Rosh Hodesh Kislev Torah Essay
Chanukah and Neshikot Hashem
The Gemara in Shabbat, Daf 21a asks what seems to be a straightforward question.
What is Chanukah? According to Rashi, the question the Sages are posing is ‘Which miracle is the reason for establishing the festival of Chanukah?’
It sounds like a simple question. We all know that the Hasmoneans were able to overcome the Greeks in battle and recapture the Beit HaMikdash. When they came to the Beit HaMikdash to relight the menorah, they found one cruse of oil. This cruse contained a sufficient amount of oil for one day, but would run out in the days it would take to produce more. However, a miracle occurred, and this small amount of oil remained alight for eight days. It would appear from this simplified version of the story, that the obvious miracle, for which G-d subverted the laws of nature, was the ability He gave to the oil to endure for many more days than should have been scientifically possible.
I imagine that most of us would have thought that this much-exalted miracle of the oil is the focal miracle of Chanukah. However, if you look at the primary tefillah we say that is unique to Chanukah, the text of Al HaNissim, we state that “…the Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the statutes of Your will…” and great miracles were performed “….You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, many into the hands of the few….”.
It seems to be that the miracle of Chanukah is that Hashem saved us from our enemy, that we received salvation, that the Torah was kept for generations to come… So why then, have we learnt to focus on, emphasize and celebrate the miracle of the oil?
When Yosef was taken down to Egypt, the pasuk informs us that the group of Ishmaelites that purchased and transported him came from Gilad, were carrying sweet-smelling incense. Chazal noted their surprise at this, as it was known to them that merchants from the region traditionally transported foul-smelling goods. They answer that while it was normal for the caravan to be filled with unpleasant hides and carcasses, for this particular journey, HaKadosh Baruch Hu ensured that incense was being carried instead so that Yosef would not have to suffer sitting amongst putrid, rotting items.
That might sound like a kindness, but picture the scene. Yosef is distraught. He has been separated from his father and rejected by his brothers. Threatened with death, thrown into a pit filled with scorpions and snakes and sold like chattel. He had been dragged from Eretz Canaan, living in the tents of Yaakov on the 49th level of kedusha, and was being taken to Egypt, a place of complete tuma, with no foreseeable route home. Enslaved. Trapped…
We might think to challenge Chazal’s assertion that Hashem was ‘looking out’ for Yosef by ensuring that he was not surrounded by rancid produce on his journey. In a time of such darkness, what difference would it make to Yosef to be surrounded by pleasant smells or unpleasant ones? Is the smell really going to change how he’s feeling?
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, in his Sichot Mussar encourages us to look deeper and investigate the poignancy of the sweet-smelling spices, the besamim.
At a time where Yosef is in absolute darkness, when he saw his world, his hopes and dreams caving in and collapsing in front of his eyes, maybe he would start to question whether Hashem had turned “His back” on him. Yosef could have easily given up. At that moment, where Yosef was at the brink of losing all hope, Hashem sent him a message. Hashem sent him an unexpected pleasant scent. An unlikely, unexpected “reiach tov”. Hashem did this to show Yosef that not all was lost and with that, Yosef regained his hope and strength.
The perfumed carriages were not merely to prevent Yosef from smelling bad smells as he travelled to oblivion, but rather to send him a message of hope and to remind him that Hashem was right by his side.
We see a similar occurrence in the story of David and Goliat. The pesukim there point out that when David managed to hit Goliat’s forehead with a stone, he fell forward. Again, the suggestion made by Chazal here is that the direction that Goliat fell is mentioned because, naturally, we would have expected that Goliat would have fallen backwards, but in order to allow David to reach Goliat’s head without having to walk across the length of his body, Hashem made Goliat fall forward.
Lastly, we see the same idea with Avraham. In Bereishit (13:14), Hashem tells Avraham to lift his eyes from where he is standing and look to the north, south east and west. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh comments on this pasuk that Hashem, yet again, performed another miracle and Avraham did not need to turn his head to each direction to see the land, but rather he saw the whole land as one whole, not fragmented into four sections.
In each of these events, we see that Hashem performed an extra miracle. Was it not enough to win the war against the Greeks, or that Yosef was saved from the pit, that David defeated Goliat or that Avraham received the land? Maybe, but HaShem went further and ensured that above the miracles of salvation and hope, HaShem wants us to feel his personal touch, His Neshika.
The miracle of Chanukah was indeed the fact that we defeated our enemies, despite the size of our army and the little strength we had. What we choose to celebrate, however, is the Neshikat Hashem. The little reminder that the miracles are not merely about survival but about revealing to us that we have a personal, intimate and loving relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
In each situation that we have explored, we see that Hashem went above and beyond to show our ancestors that it’s not merely about ensuring the continual progression of Jewish history, but rather, it’s about Hashem’s relationship with us and the signs that He sends us to express His love.
The times where the world is in chaos we look and search for those little neshikot Hashem to remind us that through all this, He is with us. In the inimitable words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt’’l, “each of us is here because of G-d’s love. That fact transforms the human condition, rescuing it from ultimate solitude. We are not alone. We exist because someone wants us to be, someone who believes in us even when we lose belief in ourselves, who knows our fears and hears our prayers, giving us strength when we falter and lifting us when we fall.”
Especially now during such daunting times, it is necessary to try and open our eyes to the messages Hashem is sending us, left, right and center – that He loves us and He is right by our side and it’s up to us to ensure that those neshikot Hashem continue to leave an imprint on our lives and the world.