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Torah Attitude: Parashas Miketz/ Hanukkah: Will the real Maccabee please stand up
The Torah hints at the four exiles that the Jewish people will have to endure. The Torah teaches us that the Hellenists were a source of darkness. A major part of the Hellenistic culture was directed at idolizing the human body. The Maccabees had as their motto the famous words expressed by the Jewish people after crossing the Red Sea: "Who is like You among the powers, G'd." All a person can do is to put in his effort; the successful outcome is totally in the hands of G'd. Although the Maccabees were victorious, they did not manage to totally eradicate the Hellenistic influence on the Jewish people. Secular Jews have twisted around the holiday of Hanukkah into a national celebration to suit their philosophy. The Chashmonaim did not fight for national freedom but they fought against the attempt by the Greeks to make the Jews forget G'd's Torah and to remove them from observing His commandments. By kindling our menorah, we show and express our desire to follow in the footsteps of the Chashmonaim and to pass on their heritage to future generations in honour of G'd and His Torah.
Already at the beginning of Creation, the Torah hints at the four exiles that the Jewish people have had to endure. It says (Bereishis 1:2) "And the earth was empty and desolate, and darkness was upon the face of the depths. And the spirit of G'd was hovering over the face of the water." On this the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 2:4) comments, "'And the earth was empty', refers to the exile of Babylon, 'and desolate' refers to the exile of Persia, 'darkness' refers to the exile of Greece, 'upon the face of the depths' refers to the Roman exile. 'And the spirit of G'd was hovering', this refers to the spirit of the Mashiach."
The dark Hellenists
There is a great significance in the fact that the Greek exile is referred to as darkness. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 83b) compares this world to the darkness of the night. The Hellenists contributed in many ways to mankind. They produced great philosophers and poets, built magnificent architecture and introduced the concept of democracy. No other of the ancient world powers has had such an impact on modern civilization as the Greek Hellenists. They are the cradle of the sciences and the arts, and the modern world considers them as enlightened for their time. That is also how they perceived themselves, but the Torah teaches us that they were a source of darkness. It is no secret that the lifestyle of the Greek philosophers was hedonistic and did not match their intellectual prowess. The masses who were used to build their buildings suffered and the rule of democracy was often corrupt. The world did not see any lasting light from the Hellenists. On the contrary, in their thirst for power, they wanted to extinguish the light of the Torah.
Idolize human body
Throughout the generations, many different groups have risen and considered themselves enlightened, following in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks. These groups included great scientists and famous artists who contributed to the development of our civilization. However, science is an external wisdom and art is an expression of the individual artist's personality. These do not necessarily bring about a better human being with more compassion and care for others. It is interesting to note that a major part of the Hellenistic culture was directed at idolizing the human body rather than the human intellect. In Greek mythology, all the idols had human forms and human weaknesses. Greek artists introduced that in the name of art there is no shame and it is considered acceptable to graphically portray the human body. The Hellenists developed their sport games, building huge stadiums where they further idolized the beauty and strength of the human body. Sport activities were not intended to promote health but to compete and show who is stronger. It was in this spirit of idolizing the beauty and strength of the human body that they set the scene for the Olympic Games.
A handful of Chashmonaim rose to fight against the mighty forces of the Greek darkness and to stop the influence of the Hellenistic culture in the Holy Land. As we say in the special prayer of thanks (Al HaNissim) the Chashmonaim were pure and righteous Torah scholars. In this merit, G'd enabled them to succeed in their mission. They understood that idolizing the human body stands in direct contradiction to serving the Creator. Just like none of the natural forces have any power of their own, but only function on the basis of the strength provided them by G'd, so too the human body has no strength of its own and is totally dependent on the mercy of G'd. In this way, they followed in the footsteps of our Patriarchs and Prophets who taught us only to serve the Almighty as He is the ultimate source of all power in the world. That is why they had as their motto the famous words uttered by the Jewish people after crossing the Red Sea (Shemos 15:11): "Mee Chamocha Baeilim HASHEM" ("Who is like You among the powers, G'd"). The Hebrew words of this motto form the acronym "Maccabee". With this they expressed their strong belief and trust in G'd alone. In the Al HaNissim we say: "And You in Your great mercy, stood up for them in the time of their distress. You fought their fight, You judged their judgment. You avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak …" We do not say that the Maccabees, as they became known, fought and took revenge with G'd's help. Rather, we express that it was G'd Who did everything. This was the attitude of the Maccabees when they went into battle. They were well aware that they did not have any chance to overpower the mighty Greek armies. But they put their full trust in G'd and thus merited that G'd brought the Jewish people salvation from their enemy.
