Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chanuka . . . and Tevet

When we think of the place of Chanukah in the Jewish calendar, our thoughts always turn to the month of Kislev.  It is interesting to note, however, that Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday that actually spans portions of two months; five days in Kislev, and three in Tevet.   This oddity is even more striking when we consider that the two months have very different connotations for our people.  

Kislev is looked up to as the culmination of the Maccabean war, a time of Chanukah, renewal of the Temple after its defilement by foreign evil forces.  For Chabad Chassidim, it contains the 19th of Kislev, a time of the remarkable liberation of the Alter Rebbe.   By contrast Tevet contains (other than my birthday) only days of sadness of note.  The Eighth of Tevet is the Day that Ptolemy II forced the Jews to translate the Torah into Greek.  The Ninth of Tevet marked the death of the great Ezra the scribe, one of the greatest Jews of all time, who was instrumental in bringing our nation back from the Babylonian exile and rebuilding the Bet HaMikdash.  And of course the Tenth of Tevet, on which we mark not only the previous two events, but also the beginning of the end of the First Temple, when Nebuchadnezzar set the two and one half year siege of Jerusalem.  Altogether an unpleasant month, to say the least.

The juxtaposition of Chanukah between these two very different months is surely no accident.  Let us think about what the events described represent on a deeper level.  

Chanukah is about renewal.  The Temple, all its utensils and all of its holy oil (save one flask), had been contaminated.  On a larger level, the Hellenists had succeeded in contaminating the minds of much of the intelligentsia and elite levels of Jewish society.   The Maccabean revolt was about renewing authentic Judaism, expelling the physically and spiritually oppressive Greek regime, and rekindling the holy pure light of Torah in the Holy Temple.  Although ultimately the Renewal did not last, and the Hasmoneans themselves succumbed to Hellenism, the new beginning at Chanukah was glorious, and the lights that they kindled stayed with the Jewish people forever.

All of Tevet Days were of an opposite nature.   The Septuagint translation by Ptolemy, occurring close to the time of the Chanukah story, was a time of sadness because it represented a darkening of the light of the Torah.  As Eliyahu Kitov wrote, “Once the Torah was imprisoned in the Greek translation, it was as if the Torah were divested of reverence. Anyone who wanted to find fault with its logic, could now do so, based on the translation. The Sages, therefore, likened the event of this day, to the day on which the Golden Calf was made. For just as the Golden Calf had no reality, and yet its servants regarded it as having real substance, likewise the translation, devoid of the true substance of Torah, allowed non-Jews to imagine that they already knew the Torah.”  It was the beginning of the end of our exclusive relationship with the Torah, and caused a great diminution of its light.

The death of Ezra represented a great light that had not fulfilled its potential.  Ezra, one of the greatest Jews ever, battled mightily to bring the Jewish people back from Babylon and re-establish the primacy of the proud Torah life in Eretz Yisrael.  As the leading Sage of the “Men of the Great Assembly” he instituted vital methods that allowed Torah and Judaism to flourish once again in the aftermath of the horror of the Babylonian Exile.  Although he accomplished enormously, his dream of truly re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Land was foiled, as a plurality of Jews opted to remain in the Diaspora, and ignore the call of the hour to return Home.  His death, and the end of his striving, marked the beginning of the end of the Second Temple, which could not last forever having begun on such a shaky foundation.

And of course the Tenth of Tevet represents truly the Beginning of the End; that is its essence.  Although the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash did not happen until two and a half years later, the die was cast and doom was all but inevitable.

Chanukah, living both in Kislev and Tevet thus contains within it both a message of renewal and doom; of new hope and the end of a dream.  Surely a mixed message, if there ever was one.  But perhaps this is just the point of Chanukah.

Judaism does not back away from the fact that, for a thinking person, life is complex, full of contradictions, and not given to easy formulations, thought developed remarkably in book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). There are moments of great promise, and crushing defeats; marvelous joys and unspeakable suffering, and all of it under the directorship of a Loving and omniscient Almighty G-d whose ways are often inscrutable to us.  We learn to look for the meaning that is over the Sun, trusting that ultimately His plans will result in a glorious future.

Chanukah was a bright light in a darkening gloom.  Occurring after the events that would ultimately result in the destruction of the Second Temple, Chanukah provided a small but inextinguishable light that would burn through the decline, through the expulsion, through 2,000 years of exile, and into the beautiful renewal of Jewish life that we experience today.   The small light coming from a flask of pure holy oil that was not, and will not, be extinguished, and emulate the eternal flame of soul of our people.  In a famous comment, the Ramban says in Bamidbar 8:2 that Hashem promised Aharon שלך גדולה משלהם, your portion is greater than that of the princes of the other Tribes in that their gift to the Temple would end when it was destroyed, while his descendants (the Hasmoneans) would light a light that would continue favor, in to and through the Great Exile.  That light gives us strength not only in the darkness of winter, but in all moments of darkness in our lives, in all situations and at all times of the year.

The Jewish world has known a great deal of sadness lately.  The terrible Chilul Hashem caused by the reaction of the Satmar leadership to the Weberman case, the suffering of so many in Eretz Yisrael in the recent skirmishes, and notably, the incredible devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy that hit our community so disproportionately.  We are left with a darkened community and world, but also one which can be, and will be warmed by the eternal light and warmth that Chanukah represents.  The placing of the days of Kislev before Tevet, and the fact that the majority of the Chanukah days are in Kislev, serve as an affirmation that we will choose to focus on the promise of renewal and eternal light, in the face of the undeniable presence of the negativity of Tevet.   We pledge to look at the coming of Tevet as not a time of lessening light, but in keeping with Bet Hillel, of ever growing and increasing light, until the ultimate redemption that it heralds.

In closing, I am looking forward to a trip I will be taking in a few short weeks to Eretz Yisrael to attend the wedding of our son Dovid Ezra (who was named after the original Ezra described above).  As fortune would have it, we will be stopping for the day in Rome on the way to Israel, and I plan to take advantage of that.  I hope to go to the Arch of Titus, perhaps the greatest symbol of our Exile outside of Israel, and look at the Menorah on its face, and reminisce on the time that the evil Titus gleefully carted off our national treasures as his spoils of war.  How exciting it will be to travel from there to the wedding of our son in Bet Shemesh, the house of the rising sun, among the blessed re-jew-venataion of Eretz Yisrael with Torat Yisrael in our time.  May we all merit to be there together soon!

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