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Torah Attitude: Parashas Miketz/Hanukkah, The deeper meaning of the name Maccabee
The Syrian-Greek Hellenists rose up against the Jewish nation to make the Jewish people forget G'd's Torah. They made a decree that the Jewish people should write on the horn of an ox that the Jewish nation has no connection to the G'd of Israel to desecrate the Torah from its Divine origin. They wanted that from infancy the Jewish people should be influenced to deny any connection with G'd. The Scroll of Antiochus was named after the emperor of the Syrian-Greek Empire. The Scroll gives several examples of how the brave Jews defied the mighty army. The deeper significance to the name Maccabee is the acronym of a verse from the song the Jewish people sang at the Sea. It is very clear that the State of Israel has become the hated Jew among the nations of the world. Warfare of a few individuals against mighty armies exhibits the highest level of trust in G'd. Only a person who is ready to sanctify G'd's name with his life can reach such a high level of trust in G'd. The events involving Joseph and Pharaoh clearly shows that a person does not lose anything by acknowledging the ultimate, sovereign power of G'd, rather than claiming a talent and ability as one's own. Every morning, prior to the prayer of Shemona Esrei, we acknowledge the power of G'd.
Greeks wanted to forget G'd's Torah
Throughout the eight days of Hanukkah, we say a special prayer of thanks ("Al HaNissim") during the Shemona Esrei and the Birchat Hamazon (Blessing after meals). The prayer describes how the Syrian-Greek Hellenists rose up against the Jewish nation. It explicitly mentions their purpose was to make the Jewish people forget G'd's Torah and to push them away from fulfilling the commandments of G'd's will. It does not just say that they wanted them to forget the Torah and commandments, but rather it refers to the Torah as G'd's Torah and G'd's commandments.
Desecrate Torah's Divine origin
The Maharal, in his work on Hanukkah (Ner Mitzvah), explains that the Hellenists held science and other forms of wisdom in high esteem. They could therefore appreciate the Torah as a book of immense wisdom, and they even requested that the sages should translate the Torah into Greek (see Talmud Megillah 9b). On the other hand, they could not tolerate the Torah's Divine origin. The Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 13:5) relates how they made a decree that the Jewish people should write on the horn of an ox that the Jewish nation has no connection to the G'd of Israel. With this insight, we can better understand the accuracy of what we say in our prayers. They were not out to annul the Torah as a book, but they were out to desecrate it from its Divine origin.
Ox horns and baby bottles
The Maharal continues to explain the deeper significance of forcing the Jewish people to write it on the horn of an ox. This indicated that the Jewish people had once distanced themselves from G'd when they served idols and bowed down to the golden calf in the image of a young ox. On a simple level, I once heard an explanation from my teacher, the Rosh Yeshiva of Gateshead Yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Gurwicz. He related that he had been to the British Museum in London to look at some old Talmudic manuscripts. While he was there, he noticed some horns of oxen on display. It was described that in antiquity these horns had been used as baby bottles to feed young infants. Rabbi Gurwicz explained that this might be the simple understanding why the Hellenists wanted the Jewish people to write on the horns that they had no connection to G'd. In this way, they felt that from infancy the Jewish people would be influenced to deny any connection with G'd.
Scroll of Antiochus
There is an old Jewish scroll that was translated from Aramaic to Hebrew that also is on display in the British museum. In 1851 a scholar by the last name of Philipowsky printed this scroll in the original Aramaic and pointed out that it is older that the Apocryphal writings of the Maccabees. This scroll is called the Scroll of Antiochus, named after the emperor of the Syrian-Greek Empire.
Brave Jews defied the mighty army
The scroll starts off describing how Antiochus called a meeting of his officers and complained that the Jews remained apart from everyone else by not serving the Greek idols. He therefore decided to annul the special covenant that the Jewish people had with G'd and decreed that the Jews may not observe Shabbat, the months of the Jewish calendar, and circumcision. It is obvious that he prohibited these three matters because they set apart the Jewish people from all other nations. Antiochus sent a huge army under the leadership of his second in command, Nikanor, who attacked Jerusalem and defiled the Temple. The Scroll gives several examples how the brave Jews defied the mighty army. In one incident, one thousand Jews went into hiding in a cave. The Greeks found out about it and blocked the entrance of the cave. They said to the trapped Jews, "Come out and eat our food and drink our wine, and conduct yourselves like we do." The brave Jews answered, "We would rather die than desecrate the day of Shabbat." When the Greeks saw that they could not convince the Jews inside the cave to come out, they set fire to the whole cave and all the Jews perished.
At this point, relates the Scroll, the five sons of Matisyahu, the High Priest, got up and started fighting the powerful Syrian-Greek army. They put their trust in G'd and managed to drive the enemy out of the country. These five brave brothers were known as the Maccabees. On a simple level, we can understand that this is an acronym for the family name "Matisyahu kohein ben Yochanan". However, it is well known that there is a deeper significance to this name as it is the acronym of a verse from the song the Jewish people sang at the Sea (Shemos 15:11): "Mi chamocha ba'eilim HASHEM" (Who is like You among the powers, G'd). In this way, they clearly showed their strong faith and trust in G'd. They were well aware that there was no natural way that they could overpower the Syrian-Greek army. But as they stood up for the honour of G'd they knew that if G'd so desired, they could defeat any army in world.
