Chanukah is a major holiday
By Rabbi Nochum Mangel, Director, Chabad of Greater Dayton
As we approach this time of year, you may hear people saying that Chanukah is really a minor Jewish holiday. They may be basing their judgment on any one of the following points, alone or in combination:
• Chanukah has no big central feast like Pesach. Latkes and sufganiot are not in the same league as the Seder.
• Chanukah does not involve a long day of prayer like Yom Kippur or even like Rosh Hashanah.
• Chanukah doesn’t require us to build a special structure and move our lives outdoors like Sukkot.
• Chanukah is not marked with a climactic Torah reading and spectacular celebration like Simchat Torah.
• Chanukah has no restrictions on our doing business or other weekday affairs, as Shabbat and the Torah’s festivals do — we go about our lives as usual.
• Chanukah is not commanded by the Torah or one of the prophets of God. It was just instituted by the rabbis.
• And, following from the last idea, Shabbat and the Torah’s festivals come from God, whereas Chanukah comes from mere humans.
This is quite a bill of particulars, and at first glance, seems to be persuasive. It is not just that there are so many ways in which Chanukah seems lesser, it is that there seems to be a simple and clear explanation for why this is so.
Expressed in the last reason above is the key idea that is the cause and source of each item on the list: all those distinctions are true because Chanukah is of merely human origin, and therefore, it is of only derivative importance at best.
But it is precisely its rabbinic and human origin that makes Chanukah major.
The Torah is about a covenant, a relationship. And a relationship is not just about one partner, even if that partner is incomparably greater than the other.
The Torah is not just about the perfect God instituting major laws and teaching major ideas. It is about God being received by us, and God’s message and love internalized and made our own, as well.
It is about us, inspired by God’s taking the initiative as well, initiating our own authentic response to God.
The most important thing in the Torah is not God’s superiority, which is a given, but our own choice to make the relationship with God the most important thing in our lives by using the power placed in our hands to initiate our own inspired holy and positive actions.
Let’s demystify this idea by putting it in the ordinary terms of our civil society. What is the more important act: sending our mother a card on the officially designated day for moms, or our choosing to respect her every day of our lives?
Is the most important thing to eat a turkey and watch football on Thanksgiving, or is it to instill the trait of gratitude in our character permanently?
The rabbis express the idea in the Midrash: “The scholars said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: ‘The words of the Sages are even more beloved to God than the words of Torah (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:2:8).’”
The rabbis there give several examples of how, in a legal sense, greater gravity is given to rabbinic doctrine than that of Scripture.
Why is that so? Looking at that Midrash in a mystical mode, the commentator Maharzo explains that Scripture reveals the pure godly potential for all good things, whereas the rabbis bring these godly ideas down into this world, to engage it and shape it decisively and concretely.
In other words, the rabbis were internalizing God’s teachings and commands and then taking the initiative. Only so can God’s desire to have a covenantal relationship be actualized.
The perfect words of Scripture have not yet found their way to being more than a potential, but the words of the rabbis are already the Covenant actualized in our hearts and souls and in the world, here and now.
Taking that initiative is the major task in each of our lives.
At the time of the Chanukah story, Judaism and Jews were under attack in our Holy Land. The Jews did not wait for God to fix the situation, but took action out of their own fully internalized love for God and Jewish life.
They chose to set aside the normal considerations of politics and power and chose to make God’s mission the major factor in their lives instead.
They took the initiative. They dedicated their “lives and fortune and sacred honor” to the cause of the Covenant — and God responded to them, with the blessings of victory and of the miracle of the lights.
Every generation faces the same choice. Judaism and the Land of Israel are under attack today as well. It is the major message of Chanukah that we today too should choose to take the initiative, becoming active partners in the Covenant by facing this evil with faith, resolution and courage. There is nothing more important in all of Jewish life.