Let us begin with three questions. First, at the end of the “Al Hanissim” which we recite on Chanuka, after describing all of the miracles which Hashem made for our ancestors, we conclude “v’kavu shomenas y’mei Chanuka eilu l’hodos ul’halel l’shim’cha ha’gadol,” yet in the “Al Hanissim” on Purim, we make no mention of what we do as a result of the miracles Hashem performed. Further, once we’re mentioning our obligations on Chanuka, why did they leave out lighting the menorah, which is traditionally considered to be the primary mitzvah of Chanuka to publicize the miracle? Secondly, in “Ma’oz Tzur,” we sing “B’nei bina y’mei shemonah kavu shir ur’nanim.” There are numerous words for wisdom (e.g. chochma, dei’ah), so why do we specifically refer to them as b’nei bina? Third is the famous question attributed to the Beis Yosef: if there was enough oil for one day, then the miracle was only for 7 days, so why do we make commemorate it for 8?
Before beginning to answer these questions, let us ask one additional question, whose answer will provide us the key we need to begin addressing these questions. Often we find that through revealing the depth and intricacy of Hashem’s Creation, people are actually brought to believe in Hashem as they marvel at the impossibility of it all occurring by chance. The historians tell us that the Greeks were on the cutting edge of science and knowledge of the natural world, so why do we specifically find that they were biggest heretics?
I once heard a parable which will allow us to answer this last question. We may compare two acts of chesed (kindness), one of that of a family which notices a poor homeless beggar and invites him to their home for a warm supper, a shower, a change of clothes, and a good night’s sleep, and one that of a family which hears of the plight of a young abandoned babtyand with great mercy adopts him and raises him as their very own. While both are admirable, praiseworthy acts, the latter clearly far outweighs the former, as it is an obligation for life versus a commitment of one night. Yet if you would encounter the homeless man and the adopted child and measure their level of gratitude, you would surprisingly find the homeless man gushing with effusive praise for his compassionate hosts, while the child will be far less enthusiastic. The explanation for this phenomenon is that because he was adopted at such a young age, the child has grown accustomed to their kindnesses to the point of taking them for granted and thinking they occur automatically, whereas the homeless man is able to recognize the magnitude of their thoughtfulness, which was certainly unexpected by him.
So too, the Greeks were leaders at furthering the understanding and awareness of the natural world, but they were led astray by the very fact that the focus of their inquires, nature, is by definition constant and self-perpetuating, which led them to take it for granted and to view it, chas v’shalom, as an independent power unto itself. Not surprisingly, the gematria (numerical value) of the word ha’teva (nature) is the same as that of Elokim, yet they erred in concluding that nature is a god rather than His work and the way in which His Divine Will manifests itself in this world.
With this introduction, we now have a new understanding of the victory of the Chashmonaim over the Greeks. It wasn’t just a military struggle, but it was a battle over this fundamental mistake made by the Greeks. The Chashmonaim realized that everything in the world comes from Hashem, and everything is in reality a miracle, including nature itself. The Ramban writes so beautifully (at the very end of Parshas Bo) that from clear and open miracles a person is supposed to come to recognize that even the mundane things we take for granted, such as nature, as also miraculous, albeit in a “hidden” form. This concept is so fundamental to Jewish belief that he concludes that one who denies this has no portion in our Torah.
In this light, we can now appreciate the answer given by the Alter from Kelm to the 3rd question we asked, that of the Beis Yosef. The question was that since there was enough oil to burn on the first day, no miracle occurred and therefore we should only celebrate Chanuka for the 7 days that the oil burned “miraculously.” He answers that the miracle of the first day is that oil burns at all! Ah, you’ll ask, but that’s not miraculous – that’s just nature? Exactly the point! The first day of Chanuka commemorates the recognition that nature itself is a creation of Hashem and just because we are accustomed to it on a daily basis, is no less miraculous than the fact that the oil burned for longer than it was supposed to!
There is a well-known Gemora in Taanis which relates that one Friday, the daughter of Rav Chanina ben Dosa accidentally put vinegar in the Shabbos candles instead of oil. Her father wasn’t fazed, as he unequivocally declared that “He who told oil to burn can tell vinegar to burn.” He recognized that what we accept as nature is arbitrary; if Hashem willed it to be another way, it could just as easily be completely different. He understood that there is nothing intrinsically more miraculous in the burning of oil than that of vinegar, as nature is just another, more hidden, form of a miracle. Not surprisingly, the Gemora concludes that for somebody on such a level, an open miracle occurred and they lit their Havdola candle from those very same vinegar candles which were still burning strong!
In a similar vein, Rav Moshe Feinstein answers another question asked on the wording of the “Al Hanisim”: why is there no mention made of the most well-known miracle associated with Chanuka, that the oil burned for 8 days? Based on the above, he suggests that it is indeed mentioned, in the words “v’kidliku naros b’chatzros kad’shecha” – that they lit candles in Your Holy Temple. But you’ll ask: that’s not the miracle of the oil? They had enough oil to burn at first! Exactly the point! This was the first miracle of the oil, and one no less miraculous than that which occurred on the remaining 7 days!
