What’s it ‘oil’ about?

Chanukah’s message of thanking Hashem for our soul

Rabbi Dovid Samuels

One of the most obvious difficulties with the festival of Chanukah is the emphasis placed on the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, whereas the supernatural defeat of the Greeks at the hands of the Chashmonaim seems to be largely ignored. When we think about it, surely we would see our victory over an evil army to be more of a cause for celebration than a jug of oil lasting longer than expected. Why, then, when Chazal described these days as days of praise and thanks to Hashem for His great kindnesses to us, do we place such a large emphasis on the oil, over all of the other miracles?

There is a story of a man who was very wealthy, but his close friend was exceptionally poor. This wealthy man decided to treat his friend to the gift of a lifetime. He made up his mind to buy a lavish apartment, big enough for this man and his whole family, and give it to him. Once he got himself into the mode of giving, he decided to make this gift even better. Not only would his friend open the front door to a beautiful new apartment, but he would make sure that it was furnished, from top to bottom, with everything he and his family would need: beds, couches, a fridge, two ovens; you name it, he bought it. Then the wealthy man had a final flash in his mind. His friend was going to walk into this paradise with his whole family having not eaten anything the whole day. He knew that they had barely enough to eat, so he decided that he would set the dining table with a feast, together with delicious desserts. Satisfied with his efforts, he met his friend, handed over the keys, and showed him to his new home.

A few days later, the poor man saw his generous friend across the street. He ran to meet him and said, “You have no idea how much we appreciate what you did for us! The food was absolutely amazing. We were all so hungry, and when we saw the feast that you had prepared for us, we almost fainted! We have never tasted anything so delicious in all our lives!” The wealthy man waited to hear about how they were enjoying the luxury apartment and all of the expensive furnishings, but to his surprise, nothing was said of either. Only the food; how delicious it was, how much there was, how they had leftovers for days, how the children went to school with pastries for their friends. But not a word about anything else. The wealthy man couldn’t hold himself back anymore, so he asked, “Nu, how’s the apartment?” To which his friend replied, “Of course, the apartment is great! And it’s so nice that we were able to eat under the roof of our house, rather than out on the street!”

The story is extreme, but the message is clear. Our obligation to thank our benefactors is understood, but we have to make sure that we are acknowledging all of the generosity that we are shown, and that we don’t ignore the biggest gifts because we are blinded by the smaller ones. Such is our obligation to thank Hashem for all of His kindness towards us. But are the “small” gifts making us blind to the larger ones?

When we talk about thanking Hashem, we are all drawn to certain central topics: health, wealth, family, and the like. There are surely things that we must be thankful for. But there is one area that often gets forgotten when we express, or perhaps even feel, our appreciation to Hashem, and that is our spirituality. The first thing a Jew says in the morning is “modeh ani”, in which we thank Hashem for restoring our life upon awaking. But, in truth, it is more than that. It’s not just our life that we are thanking Him for, it is our soul. And it is with our soul that we are able to fathom the Divine and forge a relationship with our Creator.

In truth, every physical goodness that we receive is there to aide us in our spiritual success. Health, wealth, family, community, everything we have is to allow us to perform more mitzvos, become more in touch with our souls, and to bring Hashem into more areas of our lives. To allow those gifts to remain nothing more than physical enjoyments would be to ignore the greatest value in all of them and would prevent them from becoming elevated to the realm of the eternal.

At Chanukah, we did experience tremendous physical benefits from Hashem. Our victory over the Greeks was nothing short of miraculous, and we were able to self-govern for more years in our homeland. But what was the purpose of our physical freedom? Surely, to pursue greater spiritual excellence. Now, we would have been forgiven if we hadn’t fulfilled the mitzvah of lighting the menorah in the Beis HaMikdash for the full eight days (until we could get more pure oil). And, halachically, the impure oil would have even sufficed in such situations. But the Jewish people knew that any physical benefit was solely to provide a springboard for a heightened level of spiritual service and perfection. So, impure oil wouldn’t suffice for them, nor would it be acceptable for them to have even one day with the menorah unlit; their desire for holiness was too great. And so Hashem showed every one of us that He, too, valued the spiritual excellence of the Jewish people, more than anything else. More than allowing the weak to overpower the strong; more than allowing the few to overpower the many; Hashem desired the sublime spiritual relationship that can only exist between a Jew and Himself.

Perhaps, then, it is for this reason that when we think about Chanukah, we immediately think of the miracle of the oil and everyone lighting their chanukiahs. The war, the victory, the sovereignty, of course, these are deserving of our heartfelt thanks. But our ability to serve Hashem in His mitzvos, in the most perfect and spiritually exhilarating way possible, that was what it is all about, and for that we must be very careful not to overlook when we celebrate this festival of praise and thanks.

There are several reasons why we may be guilty of not fully thanking Hashem for our spirituality. One of the main reasons is due to the fact that we don’t view ourselves as spiritually successful. “If I was a big Tzaddik,” we say to ourselves, “then I would thank Hashem for my spiritual success. But I’m just a regular guy. Should I be so thankful for that?” But throughout the ages our rabbis have taught us that this is a terrible mistake. There is a story about Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk[1] who heard about a man in Tiberius who fell very ill and was hardly able to move in his bed. This man had almost given up living, thinking that it would be better to die than to live a “worthless” life. Rabbi Avraham decided to go and visit the man, and when he entered the room he saw that someone was winding Tefillin straps around the man’s arm, as the man was unable to muster the strength to do it himself. He approached the man in his bed and whispered softly into his ear, “You should know that it is worth it for a man to come into this world for 80 years just for the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of Tefillin but once…even if someone else is tying the straps around his arm for him.”

The fact that we might feel that we are not achieving everything that we could spiritually does not mean that we shouldn’t be wholly thankful for that which we have been allowed to achieve. The fact that a Jew might close his mouth and refrain from speaking lashon hora or divert his eyes from looking at something which might be forbidden should not be underestimated. On the contrary, he has just achieved something that even the angels on high are unable to do. And even though we might not be succeeding in all aspects of our religion all of the time, that in no way absolves us of the obligation to recognise Hashem’s part in our successes when they come. So when we keep a Shabbos, when we put on Tefillin, when we keep kosher and pray to our Creator, it is vital that we not only give thanks to Him for allowing this success, but to recognise that such a thing is indeed a cause for thanksgiving.

Another reason why we may not fully appreciate what Hashem gives us spiritually is that, unlike physical benefits which are experienced immediately, the full spiritual enjoyment is something that we have to look forward to. But besides for the spiritual benefit of our Torah and mitzvos, which will certainly vastly outweigh any enjoyments in this world, we do also have to recognise the physical benefits of such a rich and fulfilling religion. Perhaps the most poignant expression of this is when, lo aleinu (may it not befall us), someone we know falls ill and the community storms the gates of heaven with Tehillim and prayers. Where others might feel helpless and lost, our relationship with Hashem provides us with trust and security; our Torah provides us with a code of conduct in even the most painful situations; our community provides us with support and care; our calendar provides us with meaning and focus.

So, at our Sages instruction, we certainly use Chanukah as a time lehodos u’lehallel, to praise and thank Hashem for keeping us alive and for making us victorious in our personal battles, but the fact that we are able to light one jar of oil, to perform even one mitzvah, to connect with the Source of all perfection, that is our true success, and that is the real cause for our rejoicing at this time of year and, in truth, every day of our lives.

  1. 1741-1810. He learned Torah both with the Vilna Gaon and the Maggid of Mezritch.

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