Parshot Festivals

Heavenly multiplier effect found in a jar of oil

  • ChiefRabbi
One of the great heroes of the Holocaust was Rabbi Avraham Grodzinsky, the spiritual leader of the Kovno ghetto. Until the outbreak of the war, he had been Rosh Yeshiva of the famed Slabodka Yeshiva and one of the leading sages of his generation.

Later, amid the horrors of the Kovno ghetto, people would attest to the open, friendly countenance Rabbi Grodzinsky carried at all times, perfecting the trait of “receiving every person with a friendly face” (Pirkei Avot, 1:15), which was a source of hope and great comfort to all those who encountered him.

In the years of the ghetto, when the situation was at its most dire and most of its inhabitants had either perished from the horrifying conditions or been carted off to the death camps, he formed a group of 10 of his former students from the Slabodka Yeshiva. They would meet every Shabbos to discuss what spiritual and physical actions they could take to improve the plight of those around them. This eternal optimism in the face of hopeless odds – this faith in the power of the few – is an idea that goes right to the heart of Chanukah.

Actually, Rabbi Grodzinsky took his initial inspiration from an earlier source than the Maccabees. In the Torah portion a few weeks ago, we read of Abraham’s tireless negotiations with G-d to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. After a few rounds of negotiation, G-d eventually agrees to save the cities if 10 righteous people can be found within them. From here, the Gemara learns the foundational spiritual principle that 10 righteous people can have a decisive impact on an otherwise hopeless situation (Sanhedrin 99b). The Gemara goes even further, stating that a person who doesn’t believe in the power of 10 righteous people to save the world is guilty of heresy.

In other words, the belief in the power of even a small group of righteous people to change the world and overturn the natural order of things is no less than a fundamental principle of Jewish faith.

We see a powerful illustration of this principle in the story of Chanukah. The mighty Greek empire, which had conquered most of the known world at the time, had invaded the land of Israel and was pursuing a relentless campaign to remove all vestiges of Torah living from the society. The situation seemed hopeless. There were even many Jews at the time who were abandoning their faith due to both the existential threat and the enticements of Greek society. It was at this point that a small group of people – Matisyahu and his brothers – banded together to try and do something about the situation. What began as simply an act of defiance became a miraculous military defeat of the mighty Greek army, allowing the Jewish people to reclaim the land, reclaim the Torah, and reclaim the Holy Temple at the heart of both.

Centuries later, in the depths of the Holocaust, Rabbi Grodzinksy drew on the Maccabees’ example, recruiting 10 righteous men of his own to bring hope and strength to the inhabitants of the ghetto, and spreading light at a time of unimaginable darkness.

The prayer we read describing the great miracles of Chanukah describes how G-d delivered “the many into the hands of the few”. And, indeed, the smallness of the Jewish people and our outsized impact on the world is the story of Jewish history. As the Torah says, “Not because you are the most numerous of the nations did G-d want you and choose you – for you are the fewest among the nations.” (Devarim 7:7).

Why is that? Why is it that the Jewish people, so small in number, are able to have this seismic effect on the world? Part of the reason is that we, the Jewish people, are a living testimony to a fundamental truth about the nature of reality – that the physical world is just a smokescreen for a deeper spiritual reality. Overcoming the odds, subverting the natural order of things, testifies to the primacy of the world of spirituality over the world of materialism, to the fact that G-d, who is the creator of all matter and the source of everything, is the one in control.

So, what we see in the story of Chanukah, and in many other instances in which the Jewish people have defied their small number, is how the impact of the few is multiplied through G-d’s intervention, defying all rational predictions and overturning empirical reality as we know it.

This idea is symbolised by the defining miracle of Chanukah – the small jar of halachically pure oil the Maccabees found when they recaptured the Temple, which burnt for eight days when it should have burnt for one. This is why we celebrate Chanukah by lighting candles for eight days.

