by Rabbi Yitzchok Boruch haCohen Fishel
The Light of Chanukah
Many years ago, when the American forces under General George
Washington were awaiting the famous battle at Valley Forge,
the future president was deeply concerned about the welfare
of his troops. The bitter cold and the poor provisions with
which his soldiers of the revolutionary army had been
provided, did not bode well for the outcome of the critical
battle that awaited them.
Wrapped in his officer's cape and clapping his three-
cornered hat down hard on his head against the chilling wind,
Washington went out to see at firsthand how his men were
faring. As he went from tent to tent, he saw the men dressed
in rags and huddling around small fires, trying to get
together a meal of something hot. As he went on, he suddenly
encountered a single soldier, bent over a small metal
apparatus in which he had lit two, very small, tallow
Intrigued, Washington bent over the Jewish soldier and asked
what he was doing. Startled, the man jumped to his feet and
saluted. Just at that moment, he had little expected to find
his commander so near. But again Washington repeated his
request: to understand why he had lit those little candles
here, in the middle of nowhere.
At the general's behest, the Jewish soldier began to unfold
the age-old tale: of foreign Greeks who, upon conquering the
holy land of Israel, had entered the Temple and had placed
their idols in the most sacred place of worship. And he told
how the valiant Yehuda Maccabee and others, no longer able to
bear the evil degrees forbidding the performance of Jewish
ritual and the learning of Torah, rose up against their lords
even though they outnumbered them and were better armed and,
through the grace of Heaven, they succeeded in removing them
from their land.
And last of all the soldier explained how they purified the
sanctuary and, finding only one container of oil which
remained undefiled, they used it to light the Menorah. Yet
miraculously that one container of oil, which should have
been enough for only one day, instead lasted for eight --
until new oil could be made. And this, he told the general,
is why he was lighting those little lights.
General Washington stood enthralled. Finally he laid a heavy
hand on the man's shoulder. "You, sir," he said, "with your
little lights, have struck new courage in my troubled heart.
I now know that it is possible to vanquish evil and to fight
for the good, to fill the world with light!"
There is an addendum to the above story: Many years later
when the American Revolution was long over and the democratic
form of government had become a daily reality, the Jewish
soldier, who was now a veteran, was sitting at home one
evening in New York when he heard a knock at the door.
Getting up to answer, he found himself confronted by a man in
uniform who asked to come in.
Once he had entered the front room the visitor took out a
handsome leather case and presented it to the Jew. Inside,
mounted in deep plush, was a large gold medallion. The
medallion bore a raised inscription in honor of the Jewish
soldier who had showed such courage and inspired his
commander at Valley Forge. It was signed: George Washington,
first President of the United States of America.
Clearly the story of Chanukah had made more than a momentary
impression on the Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary
Army. The question is: Why? In the course of human history,
certainly there were many similar tales of a conquered nation
successfully breaking the shackles of foreign rule and
thereby renewing its identity among the community of mankind.
How is Chanukah different?
Perhaps a good place to begin is how we celebrate Chanukah,
as that is where the Commander-in-Chief himself walked in.
Mr. Washington was intrigued by the sight of one of his men
lighting candles out in the middle of nowhere. If our friend
the Jewish soldier was at all halachically knowledgeable, he
couldn't have lit those forlorn little candles with any kind
of a brochoh. Without a doorway, or windowsill or even
a table to put it on, his Chanukah licht were probably
not successfully fulfilling any kind of requirement but a
deep-felt need to see Chanukah candles, even if the candles
could not be deemed worthy of a blessing. This too needs to
When Chazal first instituted the celebration of Chanukah they
had several possibilities in front of them. Either they could
have emphasized the inherent miracle of the military victory,
as recognized in the blessing added to Shemoneh Esrei
and Bircas Hamozone, or they could commemorate the
more obvious miracle in which a measure of sanctified oil
meant to last one day lasted instead for eight.
Having chosen the latter and, moreover, having made Chanukah
into a veritable Feast of Lights, means that the significant
action of lighting candles is in itself a kind of reenactment
of what actually happened.
During Chanukah we daily assemble the whole family, light
candles, and then recite -- on the first day three, and then
subsequently -- two blessings. What we have here is a glowing
opportunity to come to grips with the fact that at exactly
this time of year something extremely unusual happened to the
Jewish people. As such it is inevitable that we become aware
that this same story, and similar stories, have occurred time
and time again throughout our nation's history, and that what
Chanukah represents is just as applicable now as it was then.
This is, in fact, the message of the song we traditionally
sing while standing by the menorah.
We may find it profitable to examine the various ways in
which it is halachically possible to light candles as well.
The gemora in maseches Shabbos talks about the
basic necessity of lighting one candle for every family,
ner ish uveiso. This is followed by a more preferable
form of candle lighting in which the head of the household
lights one candle for each member of his family every night,
such that a family unit of father, mother and two children
would light four candles each of the eight nights of
Chanukah. Finally the gemora comes upon the best form
of lighting which is to light candles according to the number
of days of Chanukah: candles ranging in total from one to
eight which would either increase or decrease as the holiday
progresses. Of course, our accepted practice is to light one
candle on the first night, and two on the second and so on,
yet there remains a great deal to be said about where we
light and who in fact does light.
Looking at the Shulchan Oruch as it follows the
dictates of the mishnah to delineate what we have
mentioned above as acceptable places to light, i.e. outside
at the doorway on the left side; or on the windowsill for
someone who does not have an entrance on the street; or
finally, anyone who doesn't have even a window opening on a
public place such that his licht can be seen should
simply put it on his table. The Ramo cites another form of
lighting, which apparently stems from times when we suffered
from the enmity of non-Jews. The custom then was to always
light on the windowsill and, after the head of the family had
lit, everyone except for his wife proceeded to light again
By giving close reading to the Mishnah Berurah as he
picks his way through all of the above, it becomes clear that
the original intention of Chazal was to choose a celebration
of Chanukah that was as high- profile as possible: assemble
your family outside by the door and light a candle in a place
which has no utilitarian purpose and at a time when it is not
yet really dark, such that everyone who passes by will
certainly notice what you have done. The point here is a
declaration of purpose, which we call pirsumei nisso
literally, "making the miracle known." And historically
later, when it was actually dangerous to do any of the above
such that the special declaratory aspect of the act of
lighting was now missing, the halochoh demands that everyone
must make up for this by getting into the act himself.
Please note that I have no intention of telling others how to
light their candles, but I do have a very important point to
get across. The deep meaning of the light of Chanukah is
conviction. What enabled the Maccabees' victories and caused
their efforts to be crowned not only with success, but also
with a verifiable miracle, was physical confirmation of the
strength of their conviction. Belief in Elokei Yisroel
and the undeniable validity of His Torah made everything
Cohanechoh hakedoshim had to do, not a question of
valor but rather a matter-of-course.
As such, the only way to maintain an eternal celebration of
Chanukah is to create a renewed statement of that age-old
conviction, to be demonstrated through external action in
every generation. And this was true even when the menorah
had to be lit just inside the door out of fear that the
gentiles would catch you at it.
So that must have been what drove our friend the Jewish
soldier, a man of conviction who had volunteered to serve in
the Revolutionary Army, to light his little lights in the
terrible cold and darkness of the night before the battle of
Valley Forge. Both he and his commander had chosen to be
there since it was a matter- of-course that one must fight to
defend man's inherent right to enjoy the kind of freedom
provided them by their faith and their Creator. This aspect
of Chanukah, as this Jewish soldier felt and explained it,
was something even George Washington could understand.
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