Chanukah | Part I
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
The strategy of the Greek Empire
During Chanukah, we add a special passage in the Amidah and in the bentching, where we say Al hanisim v’al hapurkan, thanking G-d for His miracles. The passage discusses the clash between the Maccabees and the Greek Empire and details what these miracles were. The Greek Empire did not simply want to impose military rule on the ancient State of Israel; it wanted to eradicate Judaism. It went to war with Jewish values, and that is really what Chanukah is about – the battle over a Jewish value system. The passage describes how the Greek Empire wished to make them forget Your Torah – lehashkicham toratecha. It was a campaign to make the Jewish people stop learning Torah and thereby forget it entirely. Then comes another phrase, u’leha’aviram mechukei retzonecha, to cause the people to transgress the statutes of Your will – all the mitzvot. These two phrases, lehashkicham toratecha and u’leha’aviram mechukei retzonecha encapsulate the Greek Empire’s overall strategy for fighting against the Jewish people.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, one of the great rabbinic philosophers of 20th-century America, asks why we need both phrases; since causing the people to transgress the mitzvot includes the mitzvah of Torah study, what, then, is the meaning of the first phrase, lehashkicham toratecha – “to cause them to forget Your Torah”?
Perhaps we can answer the following, based on the writings of the Chafetz Chaim, who discusses this in general, not specifically regarding Chanukah, though it is equally applicable. There are two separate concepts here: one is neglecting to learn Torah and the other is forgetting Torah entirely. Meaning, sometimes people have the basic framework and know the concepts but they are a bit ignorant about one thing or another; and sometimes the Torah is, unfortunately, completely forgotten. The Chafetz Chaim – who penned these words at the beginning of the 20th century – writes that this is the root of assimilation: the drifting away from Torah and the lack of Jewish values, all stemming from forgetting of the Torah. Many Jews are not only ignorant – which would imply they at least have the framework and are merely ignorant in some aspects of Judaism – but have completely forgotten what the Torah means. They have no framework, no sense of what Jewish values are or what it means to be part of the Jewish people. This is what the Greeks were striving for – lehashkicham toratecha, to make them forget everything; and in order to achieve this they wished to eradicate Jewish education. When children are not taught what Torah is and what Judaism means, the whole framework of a Jewish value system and worldview is eradicated. It is more than simply getting people to transgress individual mitzvot here and there; it is to make them forget the whole essence of what it means to be a Jew. This was their mission, and what the Maccabees were fighting against; it was an ideological struggle. The Chanukah candles we light represent the victory of the light of Torah and mitzvot.
The clash between the Greek Empire and Torah values
Rav Hutner offers the following explanation: there are actually a lot of similarities between the culture of Ancient Greece and the culture of Judaism. The Greek Empire valued wisdom more than anything else and indeed gave the world so much in terms of science, maths and many concepts that we study to this day. They were masters of wisdom and believed in its importance. To be a Torah Jew is to believe in wisdom, too. Both systems value the study and pursuing of wisdom. Rav Hutner says it is actually the similarity which leads to the clash. For example, sometimes the most acrimonious feuds are between siblings because the closeness brings out the bitterness of the fight. There is a dimension of the Greek value system which has some similarity to Torah, yet which is vastly different. On the one hand, the Gemara says that there is a place for the beauty, concepts, and even the Greek language within the Torah framework; on the other hand, the Talmud discusses how the Greek Empire is symbolised by darkness: the opening verses of the Book of Genesis say that when G-d created the world there was “chaos and void and darkness over the depth.” The Talmud explains that this verse is actually referring to all the different kingdoms that oppressed the Jewish people – “Chaos and void” refer to the Babylonian Empire and the Midian Empire; “darkness” refers to the Greek Empire; and the “depth” refers to the ancient Roman Empire.
Why specifically was darkness chosen to refer to the Greek Empire? They were the epitome of wisdom; what is dark about that? Rav Hutner explains that Greek wisdom and Torah wisdom differ fundamentally in their approaches to the intellectual dimension of what it means to be a human being. Both value the intellect and the study of G-d’s will, but from different perspectives. G-d’s will is revealed in two ways: in the physical creation of this world, which G-d created with the ten utterances (“and G-d said, ‘let there be light,’” etc.), and the other is the Torah, the 613 commandments encapsulated in the Ten Commandments which G-d gave to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Both the physical creation of the world and the intellectual/spiritual creation of the Torah represent G-d’s will, but in different ways.
The physical laws of nature represent G-d’s will in a way that is mandatory, an immutable given; the laws of the Torah represents G-d’s will in a way that is based on free will. The physical laws of nature are non-negotiable; for example, one cannot defy the law of gravity. But the laws of the Torah one has the freedom to transgress. We have free will to choose whether to do the mitzvot or not. It is true that we are held accountable for our decisions, good and bad, and are rewarded and punished accordingly – this is, in fact, one of the thirteen principles of faith. But that does not take away the basic freedom to choose, and even though it is wrong, one can transgress G-d’s commandments. In Torah we have the moral choice whereas in the laws of the universe we do not have the option to defy them.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe expands on Rav Hutner’s words, as follows: when we focus on understanding G-d’s will only through nature, then nature is all that we see; the human being is viewed as part of the physical world, and cannot rise above it. In the same way that the physical world operates with certain laws of nature, so, too, the human being operates with certain laws of nature. Torah comes from a different perspective and maintains that the human being is qualitatively different from the rest of nature. We have a neshama, a soul, from G-d, and are created in G-d’s image, which means that we have the freedom to rise above the physical world, to choose to override physical instincts and become better, more refined people. G-d’s will as expressed in nature is very deterministic and, accordingly, man’s role within the world is just to be another animal, another element of the physical world. But G-d’s will as expressed in the Torah calls upon us to transcend the physical world, to exercise free choice and become better people through it. Thus, both are actually revealing G-d’s will, but the one is delving into G-d’s will as manifest in the deterministic, physical laws of nature and the other is actually delving into G-d’s will regarding His moral and spiritual vision for who we are meant to be.
Perhaps this is why one of the laws the Greeks tried to abrogate was circumcision; they maintained that man is created physically complete and therefore, why mess with the body? The physical body, they said, is the way it is meant to be, and we are meant to follow our physical instincts. But Torah Judaism says no, we have to rise above the physical. The covenant with G-d, symbolized by circumcision, is saying that the physical body needs to be elevated and specifically a person’s physical desires can be controlled, elevated and refined within the framework of Torah values, morals and principles.
Thus, Chanukah is about the fundamental clash of values between the culture of the Greek Empire and the culture of Torah Judaism. When we light our Chanukah candles, let us remember what they represent: the light of Torah wisdom for which the Maccabees fought, which illuminate our world.
This shiur is the first of a two-part series on Chanukah, to be continued please G-d next week.