On the first night of Chanukah we add the brocho of shehecheyonu (Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season) to the brochos of lehadlik ner shel Chanukah and she'osoh nissim. The gemora (Shabbos 23a) rules that even someone who only sees the Chanukah light and does not light it himself makes the two brochos of she'osoh nissim and shehecheyonu, and leaves out only the brocho of lehadlik, since he does not actually kindle it.
We therefore see clearly that the brocho of shehecheyonu does not apply only to the act of the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah lights, as we usually understand concerning the brocho of shehecheyonu in other mitzvos, such as the arbaas haminim, where the brocho relates to doing the act of picking up the arbaas haminim to fulfill the mitzvah. Since even someone who does not kindle the lights makes shehecheyonu, we must conclude that the brocho also applies to the time of Chanukah itself, a brocho to the One "Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season."
What indeed does this season of Chanukah teach us?
On the 25th of Kislev in the days of the Chashmonaim tremendous miracles happened, as we say in al hanissim. What does the phrase at this time add for us?
Today we do not have the mesiras nefesh for Torah that is referred to in the Chanukah events. Although it is true that when the Chashmonaim lived, many years ago, such mesiras nefesh existed and colossal miracles happened, what does this mean to us today, at this time?
One of the themes of Sefer Yetzirah is that when HaKodosh Boruch Hu established the heavens and earth He made three parallel levels in the Creation: the world, the nefesh, and the year.
First is the world in general. Although on the globe all countries seem the same, with no preeminence for Eretz Yisroel over others, actually Eretz Yisroel is a world unto itself, a source of kedusha and tohoroh. When Hashem created the universe he infused Eretz Yisroel with additional kedusha, and Yerushalayim with more kedusha than all of Eretz Yisroel, and the Beis Hamikdash with even more kedusha than Yerushalayim, making it yet again a separate world in itself.
The second level mentioned by the Sefer Yetzirah is the nefesh. This includes all nefoshos in general, but a Jew has a unique nefesh. His nefesh is distinct and elevated, much higher than all other nefoshos. Above the regular Yisroel is the more exalted nefesh of Cohanim, and above even them is the nefesh of the Cohen Godol. Even Dovid Hamelech, if he had wanted to serve as Cohen Godol even for just one day, would not have been able to do so. King Uziyohu become a metzora for his whole life because he tried to be Cohen Godol. HaKodosh Boruch Hu, Who created all the nefoshos, divided them into different levels of prominence and kedushas.
The third level is the year -- all of the days of the year. Although it might seem that all the days and nights are the same, there is a time that has its own special qualities -- segulos -- that cannot be found in any other time.
Bnei Yisroel finished building the Mishkan on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. This was the Mishkan, the house of Hashem, for which Klal Yisroel had been impatiently waiting so that the Shechina would dwell among them, demonstrating that Hashem had forgiven them for the sin of the eigel. The Mishkan was ready and waiting to be set up, but HaKodosh Boruch Hu instead said to Moshe: "On the first day of the first month (Rosh Chodesh Nisan) you shall set up the Mishkan of the Ohel Mo'ed" (Shemos 40:2). The nation must wait a few more months until the Mishkan is established.
Why was that necessary? HaKodosh Boruch Hu, Who created the days of the year, designated the proper time to set up the Mishkan: only on the first of Nisan. That was the time with the needed segulah, and only then was it fitting for the Mishkan to be built. Time is a real thing that exists within the Creation, and the nature of Rosh Chodesh Nisan includes that segulah.
The seforim kedoshim write that Chanukah is not only a remembrance of miracles that once happened. Klal Yisroel witnessed thousands of miracles but did not establish days of praise and thanksgiving to Hashem for them. Only the days of Chanukah had the privilege of being set aside as days of praise and thanksgiving to Hashem. Chazal understood that only these days have in them the segulah for praise and thanks. Every year when this time arrives, those same lofty illuminations are awakened.
The commentaries follow this line of thought in explaining the meaning of the gemora's statement (Shabbos 23b): " . . . the next year they established the days of Chanukah for praise and thanksgiving." It is surprising that Chazal did not establish those days for praise to Hashem immediately, the same year the Jews were saved.
It seems that the Torah sages of that generation wanted to wait to see if a change had truly been made in those days themselves, or whether the miracles had been done without any connection to the segulah of those days. Only the year after, when they saw once again the lofty illuminations that were present the first year, did they understand that a miracle connected to the segulah of those particular days had been done, that a time with special qualities had been brought into reality, and therefore then they decided to establish those days of Chanukah for all generations to be a time of praise and thanksgiving.
We learn from here that people have the power to change time itself. Until the 25th of Kislev of the year in which the miracles happened, those days were the same as any other time. Through the mesiras nefesh of the Chashmonaim that time was set apart for praise to Hashem, since the days themselves became distinctive in that they were now able to receive the special segulos of that day.
