Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Why No Se'udah on Chanukah

There are two completely rabbinic holidays in the Jewish calender (I'm excluding the fast days for purposes of this post): Purim and Chanukah.
The mitzvos of Purim are multiple: Read the megillah, given gifts to the poor and have a festive holiday se'udah. The mitzvah of Chanukah is a single one: light the candles.
Yet if one compares the two holidays, Chanukah would seem to be the one that requires more celebration and ritual. Purim, while significant, was simply an escape from national destruction. The political situation of the Jews before and after the holiday remained essentially the same. But Chanukah resulted in a national liberation, a change in the status of the Jew in Israel from that of a citizen of the Seleucid Empire to that of the indepedent state of Judea. Instead of having to live under the persecution of the Greek culture, the Jews could reestablish a state run al pi halacha for the first time in many years. Surely this would be the cause for a greater celebration than that found on Purim. Yet Purim is one long obligatory party while Chanukah, outside of optional family parties and shul functions, is quite limited in observance.
This requires us to look at the essential nature of the two holidays. Both have one signicant facet in common: the hand of God delivered our ancestors on both occasions in a hidden manner. God does not show up in either story in a visible fashion, throwing frogs upon the attacking Greeks or making Haman's nose change shape. Yet a student of both stories clearly sees the Divine Hand moving events to bring a favourable outcome to our people. But here the similarity ends.
Purim, as noted above, was a deliverance from physical destruction. Haman harasha was not terribly interested in Judaism or in making Jews suffer. He simply wanted them dead. The megilla records no acts of Persian persecution against the Jewish population. Even the timing of the decree seems somewhat favourable. If the Jews wished to run from away from Persia, Haman was giving them almost a year's notice to do so. And even after the events of the holiday, we see that the Jews are eseentially unchanged by the experience. One of the final verses of the megillah tells us that Mordechai was seen in good favour by "most of his peers". Not all, Chazal note, because even after all he had accomplished there were those Jewish sages and leaders who thought that they could have handled things better. (Some things never change!) Thus Purim celebrates the physical, the revealed. As a result, its celebrations are physical: party, party, party.
Chanukah, on the other hand, celebrates the spiritual. One must remember that the Greeks were not interested in slaughtering their Jewish subjects. Indeed, Chazal tell us that Alexander held the religious leadership of the Jewish nation in high esteem and Jewish philosophy and respect for wisdom was held in high regard. It was the purpose of Jewish living that was anathema to the Greek mind.
Greece, after all, is a descendant of Noah's oldest son, Yefes. From word similarity, we come to learn that Yefes is interested the yafeh, the beautiful, that which gives a positive reaction from the physical senses. For Greek culture of that time, the purpose of life was the achievement of happiness, personal pleasure. (See Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik's Worship of the Heart, chapter on Yotzer Or for a more detailed discussion on this imporant idea). For Jews, however, the purpose of life and interaction with the world has always been to perform mitzvos for the purpose of coming closer to an understanding and appreciation of God. Jews are descendants of Shem, which is similar to the word shumah, estimation of value. Personal pleasure is not a priority in such a lifestyle. An idea or action's value is measured in terms of its ability to bring the doer closer to God and thus the Jewish approach is a complete negation of the Greek.
Thus during the events of Chanukah, the Jews were faced not with physical annihilation, or even intellectual oppression but rather with spiritual destruction. In the Amidah service during Chanukah in the al hanisim, we say that the Greeks wanted to separate us from God's torah and his chukim. There is, however, a third category of Jewish laws, mishpatim. This is not metnioned in the prayer for good reason. The Greeks had no trouble with Jewish ideas about laws regarding murder, crime, and commerce. It was the ethical law, the toros, and the transcendental laws which served to show compelte obedience to God, the chukim, which were a threat to their hegemony and thus those two categories came under attack.
Thus Chazal saw Chanukah as a liberation not from physical danger but from spiritual death. Yes, the Jews could have avoided bloodshed and war by simply allowing the assimilationists and the deniers to have power over them. By refusing, by insisting that God and His Torah would be their masters, not freethinking and useless materialistic philosophies, they showed their faith in God and His rule over the world. Thus we were given one simple mitzvah during the holiday: light the candles. "The mitzvos are candles and the Torah is light." By removing the Greek influence, the mitzvos we perform enhance the light of Torah in the world.
But although Chanukah was the story of Jewish resistance to the mizyavnim, the assimilation pressure of the day, there was also the matter of the military victory. There is a physical aspect to Chanukah in the way the few defeated the many so why is there no commensurate se'udah? I believe the answer to this is simple: the reason for the military victory was simply to allow the spiritual to take place. A Maccabee victory that resulted in a secular Jewish state arising would not have been a miracle worth celebrating. Only by taking the potential for spiritual purity occasioned by such a victory, only by making the spiritual victory the point of the military efforts, could Chanukah emerge as a result.
In many ways, this week's parashah, Miketz, mirrors the difference between the two holidays. In Miketz, Yaakov Avinu is distraught with the thought of Binyamin going down to Egypt with his brothers. Yosef HaTzadik is, as far as he knows, dead and if something happens to Binyamin then he will have lost all his children from Rachel Imeinu. Now, tragic as that is, one gets the impression that this would have a greater impact on him than if several of the children from the other wives would have disappeared. Why is this?
Yaakov Avinu took two principle wives - Leah and Rachel. Rachel, from the Torah's narrative, is the wife to his physical, this-worldly side while Leah is his more spiritual pairing, the wife of Israel as it were. This we see in his children, with Yosef the physical leader of the family in the here and now during the famine while Yehudah is meant for future spiritual greatness as the ultimate leader of the nation while Levi is destined to function as the priest of the family. This is further reflected in two more ways. One is in the future where a Moshiach ben Yosef will arise and begin the physical redemption of our people which will then be completed by Mosiach ben David (may he swiftly come) who will complete the spiritual liberation of our people. But it is also germaine to our discussion of Purim and Chanukah. The physical salvation at Purim was orchestrated by a descendant of Binyamin while the spiritual salavation of Chanukah was completed by the Maccabee kohanim and the foot solders of Yehudah, the final dominant tribe left in the Jewish people.
Thus Yaakov Avinu's anguish at the thought of losing Binyamin. Yes, he would have descendants from Leah who would be steadfast in their defence of the Jewish spiritual character. But he also recognized that physical threats would arise that would threaten our people and at that time, a descendant of Rachel's would need to step to the fore. With Yosef seemingly gone, Binyamin had to be safeguarded to ensure this future potential would exist.
In addition, the Chanukah narrative point towards another important connection between Rachel and Leah and the two aspects they brought to Yaakov Avinu.
It is clear from the Torah's narrative that Rachel was Yaakov's preferred wife. Ramban, near the end of Miketz, notes that of his four wives, she is the only one that Yaakov actually wanted to marry. He was tricked into taking Leah while Bilhah and Zilpah were handed to him in order to speed up the number of future tribes. Yet despite being the seeming akeres habayis, it should be noted that Leah was Yaakov's first wife. Thus although one week after the first festivities Yaakov brought in Rachel as his principal wife, Leah had to be there first so that the spiritual could serve as the base for the physical, just like the Maccabees during Chanukah. The catalyst for the revolt was, as told in the book of Maccabees, the ongoing spiritual persecution of our ancestors. This led to the physical war but culminated in the spiritual triumph that is the miracle of Chanukah.
It is my hope that you have all had a meaningful holiday and that we will merit many more chances to celebrate our triumph over the forces of hate, stupidity and denial in this world.


