But you don’t have to
By: Aron Ziegler
“They tried to destroy us, we survived, let’s eat” – has become a commonly heard joke to sum up Jewish celebrations. Lavan, the Egyptians, Bil’am, Haman… ‘In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, but Hashem, The Holy One Blessed Be He, saves us from their hand’.
It is not at all difficult to see why this one liner came about, as we eat festive meals on all of the yomim tovim – each with its own special foods, as well as before and after Yom Kippur. In fact, the word festival may originate from the idea that a celebration or commemoration would be marked by a feast. Even in Tanach, the word “Chag” (festival) is used to refer to the festive sacrifice (“Korban Chagigah”) which would be eaten in celebration as the verse in Hallel reads, “Isru Chag B’avosim” – “bind the festival offering with chords”.
When it comes to Chanukah, however, while it is a legitimate custom to celebrate the miracle of the oil by eating oily foods (although textual sources are slippery) and milchik foods to commemorate the involvement of milk in the downfall of the Greek general Holofernes, there is no obligation to celebrate with a commemorative meal and any meal that one chooses to make during Chanukah is halachically called a ‘seudas reshus’ (‘an optional meal’) – standing in contrast to every other holiday, including even Purim, when it is a mitzvah, albeit Rabbinic, to eat a celebratory meal.
Why is Chanukah different? Rabbi Chaim ben Betzalel explains that a person does not feel as special and as intimate a connection when he joins a meal that is being hosted on account of a significant event that anyway calls for a festive meal, as when he partakes of a special meal occasioned by no stipulated obligation, but rather just out of friendship and affection stemming solely from the heart. At a bris or a wedding, for example, a meal is expected, but a random invitation to a gathering indicates more personal affection and familial closeness, as the host expresses his desire to share his table with those whom he invites for no other reason than connecting. This, according to Rabbi Chaim, is the specialness of the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim (hosting guests), as such meals are convened out of generosity of spirit and affection.
The famous work ‘Duties of the Heart’ teaches us that we can divide our duties as Hashem’s servants into two components, duties of our limbs and duties of our heart. He explains that the component of service of the heart is of more critical and prime concern. To illustrate, let’s say that we have a Nazi spy living in England during World War II. Although he complies impeccably with his duties as a British officer, his heart, mind, and inner loyalty are not at all aligned with the Allies. In fact, if his cover would be blown, they would reject all of his perfect service and eliminate him without the slightest hesitation. So too, Hashem wants us to serve Him – but whether this truly is the case can be known only by our inner loyalties, devotion, and motives.
So how can we activate this inspiration, motivation, and devotion in our heart? If we use our minds to become aware of the fact that our entire existence and everything we have and are is simply the sum of multitudes of goodness, all of which originate from Hashem, then out of sheer gratitude and love we would want to draw closer and connect ourselves to our Benefactor. And especially with the realisation that whatever we try to give Him or do for Him is not needed by Him, as He is Infinite and Perfection itself, so the best we can do is to pour ourselves out in prayer and praise towards Him and devote our lives towards Him in expression of our infinite debt of gratitude. If, along with this inner devotion, we also combine the observance of the express guidelines of the written and oral Torah that Hashem revealed to us, then we will be serving Hashem with both components of human service activated, service of the heart and service of our limbs.
There is, however, a further stage that we can reach. Once we are infused with inner devotion and are proficient in carrying out the expressly instructed duties and guidelines that Hashem has communicated to us in the Torah, then – and only then – we may so internalise the programming and objectives that Hashem has shared with us in His Torah that it may become possible, based upon the guidance and enactments of our Sages, to undertake voluntary additional acts of service that enhance our service of Hashem above and beyond the call of duty. At such a level, when we undertake things about which we are not obligated and do so in the spirit of expressing our unbounded appreciation and gratitude to Hashem, then Hashem gleans nachas from us, his servants. For example, Hashem didn’t expressly instruct us regarding the celebration of Purim and Chanukah in the Torah. Instead, He left if for the Prophets and Sages to enact them.
And we see this ‘going beyond the letter of the law’ especially when it comes to Chanukah. Following our triumph over the Syrian Greeks and our retaking and purifying the Beis HaMikdash (Temple), our Sages decided to enact a very simple commemoration ceremony: the lighting of a single candle in each Jewish home each evening for eight straight days. Ever since, however, the Jewish people have been eager to enhance this obligation, going beyond the basic mitzvah – either by having each man in the home light a single candle each night or by a person lighting a number of candles corresponding to each night of Chanukah – in order to express our genuine appreciation of Hashem’s goodness. So too, celebratory meals on Chanukah were made optional, so that they would not simply be another ritual needed to be performed, but instead would become an expression of heartfelt appreciation, giving thanks and praise to Hashem for the tremendous miracles that He performed for us.
Perhaps with this we can understand why, probably more than any other image, the menorah has come to be the single most ubiquitous symbol used to represent the Jewish people. Even the name Jew (from the Hebrew word Yehudi) stems from the name of the fourth of the Tribes of Israel, Yehudah, who was named by his mother: “for this time I will praise Hashem.” Both the menorah and the name Jew/Yehudi are clear expressions of an inner core of heartfelt gratitude to Hashem – the constant refrain and character of the Jew. And we hope, please G-d soon, to celebrate with another great feast, the feast of the Livyasan, the gigantic fish that Hashem created and then hid away, and which will be served at the feast of the righteous where Hashem’s praises will be proclaimed.
Based on insights from the Sefer HaChaim by Rabbi Chaim ben Betzalel c1600 (older brother to the Maharal of Prague), which was written in the year 5338 (1578) when he and his household had to spend two months in quarantine. The maid at his house died by plague and his daughter and another youth became infected, but survived (as noted in the author’s introduction to the sefer).