Ra’anana Community Kollel
Rabbi Aharon Meir Goldstein
Well over two thousand years ago, the Syrian-Greek king, Antiochus, forbade the practice of Judaism, defiled the Temple, and forced the Jews to participate in pagan rituals. In turn, the Maccabees revolted, defeated the Greeks, recaptured Yerushalayim, and rededicated the Temple. Upon entering, they found only enough ritually pure oil to light the Menorah for one day, but G-d preformed a miracle and that small flask of oil lasted for a full eight days. The Gemara (Masechet Shabbat 21b) explains that our Sages instituted the celebration of Chanukah specifically to commemorate this miracle of the oil.
At first glance, this seems somewhat incongruous. Surely the miracle of the oil was a neis nigleh- a clear and objectively defined miracle - and it must have made a tremendous impression on those who witnessed it However, Chanukah was established as a permanent annual celebration to be observed even throughout the years of destruction and exile. In the long term, was not the miracle of the successful Jewish revolt of greater significance? After all, had it not succeeded the Jewish religion would have been eradicated from history (see Ramban Commentary on Beraishit 49:10). What relevance does the miracle of the flask have for us nearly two millennia since the Menorah was last lit?
There is something paradoxical about the relationship between Greek civilization and Judaism. On the one hand, the Greeks were the first to attack Judaism as a religion, and attempt to compel the Jews to abandon the Torah and its commandments. On the other hand, the Greeks demonstrated a unique affinity for and appreciation of things Jewish. Ptolemy, a Greek king, was the first gentile to commission a translation of the Torah into a foreign language (the famous Targum Shiv'im -The Septuagint). Likewise, although they were famous for their physical prowess, the Greeks shared our respect for chochmah, wisdom, and intellectual pursuits. However, it goes deeper than that. Through their wisdom, Aristotle and many other Greek philosophers deduced the existence of a single, supreme and incorporeal G-d. The Rambam goes so far as to state that Aristotle reached a level just short of prophecy. While other sages disagreed with that point, the similarities between Greek philosophy and Jewish thought are undeniable.
How can we understand this paradox? Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah, Essay 4) explains that it was precisely the convergence of Greek civilization and Judaism that caused the antipathy between them. An enmity between close relatives will strike deep roots.
Despite their many similarities, there remains a very significant difference between them. While for the Greeks wisdom served as an end in itself, for the Jews wisdom is just the beginning. From our perspective, the only wisdom that has value is that which affects the way we live our lives. Our knowledge of the existence of G-d must teach us that we are more than just intelligent animals. We are spiritual creatures, and our existence has a purpose. G-d imposes demands us. He requires that we strive for spiritual perfection. The means to reach this perfection are the mitzvot that He revealed to us in the Torah. The Greeks with their total reliance on human wisdom had no understanding of this. A philosophical understanding of G-d? Yes. A practical observance of G-d’s commandments? No. This was their intention when they decreed, “Write on the horns of the ox that you have no portion in the G-d of Israel.’” (Bereishit Rabbah, Parsha 2) The Greeks had no problem with the G-d of nature who controls the entire universe. But they refused to accept the concept of a G-d who revealed himself to the Jewish people and gave them the Torah with its mitzvot. They could not comprehend that an awareness of G-d should restrain and refine one’s animalistic tendencies.
Now we can understand the centrality of the miracle of the oil. The conflict with the Greeks was not about abstract philosophical principles; rather, it was over practical observance of the mitzvot. Even having won a military victory, had the Maccabees been unable to practically carry out the commandment of lighting the Menorah, the victory would have remained a hollow one. Only after the miracle of the oil was the victory of the Maccabees complete. Therefore, this is the miracle we celebrate.
We can also understand this concept on a deeper level. Our Sages teach us (Beraishit Rabbah, Parsha 2) that the term choshech, darkness, which is mentioned in the second verse of Parashat Bereishit, is a reference to Greece. Of all the nations, why is specifically Greece referred to as darkness? After all, they were enlightened, and their wisdom exceeded that of the other gentile nations.
Yes, they had wisdom, but their wisdom did not show them the way to proper behavior. Such wisdom is dark; it does not provide any illumination. The Torah on the other hand is called ohr, light, (Mishlai 6:23) because its wisdom is applicable to every facet of our behavior. In the Jewish mystical tradition shemen zayit, olive oil signifies chochmah, wisdom. (Menachot 85b, and Pri Tzadik, Chanukah, section 5) The Menorah represents the Torah because it is the site of the transformation of olive oil, wisdom, into light, Torah. While the Greeks defiled wisdom and thereby extinguished the light of the Menorah, the miracle of Chanukah salvaged some pure oil, some pure Jewish chochmah, and rekindled the Menorah. Its light provides Am Yisrael-the Jewish Nation- with illumination till this very day.