Wednesday, December 21, 2005


By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

“Mai Chanukah?” - What is Chanukah, the Gemorah in Maseches Shabbos asks.

The Gemorah’s answer is one we are all familiar with. In the period in which the Yevonim ruled over Eretz Yisroel, they entered the Bais Hamikdosh and defiled all the flasks of olive oil used to light the menorah.

When the Maccabim were victorious and beat back the Yevonim, they searched and were able to find only one flask with the Kohein Gadol’s seal on it. The flask contained just enough oil for the menorah’s lights to burn for one day, yet miraculously, they continued burning for eight days. The next year, the chachomim established the days as holy days, with Hallel and thanksgiving.

That is the extent of the Gemorah’s explanation of the miracle of Chanukah. The obvious question is why the Gemorah does not elaborate upon the extent of the Yevonim’s domination and the Maccabim’s miraculous military victory over Yavan. These episodes which took place during the Second Bais Hamikdosh do not appear in Nach, as does the miracle of Purim.

We all know that the Yevonim sought to separate the Jews in Eretz Yisroel from their observance of Torah. They targeted their spiritual lives, content to let the Jews live in peace as long as their allegiance to the Torah and its precepts were abrogated.

To this end, they enacted edicts against Shabbos, milah and Rosh Chodesh and spread their Hellenistic ideals throughout the land. While many resisted this attempt at forced assimilation, there were others - referred to as Misyavnim - who became Hellenized. They joined the campaign against their brethren who remained loyal to Torah, actively seeking to bring them over to an “enlightened” lifestyle.

No doubt they used Hellenist literature to bolster their arguments. Marshalling their modern-day intellectual proofs, the “enlightened” ones sought to undermine the old-fashioned beliefs and practices of the “backward” Jews who clung to their traditional ways. They tormented the faithful with theories intended to dislodge them from their firm grasp on the Tree of Life.

“We are not out to destroy you or force you to engage in harmful conduct. On the contrary, we’re interested only in improving your lives,” the Misyavnim would taunt them.

“Don’t you understand that if you would abandon milah as it was practiced for thousands of years, your children would be healthier?” the campaign went. After all, who should know better than the educated, advanced Greeks who brought civilization to the European world?

Inspired By His Forbears
Mattisyahu Kohein Gadol decided that it had gone far enough and that he would do all in his power to halt Jewish subjugation to the Greek gods and philosophies. Just as his forefather, Levi, displayed tremendous courage when he went to war to protect the honor of his sister Dinah, Mattisyahu took on an insurmountable challenge.

He took a lesson from his great uncle, Moshe Rabbeinu, who sought volunteers to put down the Eigel rebellion, calling out, “Mi laHashem eilay?” Shevet Levi then gathered around him.

Mattisyahu also took inspiration from his grandfather, Pinchos, who, putting his own life in jeopardy, brought an end to a catastrophic plague on the Jewish people.

Armed with the Levite mission to be shomrei mishmeres hakodesh and the knowledge that G-d sides with those who fight battles l’maan Hashem, without any personal agendas, Mattisyahu rallied his brothers to his cause. The small band of faithful Jews took on the forces of the Hellenist enlightenment.

As the Jews saw that G-d was with Mattisyahu and his fellow Maccabim, they began deserting the Yevanim. As the victories mounted, Misyavnim also started having second thoughts. Eventually, almost all the Jews were brought back to Torah Judaism. It was then that the miracle of Chanukah occurred, with the finding of the flask of pure oil.

Yavan is referred to in the Medrash as a force of darkness. The Medrash says that the posuk, “Choshech al pnei sehom,” refers to Yavan, to Greek mythology, philosophy, art, gymnastics, Olympics - everything perceived by the world as representing advances in mankind’s so-called evolution from pre-historic times.

All this is regarded by Chazal as the very antithesis of civilization. Since this culture deifies human intellect and prowess, it represents darkness and agents of the dark side of humanity.

The Mattisyahu Approach
Klal Yisroel didn’t feel itself strong enough to throw off the yoke of Greek tyranny until Mattisyahu showed that it could be done. Forces of evil often reign supreme because people of good will do not join together. As long as every good man sits in his own corner, evil will triumph. When one good man decides that he can bear it no longer and begins to rally people around him, only then can evil be toppled.

Chanukah celebrates the miracle that demonstrated the validation of Mattisyahu’s approach.

The miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate is primarily the miracle of the tiny flask which burned longer than was thought to be realistically possible. The menorah’s lights signify that the power of light overcame the power of darkness. The oil lasting longer than one day signifies that if you expend the effort and work b’mesirus nefesh, physical rules will not apply.

The miraculous military victory over Yavan is a dramatic example of how the laws of nature are suspended when light overcomes darkness. That reversal of the natural order was made possible by the great acts of courage and heroism carried out by Mattisyahu and his followers.

That victory was thus part and parcel of the same dynamic that brought about the miracle of the pach hashemen. That is perhaps the reason it is not singled out in the Gemorah’s discussion of what comprised the miracle of Chanukah.

A flask of oil, which according to its physical and chemical attributes can only burn for one day, can indeed last for as long as is necessary - just as the force of good, though outmatched by evil in terms of numbers and strength, can thoroughly eviscerate the forces of darkness.

Heroism Is Infectious

At times, when attempting to solve problems, we are told we cannot do this or that, or that what we are proposing cannot work. Yet, so often we see that people who work with selfless dedication are not limited by logic or the laws of nature. They tread where no one has dared step before and succeed where lesser people vow that success is absolutely impossible.

Seeing such people in action is infectious and serves to inspire others to scale unattainable heights.

That is why the nes of Chanukah is celebrated by kindling lights in our doorways and on our windowsills facing the street. This is why the mitzvah is to light the menorah as soon as sundown begins and darkness starts spreading across the city.

That is why the shiur that Chazal give for the duration of the lights is, “ad shetichleh regel min hashuk, the lights of the Chanukah menorah should remain lit as long as there are people out on the street.”

As long as people are out in the public thoroughfare, we need to remind them of the miracle. We need to prominently remind them not to yield to the temptations of darkness.

“Don’t surrender to defeatism,” we call out to them. “Don’t regard what you do as of minor consequence. Remember that Mattisyahu started out as one lonely man of faith with all the forces of the world stacked against him. Because he did not let defeatism overtake him, the Yevonim and Misyavnim were conquered and the forces of good prevailed.”

We gather our family around us and light the menorah to proclaim to the world that G-d felled the mighty, the many and the evil. They were demolished by the weak and few, the just and holy.

G-d had mercy on us and fought our battles, causing the zeidim to fall into the hands of the oskei Torah. We sing songs of thanksgiving and Hallel and remind ourselves that in our day as well, the Yevonim, in other guises, continually attempt to ensnare us.

Hellenists in Our Day

We have to be ever vigilant, for if we falter, the forces of Hellenism are waiting around the corner to ambush us. As soon as they sense us turning our eyes from the goal, they pounce upon us with cleverly worded ruses, at times using secular law to curtail our hallowed religious practices.

In today’s day and age, Yevonim hide behind the power of government to attack us. The same people who enforce laws facilitating the murder of the unborn, accuse us of not caring properly for the newborn. Ignoring the lengths that we go to preserve and enhance human life, they accuse us of callous disregard of the health of our children. They issue directives to be on the lookout for our circumcised neonates lest we spread disease.

Misyavnim offer wild accusations to back up their unfounded charges. They go as far as to insinuate in an anti-religious press that children are in special education classes because of infections caused by their circumcision. We are libeled by people who cloak themselves in the mantle of medical ethicists and protectors of the public health and well-being.

It is high time we rose up and said we’re not going to take this anymore. Our community is blessed with able rabbinic leadership, devoted askonim, capable lawyers, public relation experts and lobbying groups; we ought to all join together and end this scourge before it gains any more traction.

The menorah and Chanukah remind us that we should not hesitate to defend Torah and mitzvos, Shabbos and milah. The lights of the menorah proclaim to us to seek out the people who carry the flag of Torah and the Mattisyahu ben Yochanan Kohein Gadols of our day and rally around them. When we light the menorah, we ought to remember the words of the Rambam that, in our day, every one who devotes his life to Torah is a ben Levi. We are all bnei Levi.

When the call goes out, “Mi LaHashem Eilay,” we must all answer. Whether the call is directed at our wallets, our minds, our time or our physical attendance, we must always be prepared to answer, “Hineini.” I have heard, I have prepared myself, I am ready to carry the banner of the bnei Levi.

The Gemorah states, in answer to Mai Chanukah, that the miracle of the pach shemen is to remind us that though we may view ourselves as being but a small pach shemen, a tiny vessel of limited value, if we commit ourselves to the service of G-d with the self-sacrifice of Mattisyohu and the bnei Levi, the light of our lives can be enduring and everlasting.


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