The Rambam (Hilchot Chanuka 3:3) writes that we light candles for the eight days of Chanuka in order to “demonstrate and publicize the miracle.” Since, as we know, the Rambam was meticulous in his language, what is the difference between l’har’ot (demonstrate) and l’galot (publicize) ?
Moreover, the Rambam continues that “the mitzva of Ner Chanuka is most precious (chaviva hi ad me’od) and one has to be extremely careful in order to inform others of the miracle, and to expand on it in praise and thanksgiving to G-d.”
But why is this particular mitzva so precious ? There are other mitzvot that we have that also purport to publicize miracles – most famously the reading of the Megila and the drinking of four cups of wine on Pesach. In neither place does Rambam call those mitzvot precious – so why does he use that term only in reference to Ner Chanuka ? And why do we say of the Chanuka candles that they are “holy” – what’s so holy about Ner Chanuka ?
And one other, fundamental question: Why Chanuka ? Why do we commemorate ancient but short-lived victories ? The Chashmonaim had their moment and served a valuable function 22 centuries ago, but they disappeared 20 centuries ago. The monarchy they established was a fleeting phenomenon in Jewish history, and the Mikdash they lovingly rededicated was destroyed two centuries later – so why celebrate their achievements that have long ago been dimmed by history ?
Rav Soloveitchik zt”l explained by citing the Gemara Shabbat (22b) that the Menorah in the Mikdash served only one purpose: “it was evidence that the Divine Presence rests on the Jewish people.” So, too, the Rav said, Ner Chanuka is a symbol of G-d’s enduring presence among the Jewish people in every age and in every location in the world. In essence, in the absence of the Mikdash, Ner Chanuka is the means by which we demonstrate every year that we are the Chosen People.
That was one of the primary clashes between the Jews and the Hellenists. The latter maintained that the Jewish people had to renounce any notion of chosenness, to them a cause of Jew-hatred that we ourselves provoked. They argued that we were just like everyone else, and the very concept of a “chosen” people was repugnant to their modern sensibilities.
It still is. Of course, the early Christians claimed for themselves the mantle of the New Israel, but it fascinating that the early Americans did the same. The Pilgrims called themselves New Israel, sprinkled the colonies liberally with biblical names, and saw America as the “Promised Land.” Benjamin Franklin even wanted the Great Seal of the US to depict the crossing of the Red Sea, and Thomas Jefferson thought a better image was the Israelites in the wilderness being led by a pillar of fire and a cloud. (Instead, they chose the bald eagle and other symbols.)
Nonetheless, all this imagery – and the idea of a “manifest destiny” – fed the notion of American exceptionalism, which, sad to say, even high-ranking American politicians have repudiated of late. And even Jews are uncomfortable with the concept of an “am hanivchar.”. One of my putative colleagues on the far left fringe of the Orthodox rabbinate not long ago described the notion of chosenness as “a moment of imperfection in G-d’s creation and decision-making.” It is “problematic” to single out one people for leadership. Hmmm…well, someone’s imperfect.
The publicizing of Chanuka is not merely a reminder of the miracle of Chanuka and the salvation of Israel from our enemies, but primarily proof that the divine presence rests on the people of Israel. Our relationship with G-d is based on two components – our acceptance of
G-d’s oneness and the special character of the descendants of Avraham. That’s why the Rambam says the mitzvah is “to demonstrate and publicize the miracle” – to demonstrate what is already known but also to reveal what is not widely known, or widely accepted: to explain why we fought then, why we fight today, what G-d expects of us, and what is His vision for mankind.
And that is why the Ner Chanuka is a “very precious Mitzva,” treasured and cherished, and why these flames are holy, set aside not to use but to examine, understand, and investigate this unique phenomenon of an eternal people and its relationship to the Creator. Megila and the four cups on Pesach recall a particular event – Chanuka is more than that: it is a celebration of our unique relationship with G-d that has never faltered and that transcends time and space.
Thus, after the victory, the Chashmonaim endeavored to formalize the notion of the chosen people in halacha – reinforcing the ban on intermarriage, and adding to the laws of purity and impurity – all of which served to stem the tidal wave of assimilation in those days, and serves as a model for our time as well. That is the Chanuka that deserves celebration every year. It is not just the miracles of old, but His loving embrace that reminds us then and now that redemption comes not through might or power but through G-d’s spirit, and our fidelity to that spirit.