We must understand from this that a ben Torah can change time and insert unique segulos within it. We say in ma'ariv that Hashem "removes light before darkness and darkness before light." The words of the tefillah seem to mean that the light would naturally have remained, only that HaKodosh Boruch Hu removed it before the darkness. Darkness, too, evidently was supposed to continue, only HaKodosh Boruch Hu removed it before the light. The simple way of understanding the Creation is surely not this way. "Elokim called the light day, and the darkness He called night" (Bereishis 1:5). There is day and there is night, and one is not pushed aside because of the other.
However, we find that in the case of Yaakov Ovinu, who initiated ma'ariv, the darkness had pushed aside the light and the light pushed aside the darkness: "And he spent the night there, since the sun had set" (Bereishis 28:11). The sun had set before its time so that he was forced to sleep there.
That is what is meant by saying that Hashem removes light before darkness. HaKodosh Boruch Hu removed the light, though it was supposed to continue, because of the darkness, which came before its time. Afterwards the Torah writes of Yaakov, "And the sun rose upon him" (Bereishis 32:32). The sun, that had once set before its scheduled time, started shining earlier than it should have, in order to cure Yaakov. That is what we mean when we say in the tefillah, "Who removes darkness because of light." Although the darkness should have continued, Hashem removed it to make way for the light.
We cannot be like Yaakov Ovinu but we can learn from him since he is the paradigm of a ben Torah. Yaakov Ovinu studied in the tents of Torah. Yaakov Ovinu embodied the attribute of truth -- "Accord truth to Yaakov" (Michah 7:20), and therefore the Torah he studied was Toras Emes. It was not enough for Yaakov to study Torah when he was young. Even when he went to Choron at the age of sixty- three, after being advised by his parents to marry, he nonetheless understood that he must first study more Torah. Although Yaakov was not commanded to study Torah at that time, he understood through ruach hakodesh that he should do so. Without delay he dedicated himself to intense Torah study for fourteen consecutive years without even lying down to sleep. Through these phenomenal efforts Yaakov was zoche to become a merkovoh for the Shechina, and Hashem revealed Himself to Yaakov -- "I am Hashem the Elokim of Avrohom your father" (Bereishis 28:13).
Yaakov Ovinu was even able to rule over time, and for his needs the light was removed to make way for darkness and the darkness was later removed to make way for light. We see that anyone who dedicates himself to Torah with all his might has the zechus and the power to create a segulah in time.
Let us reflect about the devotion of the Chashmonaim, who were privileged to create a time that has a segulah for praising Hashem. If the Chashmonaim at that time had asked a halachic she'ela whether they were allowed to wage a war against wicked Greece, they would surely have received an answer that it was absolutely forbidden. To do so would be like suicide. Five people, no matter how courageous they are, cannot fight against a world power. A person is not allowed to endanger himself in such a way. They, however, obviously did not ask any questions, since if they had asked whether it were permitted or not they would have received a negative answer, and naturally would not have gone to fight.
Nonetheless, since they felt, with the tohoroh in their nefesh, that it was impossible to act otherwise, that it was unthinkable to allow the Torah to be forgotten from Klal Yisroel, they embarked upon their war purely for Hashem's honor. They imbued the nation with a spirit of tohoroh and generated a segulah of praising Hashem during the days of Chanukah.
The poskim discuss the halachic status of the feasts people make in honor of Chanukah. The Ramo writes that they are a remembrance of the inauguration of the mizbeiach. Nonetheless, the poskim only awarded such feasts the status of a seuda of praise and thanksgiving, not the status of a seudas mitzvah.
The Chashmonaim's aim was so pure that they ignored physical enjoyment and pleasure. They were only interested in rejoicing in kabolas haTorah, to prevent the Greeks from carrying out their malicious designs of making Klal Yisroel forget the Torah. Chazal therefore dedicated these days exclusively to thanking Hashem for the miracles He did and offering Him praise in Hallel sholeim, since in this way a person can elevate himself and become closer to Hashem.
The power of the Chashmonaim derived from the power of sheivet Levi. Before his petirah, Moshe Rabbenu gave a brocho to sheivet Levi: "Bless, Hashem, His substance, and accept the work of his hands; smite the lions of those who rise against him and those who hate him, that they rise not again" (Devorim 33:11, as Rashi explains there).