Why is this miracle so central to the festival? Surely the great military victory of the Maccabees over the mighty Greek empire was just as remarkable? The reason is that the miracle of the oil burning for longer than it was supposed to encapsulates all of the other miracles. It symbolises this multiplier effect that we’ve been discussing – that through G-d’s direction, through the mysterious workings of a deeper, essential, spiritual realm, outcomes in the physical world can be amplified beyond their input. And a small jar of oil that was meant to burn for a day can burn for eight.

Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, New Jersey, points to the fact that it was the oil’s halachic spiritual purity that imbued it with the miraculous power to burn for eight days, to transcend its physical limitations. Similarly, it was the righteousness and uprightness of the 10 Maccabean leaders that enabled them to defeat the great army of the Greeks. Both are small in physical quantity but potent in spiritual quality.

And this is the great lesson of Chanukah for the Jewish people – that irrespective of our numbers, if we remain upright and loyal to our divine heritage, then we will always survive and thrive. Rabbi Kotler’s personal life story bears this out. One of those fortunate to escape Europe before the Holocaust swept everything away, he went to America and established a small yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. In the 1940s and 1950s, few people held much hope for the prospects of a classic Torah institution in the heart of the new world, yet, starting with a handful of students, and in defiance of all rational predictions, the yeshiva grew to become the largest centre of Jewish learning in the diaspora, with more than 6 500 students. He started small, battling the odds, but his vision had the power of purity behind it.

This message of the few over the many, of G-d’s multiplying effect of our actions, is the story of Jewish history. Israel is such a small country, and yet its impact is so great. Wherever Jewish communities have found themselves, their impact on wider society has been out of all proportion to their small size.

But the real secret ingredient to transcending physical inputs is spiritual purity. Purity is the yeast that makes our efforts rise. It’s all about the purity of the oil, of the energy, and intentionality we put into our work in this world. Purity is about sincerity, about kindness, compassion, and decency, about spirituality and faith in G-d, and dedication to His will, His Torah. With this we can truly achieve great things, supernatural things. We can go beyond the numbers.

This seminal message of Chanukah, this heavenly multiplier effect, applies no less to our personal lives. A person may feel that they will not be able to earn a living if they close their business on Shabbos, but Chanukah teaches us that G-d can multiply all of the week’s work to more than make up for it. A person may feel that dedicating themselves to absolutely scrupulous business ethics may cost them money, but ultimately G-d has the power to bless all our efforts and multiply them. The same goes for tzedakah (charity) for which the Torah itself promises multiplied returns.

On Chanukah, a small group of righteous people made a big difference, overcoming a mighty force. If good people with pure hearts and sincere intentions band together, even in small numbers, they can bring light and blessing into the world. G-d’s blessings can multiply the effect of the limited physical world like that small jar of oil that burnt so much longer, thereby shedding so much light in the world. This is the message of hope and optimism of Chanukah.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Vacelia Shulamis Goodman 09 Dec
    Hi Chief Rabbi Goldstein. 
    Thank you for your Chanukah message. It's Very much how I was brought up  - no matter how much one is mocked and made an outcast  - one sticks to trying to be a righteous person.
    Unfortunately when one wants to belong to such a group  especially in South Africa  - how does one find it/start one of one's own when one has no financial resources and chronic ill health that's not believed. 
    How does one move forward when decent behaviour and concern is called unsophisticated;non sponsorable; prudish and prissy.
    I feel that trying to survive in South Africa is waiting to constantly be defiled.
    Also when some from one's own community wants one removed from one's family  - the few that still keep in touch with one and removed from general society andone's own Jewish community bcos one doesn't have the 'acceptable political correctness' i.e. give rather to those who are hunting you down for Not joining in the depravity and corruption and violence around one  - rather than to decent peope
    people etc including oneself sometimes. 
    South Africa displays towards most of us Jews here the same attitude as the Greeks that caused some brave Jews to fight for us to still exist.
    It's the epitome of evil in the rest of the world that doesn't want ISRAEL or Jews globally to succeed. 
    What's your advice PLEASE. 
    Thanking you in anticipation. 
    Vacelia Shulamis Goodman 


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