The hated Jew among the nations
They understood the danger that the Hellenistic influence would have on the future of the Jewish people. Many well meaning individuals and groups have risen within the Jewish people and promoted the idea that if we act and behave like the gentiles around us we would be able to eliminate anti-Semitism. This was the basic tenant of the Reform movement in Germany with the motto "Be a Jew at home and a German in the street". Unfortunately, the German Nazis showed us the fallacy of this ideal. They would go after anyone with even a faint amount of Jewish blood in their veins. Similarly, the fathers of modern-day Zionism believed that if the Jewish people would develop their own state like any other nation, that would take care of the hatred and animosity that is exhibited by many gentiles. Today we see how wrong they were. It is very clear that the State of Israel has become the hated Jew among the nations of the world. The fact that many of the Zionist leaders promoted secularism did not help in any way.
Highest level of trust in G'd
When the Chashmonaim rose against the Syrian-Greeks, the Scroll of Antiochus describes how they would fast and pray to G'd before they would enter a battle. They knew that only with the assistance of G'd would the lone lamb survive among the seventy hungry wolves. It does not make any difference in what shape and form the wolves attack. They have many disguises but only one purpose. Sometimes they are Hellenists. At other times they are crusaders, members of the Inquisition, Nazis, Communists or terrorists. The Chashmonaim followed in the footsteps of our Patriarch Abraham when he went into warfare against the mighty armies of Amraphel and the other three kings to save his nephew Lot. Rashi (Bereishis 14:14) quotes from the Talmud (Nedarim 32a) that in fact Abraham went into this war just with his trusted servant Eliezer. Rabbi Avraham, the son of the Vilna Gaon, explains that this kind of warfare exhibits the highest level of trust in G'd. Abraham had no more chance of winning this war than he had of coming out alive of the oven in Ur Kasdim (see Rashi Bereishis 11:28).
Sanctify G'd's name with one's life
Only a person who is ready to sanctify G'd's name with his life can reach such a high level of trust in G'd. In the time of the exile in Babylon, it is described in the Book of Daniel (3:17-18) how three young Jews, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, were ready to let themselves be thrown into the fire by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. They said to him, in no uncertain terms, "The G'd that we serve can save us from the burning oven and from your hands … Even if G'd decides not to save us, nevertheless your majesty shall know that to your idol we shall not serve and to your golden statute we shall not bow down." We find, says Rabbi Avraham, that for people on that level of trust in G'd, G'd shields them from any harm, as G'd said to Abraham (Bereishis 15:1): "I am a shield for you."
Joseph and Pharaoh
In beginning of this week's parasha, it is related how Joseph as well rose to such a high of level of trust in G'd. When he was finally let out of prison, Pharaoh said to him (Bereishis 41:15): "And I have heard about you, saying that you listen to a dream and interpret it." We would expect Joseph to jump on this opportunity and acknowledge his special talent to interpret dreams. However, Joseph conducted himself in a very different way. He knew that his talent was not his but a Divine blessing. He therefore answered Pharaoh and said (ibid 16): "This is beyond me. G'd will answer for the welfare of Pharaoh." In this way, Joseph sanctified G'd's name, acknowledging that he had no special talent or power, only what G'd allowed him. He risked to be sent right back into the prison, as Pharaoh may claim that he did not know who G'd was and if Joseph could not help him, he did not need his services. As a matter of fact, it was this trust in G'd that Joseph exhibited that paved the way for him to become the viceroy of Egypt. Had he gone along with Pharaoh's suggestion that he could interpret dreams, the most that he could have expected to happen was that he would be appointed as the dream interpreter for the royal court. But now that Pharaoh saw that Joseph was a man on whom the spirit of G'd rested (see ibid 41:37), he knew that no other person in Egypt could match someone of this stature. He therefore appointed Joseph to the highest office in Egypt after the king himself. This clearly shows that a person does not lose anything by acknowledging the ultimate, sovereign power of G'd, rather than claiming a talent and ability as one's own.
Helper of our forefathers
Every morning, prior to the prayer of Shemona Esrei, we acknowledge the power of G'd, as we say: "You have always been the Helper of our forefathers, the shield and saviour for their children after them in every generation … The truth is that You are the Master of Your people and their mighty King. You fought their fights and the truth is that You are the first and the last. Other than You, we have no king, redeemer or saviour." In conclusion, we join the Maccabees and exclaim, ""Mi chamocha ba'eilim HASHEM"! This is our introduction before we stand in front of G'd in the Shemona Esrei and we ask G'd for all our needs. In this way, we declare our trust in G'd and acknowledge His supreme power. Thus we hope and pray that G'd will answer our prayers and save us from all our grievances and problems, and soon send us the Mashiach to redeem us from our long and bitter exile.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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