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Lively Overview of Chanukah

May 9, 2009 | by Avi Geller

Insights from the Midrash and contemporary sages.

The High Priest knew what he must do. He strapped a slender dagger into his long robe and went to see the governor. The latest decree of the hated Greek invaders was just too much to bear. The detested pig that Jews always disdained was now to be sacrificed on the altar of God's Temple. What a desecration!!

Yochanon the son of Mattityahu could hardly contain his rage. Approaching the bodyguards of the Greek governor, he identified himself as the High Priest of the Jews and requested "an urgent meeting with His Excellency."

The Governor was surprised by the visit. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" he inquired.

"I have decided to join the ranks of the Hellenists and the Greeks," proclaimed the elderly priest.

"You must prove your loyalty by sacrificing a pig on the Altar," replied the governor.

"Of course" replied Yochanon, "but the people will stone me if they hear of this. Please, I request, have everyone leave and I will slaughter the pig in your Excellency's presence."

The governor agreed, and when all his bodyguards left, Yochanan proceeded to "slaughter the pig" by piercing the governor with his dagger. Yochanan then made his escape. Many Greek soldiers died in the melee that followed, trying to get him, and thus began the rebellion known as Chanukah. (source: Megilat Antiochus)

Modern Irony

The Maccabees were fighting against assimilation, and isn't it ironic that Chanukah is now so intertwined with secular culture. It has the bad luck of being in proximity to the non-Jewish "Holiday season" and many American Jews see Chanukah as an 8-day Xmas. ("We get presents for 8 days!") There are many Jews who, after lighting their (electric) menorah, sit around the "Chanukah Bush" with a big stocking!

In Israel, the irony is perhaps even greater. A true story:

Before Jacob's eyes, the motorcycle zoomed up to the Western Wall. The longhaired rider hurriedly donned a cardboard kipah, ran up to the wall, placed a note inside the cracks, and quickly sped off. Jacob was dying to know what the note said, but didn't feel right about removing it from the Wall.

A youngster, who had also noticed, had no qualms about removing the note. After scanning it, he made a face and dropped the note on the floor.

Now Jacob picked it up and read, "Let the Maccabee soccer team win the finals!"

In Israel, you can drink Maccabee beer, cheer your Maccabee sports team, and even participate in the Israeli Olympics called the Maccabiah, where athletes transport a giant torch from the city of Modiin (the home of the original Maccabees) to the Western Wall Plaza. Sometimes I wonder if the Jews won or the Greeks!

Conflict of Cultures

The truth is just the opposite. The Maccabees were not muscular sportsmen who drank beer. They were book-toting priests in the Holy Temple.

It all started with the "Hellenists" -- Jews who adopted Greek culture. This was the only period in history that so many Jews freely chose to reject their traditions for a foreign culture. This caused a great rift among the Jews themselves. Normally the Greeks had a very liberal policy when conquering other cultures. "You may keep your old gods if you like, as long as you put a statue of Zeus in your temple. Obviously Zeus is stronger then your gods. Don't you want to worship the stronger god?"

Only in Judea was there a shift in policy and the Greeks attempted to destroy the dominant culture -- having perceived that Torah and Greek culture were diametrically opposed. Greek culture sees man as the center of the universe. Man's body (sports, statues) and Man's mind (Philosophy, "The Thinker") are the ultimate values.

Torah sees God as the center of the universe. These two world views were in conflict, and a struggle broke out over which view would dominate mankind's outlook. The Greeks tried to remove God from civilization by destroying Torah. But in the end, the Jews won. (heard from Rabbi David Gottlieb)

War Heroes

Who was responsible for teaching mankind morals and ethics if not the Jewish people? Certainly not Sparta and not even Athens. If you would have questioned one of their warriors on his way to pillage, rape and murder: "On what philosophical grounds is this behavior permitted?" His answer would have been very simple, "I am stronger and might makes right!"

Those who taught the world that might doesn't make right were the Jews. Our Torah and prophets gave the Western world "Love your Neighbor," "Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land," and even "All men are created equal." Not to mention the "Isaiah Wall" at the UN where the world proclaims the Jewish prophet's epitaph that "they will beat their swords into plowshares." (heard from Rabbi Noah Weinberg)

He Died With His Boots On

In much of the world -- from the American Indians to the Japanese, from the Africans to the Eskimos -- heroes have traditionally been the best warriors, hunters and killers. "The fastest gun in the West!" "He died with his boots on!"

Although the Jews have had to fight many wars, and fought them with all of their might, they never glorified war. King David is venerated not because he was a valiant warrior who fought many battles, but in spite of it. He conceptualized the building of the Temple to God and prepared all its materials -- yet he was not allowed to build the Temple because his hands were stained with blood. Although all of David's battles were for the sake of Heaven, and in defense of the Jewish people, the Temple represented peace -- so only David's son Solomon, a man of peace, could be charged with its construction.

The Jews did not leave behind memorials of war. Morals and ethics was the mark we've left on the world, and that is the reason we don't celebrate Chanukah with a military parade.

The Story of Chanukah

The story begins with the death of Alexander, who treated the Jews well. The Talmud relates that the enemies of the Jews told Alexander that the Jews were rebelling, and he came to siege Jerusalem. The High Priest, Shimon HaTzaddik came to greet him in full ceremonial dress. The king then dismounted his horse and bowed before the High Priest.

When asked by his officers for an explanation, Alexander explained that every night before going into battle, he would see this man in his dream promising him victory.

The High Priest told Alexander that the Jews were loyal, but he demanded proof. "Put my statue in your Temple," he requested.

"That is forbidden by our Torah," replied Shimon. "However, every Jewish boy born in the next year will be named Alexander in your honor." And that is how Alex and Sender became popular Jewish names (even until today).

After the death of Alexander, his kingdom was divided among his warlords, and the land of Judea came under the jurisdiction of Antiochus of Syria.

The book of Antiochus relates how the Greeks entered Jerusalem and prohibited the observance of Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh (the new moon) and Bris Milah (circumcision) under penalty of death. The ness of these mitzvot lies in their being symbols of the special relationship between God and the Jews.

Shabbat is the symbol of that relationship (often compared to an engagement ring), and when we don't observe Shabbat we deny this special relationship. Assimilation of Jews always begins with a lapse in Shabbat observance.

Rosh Chodesh is celebrated because Jews have a lunar-based calendar and are likened to the moon in many ways. Just as the moon gets smaller and smaller, so do the Jews when persecuted. But in the end, the moon gets big again.

Also, the moon is lit when facing the sun, and dark when its back is to the sun. Likewise, the success of the Jewish people depends on our relationship with the Almighty.

Circumcision also binds every Jew to the Almighty. The covenant is in our flesh so that we never forget to serve Him. The Bris is on the sexual organ to symbolize that the covenant of God is with all generations. Further, the greatest drive that man possesses must be subordinated to the will of the Creator.

Ready to Die

The Jewish response to the Greek decrees was to offer their lives. The book of Antiochus tells of the unbelievable martyrdom the people underwent for these mitzvot. One man was caught circumcising his son and was hung up with his wife, to die in public. Another woman, after circumcising her son, ascended the wall of the city and proclaimed, "Our covenant with God will never be broken!" She then hurled her son down and jumped after him.

The book of Antiochus relates the story of over 1,000 men, women and children who hid in a cave so they could keep Shabbat. When caught by the Greek soldiers, they were told to come out of the cave and join the Greeks. "Eat our food and be on an equal status with us," called out the Greeks.

The Jews replied that they would rather retain loyalty to the Ten Commandments. The Greeks then burned wood at the mouth of the cave and they all died of smoke inhalation.

While it is, of course, permitted to desecrate Shabbat for the preservation of life, these people knew they had no chance to win, and were ready to die for the sanctification of God's will.

The Revolt

What started the Jewish revolt? After Yochanan assassinated the governor, he erected a commemorative monument, inscribed: "Maccabee was victorious over the enemy."