The Ramban (beginning of parshas Beha'alosecho) discusses the Midrash that Aharon was disturbed that neither he nor his sheivet had a part in the chanukas hamizbeiach. HaKodosh Boruch Hu said to him, "Your [lot] is greater than theirs, since you will stand and kindle the lights." The Ramban cites from the Megillas Sesorim of Rabbenu Nissim Gaon that this refers to the days of Chanukah. The Ramban writes, "There is another chanukah, one that involves the lighting of lights, and through your descendants I will bring salvation for Yisroel and will make this chanukah through them. This is the Chanukah of the house of Chashmonaim." The miracle of the Chashmonaim was done through the power of Aharon and sheivet Levi.
What is the special power of sheivet Levi? Moshe Rabbenu said about Levi, "They have observed Your work and kept Your covenant," and therefore "they shall teach Yaakov Your judgments and Yisroel Your Torah" (Devorim 33:9- 10). Chazal (Yevomos 80a) explain that during the forty years that Yisroel wandered in the desert they refrained from making bris mila for their children since the northern wind did not blow, a condition that made it dangerous to do a mila. However, sheivet Levi did make a bris for their children -- "they kept Your covenant."
Now, Bnei Yisroel's refusal to make any bris was surely in accordance with the ruling of Moshe Rabbenu. They undoubtedly asked Moshe if they were allowed to make a bris mila in such a case, and he answered that since it was dangerous they should not. The obvious question is: How in that case did sheivet Levi permit themselves to make a bris? If it was not dangerous, why did Yisroel not make a bris, and if it was dangerous how did sheivet Levi permit themselves to be machmir to make the bris when there was pikuach nefesh?
We must conclude that sheivet Levi simply did not ask any questions. They were confident that "He who keeps a mitzvah will know no evil" (Koheles 8:5). Someone who has complete confidence in Hashem has no reason to be afraid, though on the other hand someone lacking such a degree of bitochon is forbidden to undertake such a thing.
This was the chinuch of sheivet Levi from the outset. When they were in Egypt Pharaoh began the shibud by talking to bnei Yisroel with a peh rach, persuading them to work for him, telling them how it was beneficial for them to work for him since they would gain livelihood, honor, status, and all sorts of other benefits. Those who wanted to rely on HaKodosh Boruch Hu and not listen to Pharaoh's "advice" were rebuked by others who sharply told them, "One should not rely on miracles. We are obligated to make hishtadlus."
Sheivet Levi, however, were not enticed by all this. They felt so close to Hashem that they did not need to make such efforts for livelihood. They were on a level where, "My soul is like a weaned child at his mother's side" (Tehillim 131:2).
The Chovos HaLevovos (Shaar HaBitochon) writes that there are eighteen levels of bitochon. A very high level is when a person feels like a small child relying on his father and mother, with no thoughts of who will provide him with food. Likewise, sheivet Levi felt as if they were actually sitting around the table of HaKodosh Boruch Hu. They continued with that same bitochon in the desert and were not concerned with dangers. Someone who actually lives like this does not have to have any fears whatsoever.
The Chashmonaim, who were Cohanim, continued in that way and also endangered their lives. If they had asked if they were permitted to act in this way, the answer would have been that not only were they not obligated to do it but it was forbidden. Since, however, a holy fire burned within them, and they lived all the time with Hashem, they were altogether mafkir themselves and were thus zoche to change time itself and make the time into days of praise and thanksgiving.
How can we reach such a level? Through the Torah. "Hashem gives strength to His people" (Tehillim 29:11). Chazal write, "Strength is nothing other than Torah, as is written, `Accord strength to Elokim' (Tehillim 68:35)." This needs to be understood. If strength is Torah, what does Dovid Hamelech mean by saying that we should accord Torah to Elokim? Did Hashem not give us this "strength," which is the Torah?
Some explain that when one labors over Torah and is mechadeish chidushim it is considered as if he gives Hashem strength. HaKodosh Boruch Hu longs for our chidushei Torah, and we can seem to be giving Him strength through our study of the Torah. The seforim hakedoshim write that Hashem especially enjoys chidushei Torah said on Shabbos, and when a person says a chidush on Shabbos he is doing a favor for his parents in shomayim. This is what the posuk means when it says, "Accord strength to Elokim, His majesty is over Yisroel." These chidushei Torah bring strength and joy to His place in shomayim. The gemora writes that even if, chas vesholom, Hashem "calls for weeping and mourning" (Yeshaya 22:12), still "strength and gladness are in His place." Through the Torah that we are mechadeish He is, as it were, full of joy. "Strength and gladness are in His place" (I Divrei Hayomim 26:27).
In these days of Chanukah the yetzer hora tries to disturb us in all sorts of ways and with all sorts of excuses. We must try harder to learn from Yaakov Ovinu what a person can be zoche to. We must value this time. Through strengthening ourselves during Chanukah we will be zoche throughout the year to "express thanks and praise to Your great Name" (Al Hanissim).
HaRav Chaim Ezra Barzel's first yahrtzeit, was 17 Kislev, 5760.