V’Al Ha-Nissim points to Purim/Chanukah divide


Chanukah and Purim, the two rabbinically based chagim, are joyous days of celebration and giving thanks to Hashem.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l said “Purim and Chanukah represent man’s active involvement. … G-d chose Mordechai, Esther, and the Maccabees not as onlookers but as actors. … He told them to plan the strategy and execute it. … Chanukah and Purim revolve around the merger of the individual with the community, promoting an open, sympathetic existence.”

The Rav’s stresses that Mordechai, Esther, and the Maccabees were active agents in the salvation of the Jewish people, engaged in “sacrificial heroic action” based upon their personally conceived strategies and chosen modes of deployment.

If we carefully examine the Al Ha-Nissim prayer that is recited on both Chanukah and Purim, however, we immediately find a number of significant disparities. The text of Chanukah’s Al Ha-Nissim is 92 words, whereas Purim’s is a mere 52. Purim, of course, has its own sefer, Megillat Esther, and therefore does not need an elaborately articulated Al Ha-Nissim. Chanukah’s chronicle, however, is not found anywhere in Tanach; as such, its “megillah” is none other than its extensive Al Ha-Nissim formulation.

The Rav focuses on another conceptual difference: “In the Al ha-nissim of Purim, there is nothing mentioned of Mordechai and Esther’s role in the unfolding of the dramatic events,” de-emphasizing the singular import that human intervention played in bringing about the deliverance of the Jewish people at that moment in history.

The Rav points out that the situation is reversed when we read the Al Ha-Nissim for Chanukah, wherein the Maccabees’ instrumental role is the point of focus: “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah…”

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What is the underlying reason for this glaring difference between Purim and Chanukah? Once again, the Rav offers his illuminating insights:

“We learn from this that when the fight is spiritual, G-d invites the Jew to participate. When spiritual survival is at stake, man must take the initiative. Even though man is under the guidance of the Almighty, man takes the initiative, and therefore his role is recorded. …

“Antiochus was interested in destroying the Jews spiritually. When the menace is of a spiritual nature, then the initiative belongs to man. Man engages in the struggle for spiritual survival. For this reason, the Hasmoneans took the initiative, and we remember their efforts when we commemorate their victory on Chanukah.”

In stark contrast, however: “When it is only a question of physical struggle [as in the case of Purim wherein Haman’s goal was to murder our people,] G-d acts differently. When there is a physical menace or the threat of physical destruction, G-d uses the human hand as an instrument of His will. He recruits man. He uses human energy, human resources, to implement the plan that He has devised. But Judaism has said that in this case, the man who is the messenger of G-d should not be credited with the salvation. …

“On Purim we celebrate a physical victory. [Therefore,] in the liturgy we make no mention of Mordechai and Esther’s deeds because, if the achievements are in the realm of military conquest and of material nature, victory should be attributed to the Almighty.”

As different as Purim and Chanukah are from one another, we must never forget one essential parallel: Just as the Maccabees took the spiritual initiative and rekindled the lights of the Menorah in the Beit HaMikdash so, too, did Hashem bring light to our people on Purim to commemorate the physical salvation He undertook on our behalf.

As Megillat Esther so powerfully attests: “The Jews had light and joy, and gladness and honor.”

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach!