Part One: The Story of Chanukah
A little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. We hear that phrase a lot during Chanukah; the Jewish festival of lights. It’s a time to receive gifts (or give gifts if you are a parent), enjoy fried donuts and latkes, and light the candles of the menorah as we reflect on the miracle of this holiday. This all certainly sounds warm and cozy, but is this the whole message of Chanukah? Is there more to it? Yes, there is. There is an essential truth missing that needs to be dispelled. Without it, we are in danger of watering down Chanukah, our identity, and our beloved relationship with Hashem.
Allow me to tell you the story of Chanukah. In order to understand Chanukah, one must begin with the prophet Daniel. Daniel prophesized the following: “In my vision at night, I saw the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea. Four mighty beasts different from each other emerged from the sea” (Daniel 7:3). Our sages explain that these beasts represent the four empires which exiled us from our land: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. After defeating the Persian empire, Alexander the Great marched into Jerusalem in 329 B.C.E. In the Talmud, we find an interesting account of this scene. As Alexander entered Jerusalem, Shimon HaTzaddik along with other Kohanim and the sages of the Sanhedrin approached Alexander. However, something peculiar occurred; Alexander bowed down to Shimon HaTzaddik. Why? Alexander explained that before he would go to battle, he would see an angel in his dreams, the face of the angel was that of Shimon HaTzaddik. Following this incident, Alexander promised not to conquer us like he did all others, as long we remained loyal. What happened next was a big mistake on our part. We named every male child born that year Alexander, in honor of Alexander the Great. This gave room for other Greek names such as Tarphon and Antigonus to enter our society. Soon enough Greek language and culture entered everyday life and even government.
This all served as a backdrop for the story of Chanukah. Alexander passed away in 323 B.C.E. and chaos ensued in his crumbled empire. An outpost of his empire, the Seleucid Dynasty, decided to exercise its power over the Jewish people. (There are many detailed political maneuvers that led to this; if one is interested in exploring in depth, follow this link The Story of Chanukah – Chanukah – Hanukkah (chabad.org)). Antiochus, the Seleucid ruler, was obsessed with wiping out our Torah, burning many scrolls, prohibiting the Shabbat, making circumcision illegal, putting up idols in the holy Beit Hamikdash, and forbidding the observance of the laws of Kashrut. To him, anything that stood against reason, the true god of the Hellenists, was a threat. Our so-called archaic laws that come from the Creator of the universe did not suit the egotistical, narcissistic power trip of the Hellenists. Anyone who fell out of line from this progressive, modern way of thinking was sentenced to death, and so many Jews died as brave martyrs.
One day, in the marketplace of the village of Modiin, a subject of Antiochus built an altar and ordered the priest, Matityahu, to worship the Greek gods. Matityahu refused, “I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant which our G‑d made with our ancestors!” (Megillah Antiochus). At that moment, a Hellenized Jew, loyal to Antiochus, approached the newly built pagan altar with his sacrifices ready for the Greek gods. Matityahu killed the man, and then his sons and friends attacked the Seleucid officers; they then proceeded to destroy the idolatrous altar. Thus, Matityahu and his men, known as the Maccabees, an acronym made up of the beginning letters of the four Hebrew words Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Hashem, “Who is like You, O G‑d.” declared war on the progressive Hellenists.
After a time period of dealing with guerrilla warfare from the Maccabees, Antiochus sent in an army of 40,000 men led by the generals Nicanor and Gorgiash. The Maccabees declared, “Let us fight unto death in defense of our souls and our Temple!” (Megillah Antiochus). In fact, it is recorded that when Yehudah, the chief leader of the Maccabees, met with the general Bacchides on the battlefield, he stated, “We must never retreat from our enemies, for retreat is the first step towards defeat. We had better die for our people and our Torah, rather than run away in disgrace from our enemies.” Outnumbered and out-resourced (the Hellenists even had elephants), the Maccabees destroyed their enemy and drove them away from their land with Hashem on their side.
Thus, came the time came to purify the land, to let the land of Israel be subject to its rightful king, Hashem, under its rightful document, the Torah. The Maccabees entered the Beit Hamikdash and cleared it of all pagan idols. When time came to light the menorah (a Mitzvah predating Chanukah), there was enough oil to only last one day, but it lasted eight, showing that we were under Hashem’s watchful guardianship. Thus, our sages instituted the lighting of the Menorah for eight days, in remembrance of this miracle.
However, Yehudah the Maccabee knew that the war was not over. Israel’s enemies, including the Edomites (descendants of Esav), Philistines, Phoenicians, Ammonites, the remainder of Antiochus’s troops, and worst of all, the Hellenized Jews who preferred Antiochus, were gathering together to attack. The farmers, the Torah students, the merchants and all those who fought side by side with Yehudah gathered for war once again. Together they drove the Edomites from Hebron, the Ammonites from the land across the Jordan River, and the other foreign powers from our land just in time for Shavuot.
