Chanukah commemorates our victory over the Syrian-Greeks and the Hellenists – Jews who betrayed their own people in order to curry favor with the gentiles.
Not much has changed in this respect in nearly 2,200 years. The battle continues. We cleaned up and purified the Beit HaMikdash, but were we truly liberated? The Greeks were ousted from our land, but were they expelled from our minds? What light did the menorah provide that proved the battlefield victories warranted an annual celebration for the remainder of Jewish history, despite the Holy Temple’s eventual destruction?
Our sages make a strange statement about the Greeks. They inform us that Greece – a nation noted for its scholars, wisdom, and academics – is the image of darkness (Bereishit Rabbah 2:4). We, a people with great appreciation for the intellectual, find this baffling. The Baal Shem Tov explains that it is as simple as a Chanukah dreidel.
All of creation is a rotating wheel, a dreidel. Things constantly change, revolve and become transformed. This is because all things, no matter what they are made of, have one root. Before they manifest themselves as they are, they pass through an interface known as “hyle” (Ramban on Genesis 1:1). A person’s roles also change over time, providing and dominating one day, receiving and following the next. Nations, too, rise and fall.
Why do we play with a dreidel on Chanukah? Because – like Chanukah, the dreidel parallels the concept of the Beit HaMikdash, which spun things around in a number of ways. It manifested the concept of the revolving wheel by being the home of the Shechinah while its design was simultaneously engraved on high (Tanchuma, Pikudey 1; Zohar 1:80b).
Additionally, it somehow limited the Divine presence of a transcendental God to a physical space. As Shlomo HaMelech put it, “Behold the Heavens, and the Heaven of Heavens cannot contain You, how much less this Temple?!” (Kings I 8:27).
Furthermore, it is impossible to rationally explain how flesh-and-blood human beings can influence spiritual realms and how a sacrificial animal can produce “a sweet savor” (Genesis 8:21, Exodus 29:18) to God. Yet God did constrict His presence to the Beit HaMikdash and did accept sacrifices as “a sweet savor.” By doing so, God debunked the Greek model of rational philosophy with the Beit HaMikdash – as we do with the dreidel.
The Greeks are “darkness” because the rational mind (or, rather, the insistence on being rational always), limits one’s possibilities. One becomes stuck, “engraved on the horn of an ox,” and one can no longer think out of the box.
As Jews, we must always bear in mind that God has reasons that our reason cannot know. As God says “For My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not My ways” (Isaiah 55:8). This is why we dare not despair, even in the longest darkest, tragic periods of personal and national life. This is what enabled the Maccabees to undertake the struggle to fight the spiritual darkness against all odds.
The essential quality of the ultimate Redemption which we await is that of the Beit HaMikdash, the revolving wheel, the dreidel, when we will see and know that in fact all is one – that God is One and God’s Name is One (Zechariah 14:9).
May we soon see the arrival of Mashiach, the rebuilding of the Holy Temple and the Redemption of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher is dean of students at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.