Hanukah: The Holiday of Renewal
The Rabbis teach that when the Greeks embarked on their campaign to obliterate the Jewish religion, they banned three Misvot: Shabbat observance, Berit Mila, and the declaration of new months based on the lunar cycle.
The first two bans – against Shabbat and Berit Mila – are quite understandable. Both these Misvot are referred to by the Torah as an "Ot" – a sign of our nation’s special relationship with G-d. It was only natural for the Greeks to focus on these two fundamental observances, the most important signs of our nation’s distinction, as they set out to destroy the Jewish religion.
But why did they ban the declaration of Rosh Hodesh? What is so significant about this Misva that it was targeted by the Greeks along with Shabbat and Berit Mila?
Our lunar calendar symbolizes an exceedingly important tenet of Jewish belief – the concept of renewal. In our calendar system, the new month begins when the moon, which had all but disappeared from the sky, begins to renew itself. This represents the unique ability we all have to renew ourselves, to reinvent ourselves, to rebuild, to return to G-d and to religious observance no matter how far we have drifted.
G-d promises in the Book of Debarim (30:4), "Im Yiheyeh Nidahacha Bi’kseh Ha’shamayim, Mi’Sham Yekabsecha Hashem Elokecha" – "If your exile will be at the edge of the heavens, from there Hashem your G-d will gather you." The plain meaning of this verse is that no matter how far geographically we are driven, and no matter how much we are scattered around the earth, G-d will eventually gather us together in the Land of Israel. However, the Ba’al Shem Tob (Ukraine, d. 1760) offered a deeper explanation of this verse, suggesting that it refers to a Jew that has drifted to "the edge of the heavens" – to the point where he is just barely connected to "the heavens," to spirituality. Even if a Jew has fallen so low that he retains but a tiny spark of sanctity, "from there" – from that spark, he is capable of spiritual rejuvenation. As long as he sincerely seeks to return, G-d will bring him back "from there," from that minuscule flame of spirituality that still burns within each and every Jew and can never be extinguished.
The Greeks sought to deny us this ability of renewal. Their ban on the declaration of new months symbolized their effort to have us reject this belief in the possibility of return and rejuvenation after a period of spiritual decline.
Indeed, this is precisely what the holiday of Hanukah celebrates. During the period of Greek persecution, the vast majority of the Jews assimilated and abandoned the faith. The small jug of pure oil discovered by the Hashmonaim as they cleansed the Bet Ha’mikdash represented the small "jug" of purity that remained in the Jewish People. Just as this tiny amount of oil miraculously sustained the Menorah for eight nights, so did the small group of devout Jews succeed in rekindling the light of sanctity far more than anyone could have possibly imagined.
This is why this holiday was named "Hanukah," which means "inauguration," referring to the rededication of the Bet Ha’mikdash after the victory of the Hashmonaim over the Greeks. This name encapsulates the essence of this celebration – the notion of renewal and rejuvenation. Just as the Bet Ha’mikdash was defiled and then cleansed and rededicated, so are we all capable of renewing ourselves, no matter how much we have been defiled through sin.
The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat concludes its brief account of the Hanukah story by stating that a year after the miracle, the Rabbis instituted an eight-day celebration. The Rebbe of Slonim raised the question of why the holiday of Hanukah was established only the next year, and not immediately after the miracle occurred. Why did the Rabbis wait before enacting an annual celebration of this great miracle? The answer, the Rebbe suggested, is that the Rabbis initially assumed that the great rejuvenation experienced by the nation at that time was an extraordinary, one-time event. They figured that this type of renewal, from the depths of impurity and widespread assimilation, where only a tiny "jug" of purity remained, could never be repeated. But the next year, they sensed that the spiritual energies that had triggered the process of renewal and rededication had resurfaced. They realized that the great renewal that the nation had experienced was something that could be experienced anew each and every year. And so they decided to establish Hanukah as an annual celebration – not only to celebrate the miracle, but also to urge us all to capitalize on this special opportunity to renew ourselves.
For good reason, Hanukah is observed at the end of the month of Kislev, during the darkest time of the year. It teaches us that no matter how "dark" we have become, no matter how far we have fallen, we are capable of "rekindling" the light of Kedusha within ourselves. Hanukah is a very special time when we have the ability to elevate ourselves from even the lowest depths, to reinvent ourselves into the people that we want to be and are supposed to be, regardless of what we have done in the past.