Chanukah: Where Are We Running?

By all accounts, we have no reason to believe that the war of the Chashmonaim had no deaths or losses. Surely, the fact that the Jewish people triumphed in the war is miraculous (although we didn’t actually win the war — we just reclaimed the Beis Hamikdash), but the war itself was not. People were killed. Wives lost their husbands; children lost their fathers. War is never pretty, and neither was the war of Chanukah. Not many people think about this in their celebration of the holiday of Chanukah, though, and neither, seemingly, did those that actually fought in the war.

The Gemara seems to imply that the soldiers, immediately upon winning their final battle, went straight to the Beis HaMikdash. The Chidushei HaRim wonders why this was so. Why did the victorious soldiers not go back to their homes, to their families? Why did they not bury their dead or console those that had lost relatives in the war? Did they not think of their families? Did they not think of all those who had lost so much during the war? Why did they skip all of this and go straight to the Beis Hamikdash?

The Purpose Of It All

In truth, perhaps the soldiers did first detour to their homes. The Gemara doesn’t say that they didn’t — it just doesn’t say that they did. But the Chidushei HaRim proposes a far more important answer: In war it is so easy to lose sight of what it is you are trying to accomplish. Indeed, there is not a species on the planet that kills one another quite like humans do. From watching any war movie, reading any war book, or talking to any soldier, it becomes clear that when someone is out on the battlefield, he or she begins to question what all of the violence is even for. What is the goal? Why are we here? What are we trying to accomplish? Have we lost sight of what this is all about?

The Chidushei HaRim explains that it is for this reason that the Chashmonaim went directly to the Beis HaMikdash at the conclusion of the war. They went to light the menorah, and to reconsecrate the Beis HaMikdash — the very thing that they fought and lost so much for. They went to the Beis HaMikdash to remind themselves that their fighting was not in vain; it had a holy purpose.

A Prayer For Learning

There is a prayer that one is supposed to say upon entering a Beis Midrash, and a separate prayer that one should say upon leaving. The former asks God for assistance in making sure that one does not stumble; the latter praises Torah and the pursuit of it.

Rabbi Elazar Shach asks why these prayers aren’t recited the other way around. Would it not make more sense to praise Torah and God before one sits down to learn, and then, upon leaving to enter back into the world, to ask for God’s guidance? Should we not be asking for God’s guiding hand, and the prevention of stumbling, as we leave the Beis Midrash, fearful of succumbing to the world around us?

Rabbi Shach proposes that simply praying to God that we not stumble is not enough. One must actually do it for his or herself. Should we ask of God not to stumble as we enter back into the world, one might come to think that we needn’t do anything beyond that. One might say such a prayer and think he or she has done all that need be done! We might get too comfortable with the idea that God will take care of everything for us, making sure we never err, which is of course not the case. Our not stumbling in the world is up to us — a simple benediction to God will not accomplish anything. It is for this reason that it is upon entering the Beis Midrash we ask God to assist us in our learning, and upon exiting, we simply praise the Torah so as to make sure that we are aware that we must do the rest ourselves.

Chanukah And “The Rest”

But what, exactly, is the rest?

One of my rebbeim once used the following example to illustrate the point: It is not uncommon to realize, late at night, that you are all out of milk. The store is about to close, and despite protests of being fully capable of eating cereal without milk, you find yourself on the way to the supermarket. Now, it is no coincidence that every supermarket in the world has the milk located in the farthest corner from the entrance; it is set up this way precisely for situations like this. Walking up and down each isle on your way to the milk, many things look enticing — many things that you would never have purchased at this time had you not just walked past them. So it is not unexpected at all when you arrive back home with nine bags of groceries, none of which contain the milk you went to purchase in the first place.

So much for the mashal. The nimshal, of course, is most obvious. We cannot lose sight of our goals. In the prayer we recite as we leave the Beis Midrash (as well as at any siyum) we say the words אָנוּ רָצִים וְהֵם רָצִים/“we run and they run”. They run after frivolous things, but we run after life in the World to Come. As we leave the Beis Midrash and enter back into the world, we do not simply ask God to assist us, rather, we remind ourselves of our ultimate goals in life so as to better guide ourselves.

It is so easy to get distracted. It is so easy to lose sight of our goals. Chanukah, and the menorah, is a reminder of why we are here, and what we are chasing after. It is our guiding light. For eight days a year we light a physical menorah to remind ourselves of what our true goals really are — just as the Chashmonaim did upon entering the Beis HaMikdash after winning their final battle. We light the menorah to remind ourselves that we all have a goal in life. Everything is not frivolous.

But this clarity of purpose we find on Chanukah must not only be relegated to eight days a year. Each morning, we must light the metaphorical menorah, remember our purpose, and, with clarity, pursue our goals.

“אָנוּ רָצִים וְהֵם רָצִים, אָנוּ רָצִים לְחַיֵּי הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא, וְהֵם רָצִים לִבְאֵר שַׁחַת”

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