Chanuka and the Nesi’im

Nov 24, 2014
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Rabbi Yitzchak Hirshfeld

The dedication of the Mishkan through the sacrifices and donations of the nesi’im (tribal princes) seems to be quite a central Chanuka theme.

During Chanuka we read the section of Bamidbar recording the nesi’im’s donations and sacrifices (Megilla 3:6).

Our Hallel on Chanuka is also influenced by the sacrifices of the nesi’im. In contrast with Pesach, where complete Hallel is only recited on the first day of the holiday, on Chanuka full Hallel is recited every day. It seems like we are comparing it to Sukkot where because different sacrifices are offered every day we say complete Hallel every day. The Shibulei Haleket (quoted in the Beit Yosef OC 683) gives three reasons for this – the third relates to the nesi’im:

We light a different amount of candles every day of Chanuka;
The miracle was renewed each subsequent day;
On each of the twelve days of the dedication of the Mishkan, one of the nesi’im offered his sacrifice. Each one said a complete Hallel along with his sacrifices. Therefore, as we read the daily Chanuka Torah portion about the nesi’im’s sacrifices, we also say a complete Hallel like he did.

Apparently, according to the Shibulei Haleket, we are on Chanuka reenacting the dedication of the Mishkan by the nesi’im.

After the nesi’im offered their sacrifices at the dedication of the Mishkan, Aharon, the Midrash tells us, was down. Although he was the prince of the tribe of Levi, he had not participated in the dedication along with them. The Almighty consoled him, “Do not worry. Your’s is greater than their’s.” The Torah immediately follows the portion of the nesi’im with the lighting of the menora in the Beit Hamikdash. According to the Ramban, this refers to the dedication of the Mikdash in the times of the Maccabees when the Kohein Gadol lit the menora and the Chanuka miracle took place. The nesi’im – Chanuka connection is once more strengthened, for the Chanuka menora is compared to the dedication of the Mikdash by the nesi’im.

Individuality and Unity
Daily we deal with the delicate relationship between the individual and the collective. Balancing our individual and collective selves is part of making marriage and family work, of keeping a community together, and is part of the great challenge of modern Israel. The sacrifices of the nesi’im have a lesson to teach us about striking this balance. Every day of the dedication of the Mishkan was devoted to only one of the nesi’im, each offering his individual sacrifices and donations, yet each one of them ended up offering exactly the same sacrifices. The Midrash explains how each of the nesi’im’s sacrifices, though they were identical in number, weight and materials, was an expression of the unique nature of each of the tribes. The sacrifices reflect the individual personalities of the nesi’im, yet all were dedicated to the Mishkan, the great unifying force of Israel. The nesi’im teach us that when a group of fully developed individuals are focused on one common goal – service of the one G-d in the one Mikdash – they can form a collective unity.

However, even once unity is achieved, there is a constant danger of it falling apart, each of the individuals pulling in its own direction. What is able to hold it all together?

The Torah strategically surrounds the delicate unity of the nesi’im with Birkat Kohanim and the menora. Both give light. The second line of Birkat Kohanim refers to the Divine Light, “Let Hashem shine (ya’eir) His Face upon you and show you favor (veyichunekha: sounds like Chanuka!);” and the menora shines the light of the Shechina (see Shabbat 22b). This light is full of peace – Hashem shines on His people “ . . . and grants you peace,” and it is this light that preserves the unity of the nesi’im. The last Mishna of Shas quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta: “The only vessel that can contain a blessing is peace.” Only when there is shalom can the delicate unity of fully developed individuals hold together.

The Greek Threat: Pseudo-Unity
Let us take a look at the Greek threat. Says the Midrash on the second pasuk of the Torah, “There was darkness on the face of the deep. ‘Darkness’ – represents Greece.” The Greeks also related to the individual-collective balance, but on an international level. There was an attempt at creating a pan-Hellenistic culture. This included an attack (both internal and external) on the individuality of Klal Yisrael, viewing Israel as another piece of the Hellenist world. Perhaps the Ptolemaic translation of the Torah into Greek (Megilla 9) was an attempt to neutralize the Torah’s Divine uniqueness and reduce it to another book, expressing the culture of one particular nation of the Greek empire.

This superficially looks like peace, with its talk of equality and universalism. The denial of any concept of a chosen nation seems to serve the interests of peace. However, this, as history has born out, is a pseudo-peace. This is not a unity of fully developed elements but a suppression of true identity. There is not one big world nation but many of them that can, nevertheless be united into one “aguda” (bond) doing the will of Hashem. Denying the unique nature and individuality of each people is a recipe for destruction.

Light both unites and differentiates. It highlights the differences between peoples, between Israel and the nations. We say the blessing of havdala, “Hamavdil bein Yisrael La’amim” while holding a havdala candle. On the other hand, the light in the Mishkan unites, drawing all together towards a common goal. The differentiating light can be dangerous; outside of the Mishkan it can lead to unhealthy competition, pointing to each of us as a disjointed unconnected individual. The light of the Mishkan both points out uniquenesses and shines on us with peace – drawing us together.

The Chanuka candles and the nesi’im teach us that we can only acheive genuine unity, both internally and internationally, by affirming our uniqueness. But that individualism needs to be protected, not allowed to get out of hand/ That is only possible by connecting up to the light of the Mishkan that pulls us all together.

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