Chanukah: How is Light Victorious Over Darkness?


Chanukah is described as the victory of light over darkness. What does this mean in a practical sense? The word choshech is associated with the word choseich, which means to be removed (using the principle that the letters shin and sin are interchangeable).Thus, darkness means the removal of light. What was it that the Greeks were trying to do? While we are accustomed to hearing that Greek philosophy was impure, we find that the Medrash (Eicha Rabbah 2:13) states that chochma bagoyim taamin, if there is wisdom by the nations, believe it. What made Greek philosophy so dangerous for the Jewish People?

The answer to this question is that the Greeks were not satisfied with the Jews becoming educated in Greek culture. Their goal was to remove the Jews from the light of the Torah. This is reflected in the Medrash that states that the Greeks instructed the Jews to write on the horn of an ox that they have no portion in the G-d of Israel. They sought to sever the Jewish People from their Source. This is the meaning of the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 2:4) that states the Greeks represented darkness, as spiritual darkness is being disconnected from the light of HaShem and His Torah.

The idea that darkness signifies disconnect from light is evidenced in the statement of the Gemara (Menachos 99b), where Ben Damah, the nephew of Rabbi Yishmael, asked Rabbi Yishmael, “Someone like me, who has studied the entire Torah; am I permitted to study Greek wisdom?” Rabbi Yishmael responded, “it is said (Yehoshua 1:8) ‘lo yamush sefer hatorah hazeh mipicha vihagisa bo yomam valaylah,’ this Book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth; rather you should contemplate it day and night. If you find a time that is not day and not night, then you are permitted to study Greek wisdom.” The word yamush means to remove. Thus, Rabbi Yishmael was telling his nephew that one cannot study Greek wisdom if it is disconnected from the Torah. We now understand why Chanukah is the symbolic victory of light over darkness. Through the miracle of Chanukah we become aware that the study of any wisdom must be connected to the light of Torah.

Based on this premise we can suggest another answer to the famous question posed by the Bais Yosef regarding the mitzvah of lighting candles for eight days of Chanukah. The Bais Yosef wonders why we light candles for eight days if the miracle with the oil was only for seven days. The answer to this question is that the Greeks espoused a lifestyle that is within the order of nature, which is represented by the number seven. The number eight reflects the idea that the Jewish People are above nature. In truth, however, the fact that we are above nature does not contradict nature. Rather, the aspect of being above nature essentially illuminates the forces of nature.

This idea is reflected in the esoteric passage that many recite after placing the Tefillin Shel Rosh. It is said umeichachmoscha Kel elyon tatzil alay umibinascho tivineini uvichasdicho tagdil alay uvigvruscho tatzmis oyvay vikamay vishemen hatov tarik al shiva kinei hamenorah lihashpia tuvcho livriyoescho, from  Your wisdom, O supreme G-d, may You imbue me; from Your understanding give me understanding; with Your kindness do greatly with me; with Your power cut down my foes and rebels. [May] You pour goodly oil upon the seven arms of the menorah, to  cause Your good to flow to Your creatures. This passage can be interpreted to mean that the wisdom of Torah illuminates the seven branches Menorah, i.e. the wisdom that is contained outside the Torah. The Menorah itself normally symbolizes the wisdom of the Torah. Nonetheless, the Chasam Sofer writes that secular studies have a place in the life of a Jew, provided that they emanate from the Torah. This, the Chasam Sofer writes, is reflected in the verse that states (Shemos 25:31) kaftoreha ufracheha mimenah yihiyu, its knobs and its blossoms shall be hammered from it [the Menorah].  Outside wisdom can only be studied if it is connected to the light of the Torah.

In Parashas Vayishlach, the Torah records the struggle between Yaakov and the angel of Esav. It is said (Bereishis 32:25) vayivaseir Yaakov livado vayeiavek ish imo ad alos hashachar; vayar ki lo yochol lo vayiga bikaf yireicho vateika kaf yerech Yaakov biheiavko imo, Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the socket of his hip; so Yaakov’s hip-socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him. The word vayeiavek is literally translated as “and he wrestled.” However, the root of the word is avak, similar to the word avukah, which means a flame. There are many allusions to Chanukah in these verses, but we will focus on one idea, which is the struggle between darkness and light. Yaakov and the angel of Esav were battling for supremacy, with Yaakov representing light and the angel of Esav symbolizing darkness. The result of the battle was vateika kaf yerech Yaakov biheiavko imo¸ so Yaakov’s hip-socket was dislocated as he wrestled with him. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 77:3) interprets the dislocation of Yaakov’s hip as referring to the doro shel shmad, the generation where the gentiles sought to eradicate the practice of Judaism. The commentators write that this attempt to eradicate Judaism had its beginnings in the era when the Greeks sought to uproot the Torah from the Jewish People. In some form the angel of Esav was able to discover vulnerability in Yaakov’s descendants and disconnect them from the light of the Torah. Despite this catastrophic blow, the Torah states later (Ibid 33:18) vayavo Yaakov shaleim ir Shechem asher bieretz Canaan bivoo miPadan Aram vayichan es pinei hair, Yaakov arrived intact at the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan, upon his arriving from Paddan-aram, and he encamped before the city. Rashi cites the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 79:5) that interprets the word shaleim¸ intact, to mean that Yaakov returned intact in his wealth, his body, and his Torah. Thus, we are assured that ultimately the Jewish People will recover from the blow dealt by the nations of the world and we will once again bask in the light of HaShem and His Torah.

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