By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Yavan sought the destruction of the Jewish people during the period of the Chashmonaim, because Judaism represented the antithesis of all that Greek philosophy stood for. The two belief systems clashed so diametrically that they could not co-exist. The Greeks were determined for their philosophy to hold dominion over the civilized world. Judaism had to therefore be uprooted.
The philosophy of Yavan deified man. The Greeks extolled the human body and worshipped rational thought and intellectual ability. Greek philosophers believed that man could control his own destiny by virtue of his superior intelligence. They idolized brilliant philosophers such as Aristotle, seeing their intellectual accomplishments as the epitome of human achievement. Greek culture glorified Olympic sport champions for their physical prowess, believing the perfection of the body to be a supreme end in itself.
Judaism’s doctrine that man is subservient to a supreme Divine power that controls human destiny was intolerable to Yavan. The very concept that the purpose of human existence is to serve the Creator, and that each of man’s 248 limbs and 365 tendons were fashioned for this one overriding aim, was anathema to the Greeks. Judaism was so threatening to their outlook on life that they went to extreme measures to eradicate it.
For years, the Jews resisted the lures of Greek philosophy. As time went on, however, Yavan’s Hellenization began chipping away at the spiritual foundations of the Jewish people. So much ground had been lost by time the Maccabis began their revolt that the majority of the nation had fallen under the influence of the Hellenists.
The Maccabis, so few in number, went to war against an overpowering Greek military force and, against all odds, emerged victorious. They took back possession of the Bais Hamkidosh, which had been thoroughly defiled by the Greeks. The purified and reconsecrated Bais Hamikdosh lasted another two hundred years, until its ultimate destruction at the hands of the Romans.
We celebrate the victory of the Chashmonaim for eight days of Chanukah. We recite Hallel, light the menorah and insert Al Hanissim in our tefillos. Yet, not everyone understands the full scope of the Chashmonaim‘s hard-won victory.
Far from being a lasting military or political triumph, its true significance lay in the spiritual realm. Its most profound achievement was its reversal of the tide of assimilation brought about by Hellenism, and the vindication of Jewish belief and the Torah way of life.
The prayer of Al Hanissim which we recite on Chanukah highlights this spiritual impact of the military victory. The text of this tefillah is much longer and more detailed than the similar tefillah we say on Purim. On Purim, we thank Hashem for saving us from the evil plans of Haman by reversing his plot against him. On Chanukah, however, we go into much greater detail and thank Hashem for every facet of the victory. We declare that Hashem was merciful in a time of great need. He fought His people’s battles, presided over their judgments and exacted their revenge. We thank Him for causing the mighty to fall into the hands of the weak, and the many to be trounced by the few. We celebrate that those who were defiled were defeated by the holy, the wicked subdued by the righteous, the scoffers by the Torah scholars.
We conclude Al Hanissim by mentioning how after their deliverance, the Jews cleaned and purified the Bais Hamikdosh and kindled the lights there, later on establishing this eight-day holiday to give thanks and praise to Hashem.
It would appear that the relative brevity of the prayer thanking Hashem for the Purim miracle is because it was clear to the Jews of Mordechai’s and Esther’s day that they were saved only by Divine intervention. The struggle with the Yevanim that led to Chanukah, on the other hand, was protracted and took place over a longer period of time, during which the Jewish people suffered many defeats and losses before finally emerging victorious. It was possible to offer opposing theories to explain the Maccabi victory and not discern Hashem’s Hand in the victories, as striking as they were.
Though the Jews were vastly outnumbered and outclassed by the powerful Greeks, skeptics were able to rationalize the victories, much as they do in our day. The tiny country of Israel has been vastly outnumbered in its many wars and still managed to repeatedly triumph over its enemies. Nevertheless, non-believers credit Jewish ingenuity and strategy for the miraculous victories. In the days of the Maccabis, there no doubt were skeptics who similarly denied the Divine assistance, attributing the battles’ outcome to natural occurrences.
The miracle of the menorah could not be rationalized away in this manner. When the contents of one small crucible of oil that was sufficient for only one day burned for eight, even the most die-hard skeptics had to admit the truth: only Hashem could alter nature to make this happen. They were forced to acknowledge that the Jews had returned to the Bais Hamikdosh by Divine right.
But even more important, they realized in hindsight that the victories on the battlefield were also supernatural. The underlying Yavan philosophy that man creates his own destiny through a combination of human strength, intelligence, determination and willpower to determine the course of history was thoroughly discredited.
When we discuss the miraculous period in Al Hanissim, we underscore this idea. We go to great lengths to stress that it was Hashem Who suspended the natural order to orchestrate all the events, even those which could have been explained rationally.
Additionally, in commemorating the miracles, we light the menorah for eight days and proclaim our belief that the military victories were as miraculous as the oil burning for eight days.
It is interesting that the Hebrew word for oil, shemen, lies at the root of the word for eight, shemonah. Perhaps this is a hint to the fact that Hashem created oil with the properties that cause it to provide light, so that it would burn brightly and clearly in the Bais Hamikdosh for the eight days which we celebrate. Eight is the number that signifies a supernatural essence. Seven is tevah, nature, while eight is lemaalah min hatevah. The neis of Chanukah was lemaalah min hatevah couched in tevah. The victories of the Macabbis were miracles cloaked in tevah. It required the perception of the men of belief to recognize that all that transpired during that period was directed from Above.
This is what we commemorate as we recite Al Hanissim and light the menorah. We proclaim that we recognize that all of tevah is really lemaalah min hatevah. We declare that all that transpires is Divinely ordained. Shemen and shemonah are intertwined. Jewish survival itself is possible only through constant, ongoing miracles. Nothing that affects us as a people occurs by natural cause and effect; everything is part of a plan.
Bayomim haheim bazeman hazeh. So too, in our day, it may appear to scoffers that the laws of nature determine winners and losers, but as believers in Hashem and students of Torah and history, we recognize that we are as putty in the Hand of the Master Craftsman and nothing happens by chance.
In good times and in bad, whether we succeed at parnassah or struggle, in times of recession and prosperity, in good health and illness, and in happiness and sorrow, let us remember that nothing happens at random.
By clinging to the Torah and our belief in Hashem’s love for us, by remaining loyal to the mitzvos despite hardship, we determine our destiny. May we all merit redemption from the evils and dangers that surround us in exile. May the lights of our menorah dispel the darkness of the golus. And may we witness the dedication of the Third Bais Hamikdosh and the luminous glow of the menorah ablaze with holiness, speedily in our day.