory of Purity

The opening of Al hanisim, "In the days of Mattisyohu," can be explained in the following way. The miracle in Hashem's having "handed over the mighty to the weak" and "the many to the few" is readily understood. The Greeks were mighty warriors and they were defeated by the Chashmono'im. There were also many thousands of them and just a handful of Chashmono'im. What though, was the miracle in Hashem's having handed "the impure to the pure"? Does being impure lend more physical strength and make those who are impure any more likely to win?

I remember from when I was a bochur, one time someone came over to me smoking a cigarette on Shabbos, out of spite. I protested, but he paid no attention until I beat him until he threw the cigarette away. (Boruch Hashem, several years later he came and admitted that as a result of that incident, he eventually became a baal teshuvoh.)

To explain the miracle of the victory of the pure over the impure, I suggested the following idea. The miracle of victory would have been incomplete had Hashem merely handed the mighty over to the weak and the many to the few. Even after victory over the Greek army, there were many wicked Jews who copied their culture. These Hellenists would have come to Yerushalayim and set up a government there, similar to today's Zionist governments R'l. Where would have become of "thanking and praising Hashem's great name"? The impure, who were handed over to the pure refers therefore, to the wicked among the Jews, who submitted to the Chashmono'im, who did come to the Mikdosh to light the Menorah and to praise Hashem.

The miracle of the flask of pure oil therefore came to throw all the other miracles into perspective, both the military victory over the Greeks and the spiritual victory over the Hellenists, as a result of which Yerushalayim and the Mikdosh regained their full measure of holiness. [This is why Al hanisim opens with the mention of Mattisyohu Cohen Godol, the Chashmonoi, to stress that it was the pure element in Klal Yisroel that emerged victorious from the Greek persecutions.]

Celebrating Spiritual Rescue

According to this, we can understand why Chazal did not institute any festive meal or other commemoration of our miraculous deliverance from physical danger. As we have shown, the fundamental miracle was the cleansing of the Mikdosh from all impurities and the cleansing of the botei medrash (the talmudei Torah and yeshivos) from modernization, philosophy and haskoloh.

I heard the following comment from the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Ben Tzion Yadler zt'l. The Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 10:2) says, "Why was King Achaz so named? Because he supported the botei knessios and botei medroshos. Achaz said, `If there are no kids, there are no goats. If there is no flock, there is no shepherd.' " Achaz reckoned that if there were no young talmidim, there would eventually be no sages and no prophets. If there were no prophets, there would be no ruach hakodesh. In other words, Hakodosh Boruch Hu would, as it were, cease to cause his Shechinoh to rest upon Klal Yisroel. Apparently this means that Achaz closed the doors to the botei medrash and did not allow the talmidim to enter to learn Torah. HaRav Yadler asked: In that case, he should have been named Soger, meaning `Closer,' not Achaz, which denotes holding or supporting.

Achaz was not such a fool however, as to send guards to close up the botei medrash. He understood that Klal Yisroel would not stand for such a measure and would rise up in rebellion and selflessly wage a holy campaign against him. What did he do? He held onto the doors. He didn't close the doors; he opened them up. He granted a stipend for religious causes, for the renovation of the botei medrash. He allocated large sums for this cause and sent in a government inspector! And . . . a committee of inquiry, whose conclusion was that they were unable to allocate funds for pupils who had to sit in such cramped conditions, with their backs bent, while they learn Torah. Therefore, the supervisor must tutor them in sports, in football, baseball and karate and all kinds of other games. This would ensure the youngsters both a healthy body and a healthy soul. Sport would have to become a daily feature. At first, for half an hour a day, and then longer -- until there had been success in "making them forget Your Torah." Let them concentrate all their thoughts in their feet, while they play football and in other kinds of haskoloh, R'l.

This is why King Chizkiyohu, who was Achaz' son, wanted to increase purity in Klal Yisroel, instead of impurity, and to repair what his father had spoiled. He wanted to reinstate the traditional atmosphere and Klal Yisroel's spirit of holiness.

This is why Chazal did not make any commemoration for our physical salvation on Chanukah: In order to show that the main miracle was the rescue of our souls. This is why we mention, "and for the wars" at the beginning of Al hanisim. This does not refer to a fight for physical survival but a holy campaign to deliver "the evildoers into the hands of those who are occupied with your Torah . . . they purified Your mikdosh and lit lamps in Your holy courts and enacted these eight days of Chanukah to thank and to praise Your great name!" May we soon witness the rebuilding of our House of holiness and glory, with the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, omein seloh!

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