Jerusalem was filled with joy and thanksgiving to Hashem. The Jewish people expressed their gratitude to Hashem for He had returned His land to us.
Part Two: What We Can Learn from Chanukah
I suspect many of you reading this did not know the history of Chanukah; to be honest with you, I did not many of these details myself until researching for this piece. But it is imperative we know this story. Why, one may ask, is it so important that we learn such a bloody story? Can’t we just light a candle, eat some donuts, and call it a night? One may say: this story doesn’t fit my narrative, my values; it has no room for my safe space. No! A truth is a truth. A little flame of truth can dispel a darkness of lies. However, a little lie extinguishes many flames of truth. We cannot afford this. Our ancestors fought each generation to continue the flame of Emet, truth. They did not fight for us to grow fat on donuts and forget our story.
So, if you allow me to, I will attempt to present two main lessons that we can learn from Chanukah. It may not be the most feel-good message, but G-D willing it will be a true message:
- What was the first mistake of the Jewish people in the story of Chanukah? Well, the first mistake actually predates the story itself. Remember I told you about Alexander the Great? There was a reason. He was a power hungry and violent leader, along with the rest of the world; no different from all the other people of the world, other than that he was just more successful. However, he was able to recognize truth when he saw it. He knew the Jewish people were not to be touched. Now, what did we do? We committed the quintessential Jewish mistake. We have an insatiable urge to be liked, to please, to show that we are good; so much so that we will bend to the world’s whims and forget who we are as a Jewish people. We named every male child born that year Alexander. We did not owe that to Alexander. We could thank him, treat him respectfully, recognize his wisdom, but name children after him? Who was he? The high priest? The king of Israel? No! He was a brutal non-Jew who conquered most of the known world. I believe in giving credit where it belongs, but not in losing self-respect. It leads to falsehood; it leads to the dilution of morality. And indeed, it did. Many Jews began taking on a Hellenistic, progressive, seemingly modern lifestyle. It was the new trend. Antiochus had plenty of Jewish supporters; they were worse than any Greek or Assyrian. As much as there was a war with Antiochus, there was also a civil war; ideological, spiritual, and physical. We cannot let foreign influences that run contrary to our Torah infiltrate. You let a little bit in, and it eats away to the very core.
- We Jews are accustomed to using survival tactics. We know when to bow down our heads, who the right connections in government are, but we are not particularly associated with fighting. Jews and fighting did not go together, generally speaking, for a large chunk of our history. Understandably so. When we lived in the shtetls, we couldn’t fight. What was there to fight for? We weren’t on our soil. We weren’t a nation, we were exiled from our land, from our people. However, the Maccabees teach us the importance of being on our soil, dwelling as a nation in Eretz Israel. There, we have Hashem’s direct protection, “the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” (Devarim 11:12). There we can fight; in fact, there we must fight. There we must fight for our people, our land, our Torah, for our obligation to and our dear relationship with Hashem. Each holiday has its unique lesson. For instance, from Pesach we learn to have pure faith that Hashem will lead us out of exile. In Chanukah, we add an element to this pure faith; action. The Maccabees were seen as fanatics. What was a group of Torah scholars, farmers, and merchants supposed to do against the mighty Seleucids? Yehudah reminded these brave Jews of pure faith, that Hashem is the general, the Master of war, and because He wills it that we fight off foreign powers from His land, we will succeed. Our relationship with Hashem must be fought for. First and foremost, we must strive to observe His eternal laws. This an internal struggle, one that brings us ever so closer to Hashem. However, in order to protect our covenant, there come times when we must be like Matityahu and pick up the sword, for this is a Mitzvah, an obligation as well. It’s an uncomfortable message, but a true one we cannot ignore. We are active partners with Hashem. He does not want us to merely shut ourselves off and let Him do all the work. We must fight for our connection to Him, and we must know that He is with us.
If Chanukah teaches us anything, it teaches us to be strong. It is not a day to be appropriated for a feel-good holiday season message. Yes, the light of the menorah lasting eight days was a miracle, but it is important to know that this miracle took place to highlight the ultimate miracle – the victory of the Jewish people, the reign of Hashem and His Torah over His people and His land. So, the next time that you sit and watch the flicker of the Chanukah flames, remember the Maccabees, remember their story, remember that they fought for the Torah, and remember that in order for a little light to dispel a lot of darkness, you have to fight for it; one must be ready to die for it, but even more importantly, to live for it.