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Adapted from Ora Shel Torah, a compilation of Ma'amarim by Moreinu Rav Zeidel Epstein, zt"l.
In the days of the Hasmonean Mattisyahu ben Yochanan the high priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the ordinances (chukim) of Your will, (Al Hanisim prayer)
The Greek Empire took upon itself the goal of waging war against Hashem's Torah. They wanted to erase Torah from the collective Jewish memory and rip the Jewish nation from adherence to the Divine ordinances. They weren't interested in annihilating the people. Rather, they wanted control over the Jewish nation's spiritual soul. In Al Hanisim we thank Hashem Yisborach that we were able to overcome the Greeks in their schemes.
The nusach, however, is a bit perplexing. "To make them forget Your Torah." If the Greeks only wanted to stop the Jews from learning, it should say, "to make them idle from the study of Torah." The word "forget" has a deeper and broader connotation, more than simply prohibiting them from Torah study. Moreover, what is the implication of "forget?"
Secondly, we have to understand the words, "to turn them away from the ordinances (chukim) of Your will." If the Greeks wanted prevent the performance of mitzvos, the tefillah should discuss "voiding Your mitzvos." Why did they use the term "ordinances" - chukim? It seems that the Greeks' focus was specifically on chukim.
Thirdly, why did Chazal make a point of singling out the evil Greek Empire? What difference does it make which empire schemed against us? Many nations in history plotted against our very existence. The tefillah could have simply said "the evil empire" without mentioning the name.
The Maharal (commentary on Berachos 32b) discusses the concept of "forgetting." A person forgets things to which he has no connection. However, something intrinsically part of him can never be forgotten. For example, the Navi questions Hashem Yisborach, how can You forget us, can a mother forget her child?
Throughout Tanach we find many instances when Klal Yisroel sinned thereby angering Hashem Yisborach. It is very important to realize that there are two aspects of Klal Yisroel: external and internal (chitzonius and penimius). The internal makeup and essence of Klal Yisroel is holiness, connection to and love of Hashem Yisborach. Anything which seems contrary to this merely superficial. "Do not look upon me [disdainfully] because I am black, for the sun has burned upon me" (Shir Hashirim 1:6). Chazal explain that when the nations of the world saw the Jewish Nation sinning they rejoiced. "Soon Hakadosh Baruch Hu will get angry with them and expel them from their land. Then He will choose us!"
The Jewish national spirit (Knesses Yisroel) then replied to them, "Don't look at my black external appearance. My inner essence is holy and close to Hashem Yisborach. The fact that I am soiled with sin is merely external. You, however, are sullied with an internal impurity and filth. Hakadosh Baruch Hu will never choose you!" Chazal compare this to a black maidservant who was accompanying the Queen. The Queens hands subsequently became black from dirt. The maidservant became happy and said to her friends, "Now the King will divorce her and marry me instead." Her friends answered her, "Fool! All the Queen has to do is clean herself up and then she can return to the King. The black is merely superficial. You, however, are naturally black!" This is what Chazal have said. The sins of Klal Yisroel are separate from their essence. They are only superficial. Their internal essence is connected to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Therefore it is possible for Hashem to forget the nation that sins. But the nation that accepted the Torah will never be forgotten. This is the essence of Klal Yisroel. They are inherently connected to Hashem Yisborach and so He can never forget them.
The goal of the Greeks was to make them "forget Your Torah." Why was Greece singled out in the Al Hanissim? Because the Greeks are naturally in conflict with us. The Maharal explains that conflict can only occur when there is some connection between the 2 sides. For example, if I say that something is cold, while the other object is hot, that is a conflict because they both relate to the same matter - temperature; just that they are opposites. However, if we would say one object is cold, and the other is wet, there is no connection. These 2 issues are not opposites.
This is the relationship of Klal Yisroel to the nations of the world. There is no connection or comparison whatsoever. The nations are not our opposites. They are a different class entirely. The Greek culture, however, is based on wisdom and thought. They can be considered contrary to Klal Yisroel. Greek philosophy is based on the ideal of human intellect. The highest virtue is to use human intellect to the fullest and gain fullest wisdom. Therefore the very existence of Klal Yisroel was an anathema to them. They couldn't tolerate the notion that "You have chosen us from all the nations." Their philosophy was that if a person sharpened his mind to the utmost and became a great scholar he automatically gained importance and stature. If everything depends merely on intellect, there can be no difference between a Jew or anyone else.
Klal Yisroel, on the other hand, understood that perfection comes through learning Torah and performance of the mitzvos. This brings a person to develop good character and act properly. Without this one cannot attain any prominence. This is the meaning of the gemara in Megilla, "If a person says there is wisdom among the nations, believe him. But if he says there is Torah in the nations, do not believe him." The wisdom of the goyim doesn't affect their conduct. They always retain the same animalistic behavior. On the other hand, the wisdom of the Torah together with the mitzvos, elevates the person and sanctifies him. "Who sanctified us with His mitvos." Mitzvos make the person holy and raise him higher and higher, closer to his Creator. In this way a person gains true perfection.
In the Torah there are chukim and mishpatim. Mishpatim are laws which a person can understand with his intellect. Because of this they are much more easily accepted. Chukim, however, are laws which have to be followed regardless of whether or not one understands them. They are Divine decrees which we cannot fathom. Greece battled specifically against the chukim. Their whole philosophy was based on human intellect. They could not accept something which was incomprehensible. This is why they defiled the Beis Hamikdash and all the oil. They wanted to eradicate the belief in kedushah and the spiritual elevation of Klal Yisroel. They couldn't tolerate that some things can be holy, and some less holy. Either you are smart, or less smart. That's all that matters. They intended to instill in the Jewish nation that Torah is merely knowledge like any other academic subject, and has nothing especially holy about it. Therefore, how can learning Torah be an obligation? You can be a great person without Torah, merely by studying a different subject.
In Al Hanisim, we say, "You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure." The first 2 statements are pretty straightforward. Hashem gave the weak and the few victory over the mighty and the many. But what was the victory of the pure over the impure? The answer is that it was the purity of Klal Yisroel that won. They stood strong guarding the purity of the Torah making sure that Greek wisdom should not penetrate the Jewish nation. This was a battle against the impurity of Greek culture. Therefore when Chazal wanted to commemorate this battle for all future generations they instituted lighting candles of oil. They didn't commemorate the actual battles. Rather, they eternalized the kedushah. The real victory was that kedushah was returned to Klal Yisroel. Therefore the Chashmonaim searched for a jug of pure oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol. According to strict law, they could have used any oil, even though it had been defiled by the Greeks. However, they didn't want to rely on this leniency. They wanted the world to know that they had eradicated the corruption of Greek culture from Klal Yisroel and reinstituted the Kedusha of the Holy Torah.
"These lights are sacred, and we are only permitted ... to look at them." A person can look at the Chanukah lights and still not see anything except a burning wick and oil which is being consumed. You have to contemplate the essence of the candles and what they represent: Hashem Yisborach's constant assistance and direct supervision over His Creation. We have no power or strength. All our strength is in our mouth through our study of Torah and our tefillos to Hashem Yisborach to help us. The power of the Jewish nation lies only in our holiness and connection to Hashem. These 8 days of Chanukah were given to us to internalize the message of the Chanukah lights: everything is from Hashem.
Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos and a Freilichen Chanukah!
© Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Yeshiva Shaare Chaim.
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop ? Lakewood).
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