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One of the main rituals associated with Chanukah is the lighting of the Menorah. The Menorah, an eight branched candelabra, is lit to commemorate the great miracle which occurred at the time of the Maccabees: a flask of oil which could only last for one day miraculously lasted for eight days. The Aruch HaShulchan (Orech Chayim 673:1) writes that  it is preferable to use olive oil when lighting the Menorah, because it is easily drawn into the wick, its light burns clearly, and the miracle of Chanukah happened with olive oil.

There is another aspect to olive oil that makes it an appropriate choice for use on Chanukah. The Medrash Rabba (Vayikra 31:10), when discussing the use of olive oil for the Menorah in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), mentions a parable. “Rav Avin said ‘It is comparable to a king whose legions rebelled against him. However, one of his legions remained faithful and did not rebel. The king said that this legion that did not rebel, from them I will take for my rulers and governors.’ So did Hashem say – This olive brought light to the world in the time of Noach, as we see ‘the dove came…and it had an olive branch in its mouth.”

The Rada”l explains when exactly the olive did not “rebel” against G-d, thus earning it a special place in history. In the time of Noach, the entire world was corrupt. The Talmud

 Yerushalmi explains that not only did mankind engage in immoral, base, and corrupt behavior; the animal and plant world did as well. One species of animal tried to breed with a different one, and one type of plant attempted to “graft” itself to other forms of vegetation. The only plant that withstood the corruption that permeated the entire world at that time was the olive tree. It remained pure. It withstood the pressures to engage in the perverse behavior that was in vogue at the time. The olive remained faithful to the world order as G-d created it, and for that reason, it is considered the “legion that did not rebel.” Because it remained faithful to G-d, the olive was chosen to be the sign of rebirth and renewal after the flood. It was chosen to be the source for light in the holiest place in the world. It was chosen to be the source of light for generations to come.

Chanukah is a holiday on which we celebrate our freedom from religious oppression. The Syrian-Greeks’ oppression of the Jews was not physical. They did not want to annihilate the Jews. They did, however, want to annihilate Judaism. They applied whatever pressure they could to “convince” the Jews to abandon the ways of their fathers. Many Jews indeed succumbed to this pressure. Hellenism made inroads into the Jewish communities. At times, the pressure to give in to popular culture was overwhelming. Ultimately, the Jews withstood this pressure and fought with all their might against it. The Jews were victorious. Today, all that we know of the Syrian-Greeks is from history books, while Judaism lives on. When we look at the olive oil burning bright on Chanukah, we should be reminded that the olive is a symbol of the resilience our forefathers had. The olive withstood the pressure to deviate from the word of G-d. Our forefathers at the time of Chanukah withstood the pressure to deviate from the word of G-d. We should allow the light of the olive oil to inspire us to stand steadfast against the pressure, whatever it may be, to deviate from the word of G-d.

The most important symbol of Chanukah is the Menorah.  In fact, this holiday was called the Festival of Lights long before it was known as the Festival of dedication.

Lights, candles, rows of lights in menorahs (candle holders), have always been part of Jewish religious ritual.  When Bnai Yisrael left Egypt, in the desert they constructed the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting.  Among the objects constructed for the Tent of Meeting was the Menorah.  The Torah describes it beautifully:

לא וְעָשִׂיתָ מְנֹרַת זָהָב טָהוֹר מִקְשָׁה תֵּֽיעָשֶׂה הַמְּנוֹרָה יְרֵכָהּ וְקָנָהּ גְּבִיעֶיהָ כַּפְתֹּרֶיהָ וּפְרָחֶיהָ מִמֶּנָּה יִֽהְיֽוּ: לב וְשִׁשָּׁה קָנִים יֹֽצְאִים מִצִּדֶּיהָ שְׁלֹשָׁה | קְנֵי מְנֹרָה מִצִּדָּהּ הָֽאֶחָד וּשְׁלֹשָׁה קְנֵי מְנֹרָה מִצִּדָּהּ הַשֵּׁנִֽי:

31. And you shall make a lampstand of pure gold; of hammered workmanship shall the lampstand be made; its shaft, and its branches, its bowls, its bulbs, and its flowers, shall be of the same.

32. And six branches shall come from its sides; three branches of the lampstand from the one side, and three branches of the lampstand from the other side;

In fact, the Menorah was the first Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light before the Ark.  When the Menorah was rekindled in the Temple after the miraculous victory against the Greeks, its glow was more than just light.  It symbolized the greatness of the Torah, the Mitzvot, the Jewish People, and of course, the radiance of HaKodesh Barchu.

As we look upon the light, we realize that for us, life is very important, but it is not the most important thing.  Sometimes we must stand up and not give in to the forces around us.  That is why the holiday of Chanukah does not take place on the day of a great battle, nor on the days when the Jewish people reconquered Jerusalem.  It takes place during the week when the Temple was cleansed, and a new fire was lighted in the Menorah.

May this fire never again go out.

Beth and I wish you a most joyous Chanukah at these most difficult of times. May the glow of the burning lights in our Menorahs bring us all spiritual peace.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Gottesman


Thu, January 28 2021 15 Shevat 5781