Chanukah - What are we celebrating?

Friday, 12 December, 2014 - 12:10 pm

Comedian Jackie Mason commented that Jews are not great fighters, but if you put them in uniform they are the toughest army in the world.

This interesting paradox is subtly reflected in the declaration of our patriarch Isaac, “the voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, speak at the JCC. He delivered an unwavering message about Israel’s right and need to be strong in the face of those threatening her safety and existence. It was especially refreshing to see the ambassador speak with a kippa on his head. In the course of his excellent presentation Mr. Dermer said one thing that I feel requires some adjustment and refocusing.

He mentioned that we are getting ready for Chanukah, which is the holiday that celebrates the first time (since Joshua’s conquest of Canaan) that Jewish people fought for their national sovereignty. This is technically correct, because the second Temple was built while Israel was under Persian rule. It was the Maccabees rebellion against the Syrian Greeks that established the Hasmonean dynasty, the first and only period of Jewish sovereignty since the Babylonian conquest of Israel until the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Sadly this dynasty disintegrated very quickly and within two generations it became morally corrupt, spiritually empty, and politically beholden to another world power, Rome, which eventually led to Roman conquest and the destruction of the second Temple.

The reason why I feel this needs to be adjusted and refocused is because Chanukah is much less about the Maccabean victory and much more about the subsequent miracle of the oil. Indeed the Talmud, when discussing Chanukah, asks, “What is Chanukah?” Rashi explains, “For which miracle was the holiday established?” The Talmud then goes on to talk very little about the battle and focuses mostly on the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. Indeed the Chanukah observances commemorate only the oil miracle with a mere mention of the Maccabean victory in the added prayer of V’al Hanissim. The lighting of the Menorah, the primary observance of Chanukah, does not allude to the miracle of the battle at all. It seems that in Jewish thought the miracle of the Maccabees is incidental to the main miracle of the oil. Certainly it got us to where we needed to be in order to have the miracle of the oil, but it was only a means to an end.

There are many explanations for this concept. (See: The Real Message of Chanukah for more on this.)

One point I would like to share is that as Jews, our primary occupation in this world is “the voice of Jacob” – prayer, study, using our minds and hearts to grow and inspire others to grow. Using hands is the occupation of Esau. Certainly when needed, even Jacob used the “hands of Esau.” But that is not what we are about. While history shows that we had many great warriors, Samson, King David, Judah Maccabee, and Bar Kochba just to name a few, our primary contribution to humankind and history is the “voice of Jacob,” our scholars, sages and teachers – our spiritual and intellectual leadership.  

So we need a strong army and we should be proud of the warriors and soldiers, but we need to know that this is only a means to the end. Our real goal and occupation in the world is to use “voice of Jacob,” and live by the Torah and Hashem’s ways.

Mazel Tov to Rabbi Gabe and Abby Greenberg upon the birth of their son.

Important Chanukah @ Riverwalk Information: Event parking for $5 will be available at all Hilton lots - (the outdoor Whale Lot – on the corner of Julia St. & Convention Center Blvd, the Hilton Hotel garage, and the World Trade Center garage – which is the closet to Spanish Plaza and can be accessed via the Hilton roundabout). Parking vouchers can be picked up at the information booth during the event. You will need a voucher to get the event rate.

We recently posted some vintage Chanukah @ Riverwalk footage from 1999, including the moving “passing of the torch ceremony” featuring many old friends some of whom are no longer with us such as Dr. Stan Bleich. You can see the video at

Check out the photo gallery below for photos of Kosher Day, Olive Press in Lake Charles and the Yud Tes Kislev gathering.

Wishing you a bright and joyous Chanukah and we look forward to celebrating with at one of our many Chanukah events.

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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