For an entire generation, the ancient Judeans waged a struggle for freedom, which, in terms of intensity, has almost no parallel in all human history. It was among the first recorded wars of national liberation and it laid a model for nearly every revolution that followed. With an unbreakable faith and willingness to sacrifice, a handful of valiant Hebrew guerrillas forged the eternal covenant that resistance to tyranny is the highest and truest obedience to HaShem.
In those years, the cultural imperialism to which the Seleucid Empire aspired was at its peak. Hellenist philosophies and values were brought to Jerusalem by means of harsh edicts and the daggers of foreign soldiers. The victimization of the weak, rampant debauchery and the desecration of the Temple were the pinnacles of the enlightened Greek culture bestowed upon Judea. In Jerusalem, the urban upper class yearned to be citizens of Antioch and to transform their ancient city into an enlightened Greek Polis. When the uprising began, it arose from the mountain folk who remained loyal to G-D’s Torah and to the spiritual heritage of their fathers. They were led by the Hasmoneans – Matityahu ben Yohanan HaKohen and his five courageous sons. The flame of revolt was kindled in Modiin and quickly spread throughout the hills of Judea. After Matityahu’s death, his third son Yehuda inherited command. He became the Maccabee and his guerrilla army moved in two channels that were in fact one – war upon the foreign Hellenist culture and war against the Seleucid occupation of Judea. Two wars with one goal of Hebrew independence in Eretz Yisrael.
The Maccabean revolt was not merely a struggle to revoke harsh decrees or secure freedom of worship. According to Torah Law, national independence and political sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael is the foundation for proper religious observance (see Mishnah Torah Hilchot Chanukah 3:1, Pesikta Rabati 34, Magid Mesharim Parshat Vayikra and Chesed L’Avraham 3:7). HaShem’s Divine blueprint for history demands that Israel be an independent nation in full borders.
The Hasmoneans were ferociously determined. After several Judean victories and the liberation of Jerusalem, the Seleucid Syrian-Greeks offered a truce. Freedom of worship would be restored to the natives in exchange for ending their violent revolution. There were some within Israel naïve enough to be content and halt the fighting. A misunderstanding of Torah caused those weak in spirit and tired of war to believe that they had already achieved their objectives. The Hasmonean faction, however, understood that they were required by G-D’s Law to liberate their country and not simply live within it as pious individuals under a foreign regime. They also knew that without complete national independence, there could be no lasting peace or full freedom of worship as the spirit of Greece could again seek to dominate Judea. Yehuda declared that the revolution must continue until complete political independence could be won. After nearly three decades of bitter guerrilla warfare, the Hasmoneans triumphed and the Kingdom of Israel was restored for over two hundred years (Hilchot Chanukah 3:1).
The devout heroism of Matityahu and his sons awakened within their people aspirations for independence. This desire for liberty – which had not strongly surfaced prior to the oppression – was catalyzed by the cultural persecution of Syrian Greeks. Political independence was eventually declared and this declaration itself served as a barrier against the forces of Hellenization as the very desire for national freedom psychologically impedes assimilation into the culture of an occupying power. Yet without Matityahu and his sons – the holy warrior priests who imbued the political ideal with spiritual content – the revolution would have lacked sufficient force to keep fighting and withstand the prolonged hardships of war. This is demonstrated through the miracle of the oil. The pure cruse with the seal of the High Priest shone brightly in the Menorah, its light permeating the soul of the Hebrew Nation and bestowing upon Israel the strength to fight on.
Perhaps the most important lesson of Chanukah is that light is not merely another creation but rather Creation’s ultimate goal. The Maharal of Prague teaches in Ner Mitzvah that the world was created deficient so that it could perfect itself and be perfected through mankind. Human beings are given free will in order to choose to participate in bringing the world to its goal. Being perfect and complete, by definition, requires one to lack nothing – including the ability to experience the phenomena of perfecting and completing oneself. At first glance it would appear paradoxically impossible for an already perfect and complete being to experience becoming more perfect or complete. But true perfection and completeness by their very definitions must not exclude any capabilities. The way in which HaShem – the timeless and all encompassing ultimate Reality without end – achieves the experience of becoming more perfect and more complete is through human beings, who are all expressions of their Divine Source (similar to the relationship between the thought and the thinker). As human beings perfect themselves and grow, HaShem “experiences” perfection and growth. We were all created deficient so that He would – through us – experience self-improvement. The more we become aware of this incredible reality, the closer our world comes to fundamental perfection. And as the main protagonist in the drama of human history, Israel is tasked with revealing this truth, thereby bringing the world ever closer to its predestined ideal state.
About the Author: Yehuda HaKohen teaches history at several Jerusalem institutions and is a seasoned activist for indigenous rights in the Middle East and a vocal opponent of attempts to shrink Israel's borders. Yehuda organizes grassroots Jewish-Arab dialogue meetings for the purpose of fostering mutual acceptance and understanding.
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