Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Power of Every Man

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah?” asks the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos. What is it that we are commemorating now for eight days? What are we celebrating? What are the lessons inherent in this holiday for all of us to learn?

The Gemara’s answer is one we are all familiar with. It responds that during the period in which the Yevanim 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 forces of the Yevanim, 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 they miraculously 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 Gemara’s explanation of the miracle of Chanukah. The obvious question is why the Gemara does not elaborate upon the extent of the Yevanim’s domination of the Jews in Eretz Yisroel 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 Yevanim sought to separate the Jews in Eretz Yisroel from their observance of Torah. They targeted their spiritual lives, as they sought to convert them to a life of secular accomplishment and hedonistic luxury introduced to the world by the Greeks of old. They were not anti-Semitic per se and were 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, bris milah and Rosh Chodesh, and successfully spread their Hellenistic ideals throughout the land. While many resisted the attempted indoctrination and forfeiture of tradition, many more - those referred to as Misyavnim - 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?


Matisyahu 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, Matisyahu 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.

Matisyahu 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 lemaan Hashem, without any personal agendas, Matisyahu 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 Matisyahu and his fellow Maccabim, they began deserting the Yevanim. As the victories of the traditionalist forces mounted, Misyavnim started having second thoughts. Eventually, almost all the Jews were brought back to Rabbinic 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 states that the posuk, “Choshech al p’nei sehom,” refers to Yavan. It alludes to Greek mythology, philosophy, art, gymnastics, olympics - everything perceived by the world as representing advancements 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.


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

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

The miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate is primarily that 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 dedicated souls join together and enable light to triumph over darkness. That reversal of the natural order in their day was made possible by the great acts of courage and heroism carried out by Matisyahu 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 Gemara’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 forces of good, though outmatched by evil in terms of numbers and strength, can thoroughly eviscerate the forces of darkness.


At times, when attempting to solve problems, we are told that 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 they succeed where lesser people vow that success is absolutely impossible.

Seeing such people in action is contagious 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” - that 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 being of minor consequence. Remember that Matisyahu 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 the few, the just and the 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 we remind ourselves that in our day as well, the Yevonim, in other guises, continually attempt to ensnare us.


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 propaganda to curtail our hallowed religious practices.

We live in an age when talk is cheap and positive actions are few and far between. People speak strongly, often with little thought or intelligence, but are very slow to act. Leadership is seriously lacking and too many positions of leadership are occupied by people who don’t possess the ability to rally people and join them effectively for good causes.

In today’s day and age, Yevanim hide behind the power of the pen, the web, blogs and populist demagoguery to attack us. Misyavnim offer wild accusations to back up their unfounded charges. They spare no effort to vilify and castigate us, as if they were paragons of virtue. The more growth our community experiences, the more scorn the Misyavnim heap upon us. It is interesting to note that no one has analyzed the religiosity of Bernard Madoff in an attempt to smear all who serve G-d as he does, or doesn’t.

Just imagine if it was a chassidishe Yid or a Lakewood resident who had robbed good people, charities and banks of billions of dollars. There isn’t enough newsprint available or gigabytes of memory to contain the invective that would be flowing in our direction, vilifying every frum Yid and blaming one man’s thievery on our way of life and value system.

But since he wasn’t on the board of black hat yeshivos, and he mostly robbed the endowment funds of more enlightened charities, nobody dares insinuate that the hedonistic life he led and enabled had anything to do with the evil that lurked inside of the heart of that man.

It is high time we rose up and said that 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 stand up to them and engage in a campaign to end the vilification and constant disparaging of our holy traditions.

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

We should resolve to use our abilities to spread goodness and kindness in this world. We should seek to inject greater purpose in our lives. Instead of just sitting back and criticizing others, we should leave the comforts of our coffee rooms to join together and mightily wave the flag of truth and justice where it counts. We should be prepared to forsake some of our physical comforts and put ourselves on the line for the values we believe in and that matter.

When the call of “Mi laHashem eilay” goes out, 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 Gemara, in answer to the question of Mai Chanukah, states 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 Matisyahu and the bnei Levi, the light of our lives can be enduring and everlasting.


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