Hanukkah is about happiness. The holiday’s customs promote joy in the form of sweet chocolate and oily latkes, while the Hanukkah story points to a spiritual element of human satisfaction—freedom.
Through subtle wordplay, the Torah portion commonly read during the holiday focuses our attention along similar lines. Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams by explaining that the seven fat cows and seven healthy sheaves represented years of plenty, or satiation, while the seven lean cows and seven ill-looking sheaves represented years of famine. The roots of the Hebrew words for “seven” (שבעה) and “satiation” (שׂוֹבַע) are nearly identical, and they are written identically in the Torah’s un-vocalized text. The two words appear next to each other several times, suggesting a relationship between the notion of satisfaction and the number seven.
The number seven signifies wholeness in nature. God created the world in six days, and completed the task by resting on the seventh. So on the seventh day of the week we remind ourselves that completion and satisfaction have an important spiritual element. They are more than filling your belly; they are more than having seven fat cows. That this Torah portion corresponds with Hanukkah encourages us to explore links among the idea of satisfaction, the number seven, and the holiday’s theme of freedom. Though we usually associate Hanukkah with the number eight, the miracle’s essence relates to the number seven, not eight. The Maccabees expected the oil to burn for just 24 hours, so it can be interpreted that the first day was unremarkable.
But there’s a further lesson. By recalling the miracle of Hanukkah, we can recall, and appreciate, the satisfaction experienced both by the Jews of biblical times and by modern Jews who have witnessed the formation and rise of the State of Israel: There was, in fact, a profound happiness—or, satisfaction—that came with winning national freedom against terrible odds.
This point is driven home by a story of another Jew who, like the biblical Joseph, advanced on the path from prison to a high seat in government. Like Joseph, Natan Sharansky, who was charged with spying for the United States, was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. In reality, the Soviet government was punishing him for fighting for the right of Jews to make aliyah. After more than eight hard years in the Soviet gulag, he was released in 1986 and moved to Israel, where he rose to become Deputy Prime Minister. He is now the head of the Jewish Agency.
In his memoir, Fear No Evil, Sharansky describes one Hanukkah in which he managed to light a makeshift Hannukiah in his cell until the guards confiscated it on the sixth night. In protest, Sharansky declared a hunger strike. Two days later, the prison camp commander, Major Osin, summoned Sharansky to try to get him to end his hunger strike before the arrival of a commission from Moscow. Sharansky demanded the return of the Hannukiah, but Osin couldn’t allow the whole camp to see such a capitulation. Insisting on celebrating the last night of Hanukkah, Sharansky suggested lighting the Hanukkah candles with Osin in his office. “I’ll light the candles and say the prayer,” he said. “And if all goes well I’ll end the hunger strike.”
Osin agreed, and produced eight candles. Of the experience, Sharansky wrote:
I arranged the candles and went to the coat rack for my hat, explaining to Osin that “during the prayer you must stand with your head covered and at the end say ‘Amen.'” He put on his major’s hat and stood. I lit the candles and recited my own prayer in Hebrew, which went something like this: “Blessed are You, Adonai, for allowing me to rejoice on this day of Hanukkah, the holiday of our liberation, the holiday of our return to the way of our fathers. Blessed are You, Adonai, for allowing me to light these candles. May you allow me to light the Hanukkah candles many times in your city, Jerusalem, with my wife, Avital, and my family and friends.
But Sharansky, moved by the sight of his captor standing beside him, added (in Hebrew): “And may the day come when all our enemies, who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say, ‘Amen.'”
And complying with Sharanksy’s initial request, Major Osin replied, “Amen.”
Like the small force of the Maccabees that defeated the great Seleucid army, Natan Sharansky, a solitary Jew in the lonely remoteness of the gulag, scored an uplifting victory against the seemingly all-knowing and all-powerful security apparatus of the Soviet Union. It’s a story worth keeping in mind as we light our own Hanukkah candles and ponder the importance of freedom to satisfaction.
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