On Chanukka Everyone’s a High Priest
A Chanukha Teaching–2011
Based on R. Tsadok Hakohen, Pri Tsadik – Chanuka #1
Sarah Yehudit Schneider
A favorite job of the kohanim (Temple priests) was to daily light the menorah in the inner courtyard. And the midrash reports that HaShem promised Aharon that even if the Temple were destroyed and all the other offerings ceased, the mitzvah of kindling the menorah would endure for all time. [BR 15:6] This obviously presaged the festival of Chanukha, for since the time of the Maccabi’s revolt, Jews throughout the world, reenact the mitzvah of the Temple menorah for eight days out of every year. [Ramban, Num. 8:2]
Rav Tsadok elaborates. The kohanim had a two-pronged assignment: They were both priests and teachers. As priests they performed the Temple rituals and sacrificial offerings (which included lighting the menorah)…as teachers (along with the levi’im) they educated the people about Torah matters and (along with the Elders) adjudicated questions of law. Rav Tsadok explains that their task as educators actually turned their extended family into a living menorah that shone the light of Torah wisdom out into the world. Rav Tsadok says that this is the real meaning behind HaShem’s promise that “the mitzvah of kindling the menorah would endure for all time.”
The kohanim were the initial repositories of the Oral Torah as the verse states: And you shall come to the priests, levites…and you shall do according to the Torah that they teach you.” [Deut. 17:9-11] Hashem granted the kohanim an extraordinary power to transmit that Oral Torah straight into the hearts of their flock, says R. Tsadok (himself a kohen). “The priest’s lips will preserve [true] knowledge as [the people] seek Torah from his mouth, for he is a messenger of the Lord of hosts.” [Malachi 2:7] HaShem equipped the kohanim with a strength of soul and a special mitzvah that, together, assured their success. For when the High Priest lit the menorah his intention was actually a prayer, that the lights now kindled should impart to the people an even deeper understanding of what it means that G-d is one, present, and directing the world toward its destined perfection (with failure not an option). His prayerful service impacted the world from the inside-out as well as from outside-in.
Benei Yisachar explains that “these eight days are called Chanukha for by kindling the menorah we are practicing and training (chinukh) for the final redemption.”1 This accords with the Baal HaTurim’s radical comment on the verse where HaShem calls Israel “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[Ex. 9:6] Baal HaTurim reads this as a promise that “in the future, if we merit, every one of the Jewish people will become a high priest (kohen gadol).”2 And since the high priest lit the menorah, we are practicing for the future redemption when our job will then include this kindling of lights.
But what are we supposed to learn from our yearly training regimen. R. Tsadok suggests that the main ingredient of the menorah-lighting was the prayerful intention the priest brought to the task. R. Tsadok derives this from the famous midrash [Rashi, Num .8:3] that praises Aharon for following the instructions (of kindling the lamps) precisely. R. Tsadok reads this as hinting to the inner essence of the mitzvah, “the intention to infuse the hearts of Israel with the radiant light of Torah sh’baal Peh.”3
But to incorporate that kavanna into our own Chanukha practice we need to know: What is this Oral Torah transmitted through the kohen’s teachings, symbolized by the kindling of lights and empowered by his prayer? R. Tsadok employs the term in two ways. First as the authoritative chain of tradition beginning with Moses and passing from mouth to ear, master to disciple, from Sinai till today. Second is the accumulated wisdom pressed from the hearts of Jews striving to live with integrity to the truths they absorbed at Sinai, no matter what their standing in the community or level of religious observance.4 The Oral Torah is the Living Torah, the cutting edge of the tradition that responds to the newly-encountered circumstances of each moment (and each generation) and identifies the most spiritually productive (and halachicly consistent) response to it.
And so on Chanukha as High-Priests-in-training our hope is to enlighten the world with our incandescent menorot. Let the glow from these lamps infuse the hearts of your people with the certain knowledge of how to use each moment in a way that serves you and pleases you and glorifies your name. Let our nation and its leaders become masters of the Living Torah, inspired by foresight and kindled with courage to choose the high road despite its risks because conscience requires it of us. And may we soon become the living menorah—the light unto the nations—that is our truth and our destiny.
1 B’nei Yissachar, Kislev-Tevet, #12. [שע”כ קראו לימים האלה חנוכה שהוא חינוך והרגל לגאולה העתידה ב”ב.] Benei Yissachar interprets this phrase to mean that we are expressing our hope that the third Beit HaMikdash will be initiated (chanukhat habayit) at this time, i.e. in Kislev (which is the promise). He himself does not connect this phrase to Baal HaTurim and does not discuss the notion of us practicing to become, ourselves, high priests.
2 One interpretation (Seforno) is that Third Temple will be like the originally envisioned one that was replaced instead by the mishkan of wood, skins and cloth when we sinned with the Golden Calf. But originally the “mishkan” was to be the living community of Israel. The people themselves going about their daily, God-serving lives would have embodied the presence of G‑d and revealed His light to the world.
- R. Tsadok considers this praise of Aharon’s fulfillment of HaShem’s will conspicuous for its exception. Doesn’t Aharon fulfill all of HaShem’s command’s precisely? And so R. Tsadok interprets this praise as a reference to the intention that was also “precisely” in accordance with HaShem’s will.
4 R. Tsadok HaKohen, Pri Tsadik (Fruit of the Righteous), Chankha 2 (p. 142); ibid Chodesh Adar, essay 1; Likutei Maamarim p. 80-82; Yisrael Kedoshim p. 152.