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Chanukah: The Prequel

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Doniel Baron

The astonishing connection between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.

There is an overlooked prequel to the story of Chanukah, and in it lies the root of how a group of unarmed men vanquished the world's most powerful army without saying a word.

Encounter at Sunrise

Our tradition attributes the foundation for the Jewish victory over the Greeks to one man who lived about 2,000 years ago: Shimon Hatzadik, a high priest at the beginning of the second Temple period.

The Talmud tells an enigmatic story to illustrate Shimon Hatzadik's monumental greatness. During his lifetime, the legendary Alexander the Great had come to power. He was a master warrior and statesman, and had never lost a battle. Before long he had conquered most of the civilized world, and controlled Jerusalem. He permitted the Jews to live peacefully and continue regular service in the Temple. Yet the enemies of the Jews convinced Alexander that the Jews posed a threat, and persuaded him to destroy the Temple. Together with those enemies and his army, Alexander began the march to Jerusalem with a force so overwhelming that the Jews would not stand a chance.

Word of the approaching danger reached Shimon Hatzadik, who quickly devised a plan. He donned the pure white turban and other striking garments of his position as high priest, assembled a group of elders who carried lit torches, and set off into the Judean night in the direction of Alexander's brigade.

Alexander descended from his chariot and bowed before Shimon Hatzadik.

At daybreak, the band of elders and the fantastically garbed Shimon reached Alexander. Just then, a strange thing happened. Alexander the Great, conqueror of the world and most powerful man in his time, descended from his chariot -- and bowed before Shimon Hatzadik.

Alexander's officers were flabbergasted. "Why does the great king bow down to a... Jew?"

"Before I am victorious at war," Alexander replied, "the very image of this man appears before me in a vision."

The march on Jerusalem was called off, and those who had instigated the attack were handed over to Shimon and his entourage.

End of the Prophetic Era

We must now try to understand why it was specifically the image of Shimon, a man whom Alexander had never met, that flashed before him at times of military victory. And further, how does the story of Shimon Hatzadik form the basis of the Hasmonean victory over the successors of Alexander some 200 years later!

To answer these questions and arrive at the root of Chanukah, we need to better understand both Shimon and his contribution to Jewish heritage, as well as Alexander the Great and the world view projected by his empire.

Shimon Hatzadik lived at a critical turning point in Jewish history. His leadership coincided with death of Malachi, the last Jewish prophet. He was the leader of a new era in Judaism -- one which saw the flourishing of the Oral Law, a system of interpretation which enables the revelation at Sinai to be applied to all future circumstances and events. The rules governing the Oral Law are highly specific, and rely on the intellect of Torah scholars to apply the principles.

During the prophetic era, it was impossible to create alternative forms of Judaism.

The era of prophecy was a period of time in Jewish history. One could always turn to the prophet for definitive guidance -- and there were 1.2 million prophets during the age when prophecy flourished. During the prophetic era, it was impossible to create alternative forms of Judaism since the prophet would immediately expose them as fraudulent. Although rabbinic interpretation based on principles from Sinai existed, the dynamic of God speaking directly to prophets formed the core of Jewish leadership.

With Malachi's death, however, it was now up to the sages to use their wisdom alone. Shimon Hatzadik pioneered the dawn of this new phase of Jewish history, one that would place the intellect at the forefront. Interpretation of the Torah was now exclusively in the domain of the sages, and their conclusion was decisive.

The timing of this era was no coincidence. It was in the year of Malachi's death that Alexander the Great achieved his first victory. Alexander's conquests, therefore, parallel the rise of Shimon Hatzadik, and the ascension of Jewish intellectualism.

Alexander represented the advent of a new world view -- Greek philosophy. It was an approach that saw man's intellect and logic as paramount and absolute, and a system of thought that rejected anything the brain could not understand. Although the two systems are fundamentally incomparable (the Greek system is man-made, while the Oral Torah is divine), they were similar in that both emphasized the importance of human thought.

The Greek outlook, however, could not tolerate the concept of Divine wisdom and law, and encouraged the use of the mind to disqualify, rather than explain, God's continuing role in the world. One might compare the Greek approach to the function of a camera: While the camera is a tool that can be used to understand its surroundings, there is one thing that the camera cannot photograph -- the camera itself. The ancient Greeks left no room for the invisible Creator, and had trouble analyzing how the soul can be connected to God.

Forces and Counterforces

Yet we wonder why Alexander saw an image of Shimon Hatzadik before going on to victorious battle. How could the righteous high priest have been the very source of Alexander's military prowess?

According to Jewish thought, if one finds a force in the world, there is always a corresponding counterforce. Overcoming the counterforce is a condition to the force's ability to take root and bear fruits, and it is through the opposite counterforce that the force is revealed. Ironically, the force is therefore, in a sense, the reason for the counterforce. For example, without night, it would be impossible to appreciate what day, and day occurs through the "conquest" of night. In a similar vein, during the era of prophecy, the world experienced an insatiable thirst for spirituality. The true form of that yearning was expressed in one's connection to God, but the negative manifestation was an almost uncontrollable urge -- one that we in the post-prophetic era simply cannot understand -- to worship idols. The only way to reach true spirituality was to overcome the overwhelming pull of idolatry.

The Jews defeated the Greeks and demonstrated Torah's intellectual superiority.

It was the image of the high priest that appeared before Alexander at every battle. Shimon Hatzadik and the wisdom of the Oral Torah, a new system of connecting back, was the reason for every Greek victory. Greek philosophy was the counterforce that opposed the Jewish use of the intellect. It follows that the only reason the Greeks came to power was so that the Jews could defeat them years later, and demonstrate that Torah's conception of intellect and the mind reflects the truth. This is the root of Chanukah. The triumph of Chanukah was more than the military defeat of the Greeks in Jerusalem. It represented the victory of the Oral Torah over the counterforce of Greek philosophy and culture. It affirmed that Judaism is not about blind faith or checking one's brain at the door. On the contrary, Judaism requires one to probe and to think. However, our realm of thought exists within the context of our tradition, and it is our intellect that leads us to conclude there are things which man cannot understand.

The Fight Goes On

The battle continues to this day. The pressure is tremendous to deny the existence of that which we cannot see or grasp, and the temptation to succumb is strong. But as disciples of Shimon Hatzadik, the Jewish people know better. Our challenge is to harness the unfathomable power of the mind, use it to understand the intricacies of our faith, and the limits of our intellect. We no longer have prophets to reveal the truth, but we have the awesome power to use our brains, which, when stripped of our biases to the best of our abilities, brings us to the same place.

The battle of Chanukah continues, but thanks to the seeds sown so long ago, the future is in our hands.


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