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29 Kislev 5763 - December 4, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
The Light of Chanukah

by Rabbi Yitzchok Boruch haCohen Fishel

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 candles.

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 be understood.


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 for themselves.

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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