The name Maccabee is the initials of the verse "Mi Chamocha B'elim Hashem" -- "Who is compared to You among the mighty, Oh Lord!" (Exodus 15:11) The revolt spread and the mighty sons of Mattityahu (the son of Yochanan) fought with great valor, pushing back the Greek army.

This was miraculous in that the Greek army was a world empire comparable to the combined armies of the U.S., China, and Russia.

Antiochus sent another army and was once again defeated, but most of Mattityahu's sons died in battle. Elazar suffocated in the dung of the elephants he was killing. When Judah, the most valorous of them all, died, the brothers returned dejectedly to their father. He derided them for returning, and joined them in battle. In the end, Antiochus fled his kingdom in shame, and wherever he went he was called the one who ran away.

Ten Angry Men

The point of the rebellion was that the Jews were sufficiently angered to fight the injustice. When one is angry, one doesn't ask, "Is it feasible? Is it going to work?" No -- you just do it! (Of course this assumes it is an important issue and not just because one is upset.) Until that point the Maccabees were ready to die, but now they were angry. Rabbi Noah Weinberg says:

"Does Jews for J and assimilation make you angry? Then do something about it! Give me 10 'angry' men and I'll change the world!"

The Miracle of the Oil

When the Maccabees entered the sanctuary, they wanted to light the menorah, but could not find any oil that had not been defiled. It seems that the Greeks made a special effort to contaminate all the oil in the Temple.

Question: Why stress the lighting of the menorah over all the other vessels and services in the Temple? (i.e. there was also no animal offerings, incense, etc.)

Answer: The light of the menorah symbolizes God's presence in the midst of His people. Therefore, the Greeks had gone out of their way to contaminate the oil with the sole intention that the menorah would remain unlit.

When the Maccabees reentered the Sanctuary, the first thing they wanted to demonstrate was that God's presence had indeed returned to the Temple.

The One Container

The Maccabees miraculously found one little jar with the seal of the High Priest. It should have lasted only one day, yet in the end it burned for eight full days so that they could replenish their supply. The reason they needed eight days to squeeze a few olives was because all the vessels for squeezing had also been contaminated. It required seven days for the [Red Heifer] purification process, and then one additional day to actually squeeze the olives.

The Sages stress the miracle of the oil over the military victory. We mention the military victory in our prayers, but every Jewish family lights the menorah for eight nights to commemorate the return of the Divine Presence to our Temple.

Another reason we do not stress the military victory is that, although it, too, was a tremendous miracle, it was not to last very long. Afterwards, the Jewish kingdom was forced to ally itself to Rome, and less than 200 years later the Romans razed the Temple and exiled the Jewish people until today.

Taking it Lightly

The commentator "Bach" explains that the whole story actually began earlier as a result of the people taking the Temple service lightly -- just as in the end of the first Temple period they thought that one could "live the life of Riley" and make up for it by bringing a sacrifice. As a result, the Hellenists and Greeks succeeded in abolishing the service. In fact, only after the Kohanim were ready to sacrifice their lives for the Temple service, did God perform this miracle.

Mystical Significance of Chanukah

The kabbalists discuss the mystical meaning of the Chanukah lights. On the first day of creation, God proclaimed, "Let there be light!" (Genesis 1:3) Yet the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day!

The Sages explain that the original light was spiritual and very powerful. "One could see from one end of the Earth to the other." God determined that this was too good for the wicked to enjoy, so He hid that light away for the righteous people in the World to come.

Question: Where did God "hide" it?

Answer: God hid this primordial light in the Torah, which opens up a spiritual light in our hearts and minds. The Chanukah lights are said to be connected to that original holy light, and therefore we may not derive benefit from the Chanukah lights (as opposed to Shabbat candles whose purpose is for our benefit). That's why we use an extra light called a "Shamash" for lighting purposes.

The Final Holiday

Chronologically, Chanukah is the last holiday -- the final light before the destruction of the Second Temple and the 2,000-year bitter exile that the Jewish people are still enduring. The light of Chanukah, the spiritual lift that it gives our people, is eternal. Even in the most trying circumstances we should never give up hope, because God always helps us. This realization did, and does, illuminate our dark exile and gives us hope for the future.



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