Hands of G'd
This is how our Patriarchs lived and brought up their children who continued in their ways. In this week's Torah portion, when Joseph was brought up to the palace to interpret Pharaoh's dreams, he made a bold statement and said (Bereishis 41:16): "This is beyond me. G'd Himself will respond to the welfare of Pharaoh." This is how Joseph conducted himself already when he came to the House of Potiphar. As it says (ibid 39:3): "And his master saw that G'd was with him, and that everything he did G'd made it succeed in his hand." Joseph made everyone in his surroundings aware of his complete trust in G'd. He lived with a constant awareness that man has no power of his own. All a person can do is to put in his effort; whereas, the successful outcome is totally in the hands of G'd.
Many Jews at the time of the Maccabees had fallen prey to the Hellenistic influence. And although the Maccabees were victorious, they did not manage to totally eradicate the Hellenistic influence on the Jewish people. These Jewish Hellenists were the forerunners for later generations of so-called enlightened and progressive Jews who tried to solve the problems of the Jewish people in exile by adapting their lifestyle and attitudes to the host countries. It is a sad irony to see how they have had the chutzpah to turn everything upside-down. We find Jewish sport organizations who allow themselves to use the name of the Maccabees and copy the Olympic Games, giving it a Jewish flavour by calling it the "Maccabee Games". The holy cause that the Maccabees fought for, when they stood up against the Hellenistic culture, has in this way been totally falsified. These modern-day Hellenists want us to believe that the Chashmonaim fought with the strength of their bodies and portray them as strong, rugged fighters. However, the truth remains that they were nothing but pure and righteous Torah scholars.
Others have risen and described the Maccabees as national freedom fighters to fit with their national ideals. Sadly enough, this is similar to the early Christians who in order to promote their newfound religion, took the Heathen mid-winter holiday and injected it with a Christian flavour. Unfortunately, even nowadays Christian missionaries take the holy Jewish symbols and mitzvot, such as the three matzot of the Seder night, and twist them around to make them appear to represent the Christian Trinity. In the same way, these secular Jews twisted around the holiday of Hanukkah and turned it into a national celebration to suit their philosophy.
Falsifying Jewish history
As a matter of fact, the whole epoch of the Second Temple the Jewish people in the land of Israel were under foreign rulership. They were permitted to return from Persia to Jerusalem by the grace of the Persian Emperor Darius. Later the Greek/Syrian Empire became the world power, and took over from the Persians. In the final part of this epoch, the Romans were in power and it was they who eventually destroyed the Holy Temple. Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerundi, (Drashot Haran, Drush 7), explains that even after the Chashmonaim were victorious and established their monarchy for over two hundred years, they were not sovereign rulers. They were governors acting under the various world powers of the time. The Maccabees did not fight for, and did not achieve, national freedom. They fought against the attempt of the Hellenists to make the Jews forget G'd's Torah and to remove them from observing His commandments, as we say in Al HaNissim. To portray them in any different way is falsifying Jewish history.
Footsteps of the Chashmonaim
When we kindle our Hanukkah lights, it is an opportune time to reflect upon the self-sacrifice of the Maccabees who were ready to give up their lives for the honour of G'd. Their only concern was to preserve the holiness of the Jewish people and to protect it from foreign influences. In the merit of their purity, righteousness, and Torah study, G'd delivered the many into the hands of the few. G'd further wanted to show how pleased He was with their effort and made an open miracle, allowing one day's ration of oil to burn for eight days. When we kindle our menorah, we show and express our desire to follow in the footsteps of the great Chashmonaim and to pass on their heritage to our future generations in honour of G'd and His Torah.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network