Paradigm of Liberation
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
The section of the Talmud that discusses Hanukkah opens with a simple and direct question: What is Hanukkah? We don’t find other holidays subject to such an inquiry like “What is Passover?” “What is Sukkot?” Indeed, the question reflects the confusion over what exactly is this holiday? Is it celebrating a military victory, a spiritual miracle of everlasting oil, or something else? The Rebbe of Chernobyl, Menachem Nahum Twersky (d. 1787, Ukraine), in his commentary on this week’s Parsha, Miketz, states that the essence of Chanukah is that Jews can connect with God through Torah. While this answer doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the main symbols of the holiday, I think the Rebbe is offering us a paradigm for how subjugated people can get to liberation.
One of the ways oppression works is to convince the subjugated to forget or give up on something crucial and life-giving in their own subjective self-definition. Several of the oppressive decrees the Hellenists imposed on the Jews in the time of the Hanukkah story focused on breaking down Jewish autonomy over their own calendar (forbidding Rosh Chodesh celebrations), time and rest (forbidding Shabbat observance) and connection to the land (forbidding brit milah, which, in Genesis 17, is intimately connected with the promise of the Land). The most internally damaging may have been also the most cryptic - the decree to, “ Write on the horn of a bull that you have no part in the God of Israel” (Genesis Rabbah 16:4).
Telling someone to write on the horn of a bull is a way of saying that what you are communicating will last a long time.
The cornerstone of Jewish self-definition was that we are a people in constant partnership with the Creator of the Universe for the purpose of the ultimate redemption of the world. There may be ups and downs in that relationship, but the covenant/partnership is never broken. The Hellenists knew that this belief was the source of Jewish resilience and this decree was designed to break them of this confidence. In a similar way the Catholic Church, until Vatican II in the mid-1960s insisted that the covenant between God and the Jews was broken and superseded by the “New Covenant,” evidenced by persistent Jewish suffering under Christian Hegemony.
This same dynamic plays out in many forms of oppression, where the subjugated group is gaslighted regarding something essential to their self-definition, be it people targeted by anti-blackness with negative messages about humanness, or women and false messages about innate capabilities and more. This is why liberation movements are empowered by messages that reassert self-definition. The “I am a man” t-shirts and signs of the Black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, or “No limits for women,” or “Gay Pride” and many more such examples.
This is why the Rebbe claims that the essence of Hanukkah is that Jews can connect to God through Torah. The Hellenists wanted to remove the inner vitality from Judaism, so Jews would only look to Greek culture for meaning and spiritual nourishment. Torah can be made external, into simple stories, history, and an intellectually stimulating document. Torah’s real power comes from the fact that it is a means of communication between God and the Jewish people that enlivens the covenantal relationship. It is the relationship, the connection to the Creator, that is the key and not anything external. For the Rebbe, Chanukah is about restoring that sense of convenantal relationship and connection.
This may be the reason why the oil and lights become the key symbol of Chanukah. Olive oil is symbolic of wisdom and the Torah is often referred to as coming from the Blessed Creator’s wisdom. When we light and gaze on the flame of the Menorah, perhaps we are being invited to sense the Creator’s presence in all circumstances. Thus, Chanukah becomes a spiritual opportunity to annually reassert the core of Jewish liberation - that we are a people in an unbreakable covenant with the Creator for the purpose of universal redemption.
May you be inspired all year by the remaining lights of this Hannukah.
Chodesh Tov, Shabbat shalom, and Hanukkah Sameach,