We can now understand the answer given by Rav Shmuel Rozovsky to our second question (why we specifically refer to them as “b’nei bina”). We first have to understand what is the unique connotation of wisdom associated with the word “bina.” Chazal tell us that the word “bina” refers to one who is able to be “meivin davar mi’toch davar” – to extrapolate from one thing and use it to understand something else. This is the precise description of the Chashmonaim, who acted in line with the aforementioned Ramban’s principle, and from the open miracle they witnessed on the last 7 days, they were able to step back and use it to recognize that the lighting of the first day had been just as miraculous. This was their conquest over the Greeks and their pagan philosophy. Had they only established a holiday of 7 days, they would have missed the entire point. The Greeks also would have agreed to make a holiday commemorating the latter 7 days, but that was their entire defeat. Therefore we stress that “B’nei bina y’mei shemonah kavu shir ur’nanim” – the wise and understanding men established 8 days for singing and praising; the fact that they made it 8 and not 7 is precisely the proof that they were b’nei bina!
The Medrash tells us that when Leah named her 4th son Yehuda she was the first one since the creation of the Universe who gave thanks to Hashem. Many commentators are bothered by the notion that Avrohom and Sora, Yitzchok and Rivkah, Yaakov Avinue – none of them even once thanked Hashem!? Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld quotes his Rebbe the K’sav Sofer who answers that of course they thanked Hashem repeatedly, but only for the open miracles. Leah was the first one to openly thank Hashem for something which could be classified as “natural,” the birth of 4 sons. She recognized that nature is also a miracle and requires just as much gratitude as the open miracles!
The Bach writes that the reason why the Greeks were able to control and overpower the Jews at that time was because they weakened themselves in their Divine Service. The Shem Mi’Shmuel clarifies that the Bach doesn’t mean to say that they weren’t doing the mitzvos. They were indeed doing everything they were required to do, but they were doing it k’mitzvas anashim m’lumada, from rote and from habit, and the conquest of Chanuka is to overcome this.
In discussing how long one’s menorah must burn, the Gemora doesn’t give an amount of time but rather an unusual measurement: ad she’tik’leh ha’regel min ha’shuk, literally until people’s feet are no longer walking around outside in the marketplace (where they will be able to see the menorahs, and hence there is no further purpose in publicizing the miracle). Yet the Chiddushei HaRim suggests that the word “haregel” (the foot) can also be read “hergel” (habit). The foot is the part of our body which is farthest from the brain, and as such, it is the most capable of function on “automatic pilot” without any thought at all. The Gemora could be re-read to require “ad she’tikelh hergel min ha’shok.” Our focus on Chanuka should be to detach our feet from the legs which allow them to walk automatically, and to attach them to our heads (not literally of course).
A Rebbe of mine once cynically remarked that while Orthodox Jews are traditionally subdivided into the categories of FFB (Frum From Birth) and BT (Baal Teshuva), he would suggest that most of them fall into a 3rd category, FFH (Frum From Habit), people who keep Shabbos because they did it last week, and who eat kosher because that’s what they did growing up. Chanuka is a time when must work to overcome this and become thinking Jews!
The question with which we began was why in the “Al Hanisim” on Chanuka we conclude with what we do to commemorate the miracles, as opposed to on Purim, and that once we are doing so, why only mention the need to give thanks and overlook the lighting of the menorah? Rabbi Yosef Sonnenschein suggests that since we now understand that the goal of Chanuka is to overcome the power of habit, giving thanks to Hashem is an integral part of the holiday. If one does most mitzvos, including lighting the menorah, without proper intent, it definitely takes away from the value of the mitzvah, but at the end of the day the mitzvah was still done. The burning menorah publicizes the miracle to all who see it regardless of the concentration, or lack thereof, of the one who lit it. Gratitude, on the other hand, if offered unenthusiastically, isn’t considered as having been done but just not so well; it’s meaningless and wasn’t done at all! If I don’t feel the other person has benefited me, or I ascribe to him ulterior motives, or if I don’t feel appreciative for any of a number of reasons, then saying an insincere “thank you” is actually hollow and worthless.
We can console ourselves that this actually an old problem. The Yerushalmi relates that one of the Amoraim commented that he has gratitude toward his head and spine, as they “know” to automatically bow down when reaching the word “Modim” in the Shemoneh Esrei. In other words, his body is so conditioned to bend over when arriving at the prayer giving thanks to Hashem, that it does it without any thought or intention! Yet this is not an excuse. Rav Nosson Wachtfogel points out that these are miraculous days, a time of l’mala min ha’teva (above the laws of nature). We stress in the “Al Hanisim” that this is a time when Hashem delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak and the many into the hands of the few. Let us use this precious opportunity to recognize that even what is cloaked in the guise of nature is indeed miraculous, and to reflect on the numerous miracles Hashem makes for us every second of every day, and to thank Him for with hears full of gratitude!
Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) In the “Al Hanissim” prayer which is added during Chanuka, we give thanks for the miracles, for the redemption, for the acts of might, for the salvations, and for the wars. Wouldn’t we have been better off without wars? Why are we giving thanks for them? (Leket Sichos Mussar, Noam Hamussar, Derech Sicha Biurei Ha’Tefilla, Shiurei Bina quoting S’fas Emes)
2) When reciting Birkas Hamazon (the Grace after Meals) during Chanuka, there is a special addition to be said (Al Hanissim), so why wasn’t one also inserted in Al Hamich’yah, the blessing recited after eating other grain products? (Torah L’Daas Vol. 6 quotes several answers)
3) In Ma’oz Tzur, we sing “umi’nosar kan’kanim na’ase nes la’shoshanim,” that with the remaining oil a miracle occurred for the roses. Why do we compare the Chashmonaim to flowers, and specifically to roses?
4) In Ma’oz Tzur, we sing regarding Haman “Rov banav v’kinyanav al ha’eitz talisa,” that the majority of his sons and possessions You hung on the tree. The Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer writes that Haman had 40 sons, yet only 10 of them were hung with him? Also, in what way were his possessions hung on the tree?