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Regarding Leah and Rachel, you may want to take a look at R. Adin Stensaltz's Biblical Profiles where he describes Leah as Yaakov's primary wife -- afterall she is the one buried with him and the mother of many more tribes than the other imahot. Of course, the problem is that Rachel is the one referred to as the akeret habayit. In the end there is food for thought regarding this whole issue but the answer is conradictory.

The same is true regarding your description of the relationship between Yehuda and Binaymin. Yehuda's pledge to protect Binyamin is actually also understood to be a promise of physical protection for the spiritual essence of the Jewish people. Binaymin was the son who never sinned. In his territory was also the Beit Hamikdash, which was surrounded by Yehuda as a form of physical protection. This would seem to imply that Binyamin represented the more spiritual side whily Yehuda represented the more spiritual side. Yet your arguments for an opposite conclusion have weight.

It may be that in the end Torah is about the perfect union of the physical and the spiritual so that their independent identies are lost in the wholeness of the union. Afterall Purim is suppose to have such a powerful spiritual effect that it is even greater than Yom Kippur. And the Rema does say that on Chanukah there still is a mitzvah concept of seudah, of eating. Maybe in the end, it is all to come together anyway.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Dr Mike said...

There is no doubitng that in the grander scheme of things, Leah was a more important wife than Rachel. As Rav Hecht noted, she produced half the tribes and was buried with him. But something within the post Garnel mentioned is also important - Yakkov had two faceets to his personality - Yaakov and Israel. Whereas the tribes were split between the spiritual ones (bnei Leah) and the physical ones (bnel Rachel), Yaakov Avinu contained both aspects. When the physical predominated, the Torah calls him Yaakov. When the spiritual did, he is called Yisrael. That is why sometimes in consecutive verses he is referred to by both names.
Rachel was Yaakov's wife. Leah was Yisrael's, thus they were both primary to each aspect they were joined to.
As for Yehuda and Binyamin, this also makes sense for the spiritual cannot sit back and just expect the physical to protect it. It must also endeavour to protect the physical from corruption.

SJ said...

The 8 day miracle story has the same problem as everything else with this damn religion - lack of contemporary writings confirming the events.