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Chanukah: Then And Now

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On the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, over twenty-one hundred years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated after it was wrenched from the hands of the defiling Greeks. Thus ended a war no one planned or even dreamed could happen.

To understand the miracle of the few against the many, and the pure against the defiled, we can go back to the famous young Macedonian/Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great. Bursting out of the Greek islands he never stopped, defeating Persian armies five times his size, and pushed right on to India. He would have gone further had he not died at age thirty-two, totally burnt out after declaring himself a God, and apparently never leaving the fast lane in his personal and public life.

It should be said that when he came upon Yerushalayim and was prepared to add it to his list of conquests, he had a historic meeting with the head of the Sanhedrin and Shimon HaTzaddik.

It is said that the young conqueror dismounted and bowed down to this High Priest of the Temple of the true God. As a result of this meeting, Yerushalayim was spared.

With the passing of the undisputed leader, however things began to get out of hand.

The vast empire was divided into three parts by his generals – and they began an unending series of wars amongst themselves. Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria established impressive Hellenistic centers, and Greek culture was copied by all the peoples from Egypt to Babylon. Well, almost all the peoples!

The Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael were not enamored of the glitter or power of Hellenistic culture. The Greeks were patient. All peoples finally came around to embracing their “superior” ways. The Jews would too, they believed. In fact some did. Referred to as Hellenists, they were Jews at home and Greeks in the office and at the gym. In fact since the all important sports contests were done in the nude, celebrating the perfect body, some Jews felt uncomfortable with their circumcisions; cosmetic surgery allowed them then to pass.

Things were actually going just the way the Greeks predicted, when in the year 169 BCE, the Seleucids under Antiochus Epiphanies were chased out of Egypt and a victory against his Ptolemy rivals was denied.

Antiochus vented his humiliation and frustration at the Jews of Eretz Yisrael as he retreated across their territory. He sacked Yerushalayim, plundered the Temple, and, at the advice of Jewish Hellenists, enacted laws that would ensure all his subjects finally “go Greek.”

Thus began the draconian and humiliating anti-Jewish laws and the defilement of the Bais HaMikdash, including sacrifice of pigs to Zeus and harlotry where the priests performed the holy service. Women gave their lives to circumcise their babies. Jews caught studying Torah were burned alive in the scrolls.

Antiochus was determined to make the Jews into good Hellenists and help them “see the light.”

But then, for the first time in history, a small nation (in fact a small part of a small nation) raised the banner of revolt against a world power in a bid for religious freedoms.

When the Greek soldiers and their Jewish Hellenistic allies came to one of the rural villages to enforce the king’s edicts, and have the villagers bow down to his image, an old man said no! Matisyahu the Kohen simply said no. As the soldiers were about to make an example of him, his five sons stood and ensured those soldiers did not make ti home. “He who is for God, follow me!” The revolt was on.

In the beginning, the Jews would not fight on Shabbos, but after a group of one thousand men women and children would not come out of a cave to fight on the Sabbath and were smoked to death by the Greeks, Matisyahu decreed that it was permissible to violate Shabbos in this war against the forces of evil.

Villagers flocked to them and soon a large guerrilla force, led by the old man and his sons, were routing professional and well-armed armies, many times their size. When Matisyahu died, his son, Yehuda HaMacabee(The Hammer) led the Jews. This son became the worst nightmare of the best Greek generals.

In one of the earlier and spectacular engagements, Yehuda waited for the enemy army that was bearing down on his mountain stronghold from Samaria in the north and from the coast in the West. He took his army to Mitzpe, the hilltop where Shmuel HaNavi defeated the Philistines a thousand years earlier and where he is buried. There Yehuda and his fighters fasted and prayed, and then swooped down behind one of the armies in an all night march. With the morning sun in the enemies eyes and surprised from behind, they fled, leaving behind enough supplies to arm the Jewish rebels.

One can visit the battlefields of Emaus, Bet Horon, Mitzpe, Mt Gofna, Bet Zur… These places have since seen other instances of Jewish heroism, as recent as 1948 and 1967.

And so on the twenty fifth day of Kislev, three years after Matisyahu said no, the Jewish fighters entered Yerushalayim, scattering the Greeks and their Hellenist allies. They went straight for the Menorah, unlit for three years. With only one urn of pure olive oil, they rushed to relight the seven-branched menorah. They did their part. They took on the Greek empire and won and now they attended to the daily lighting. Not enough oil for more then one day? One day at a time. God who gave them the miraculous victory will figure it out. And eight days later that oil was still burning. ”In those days in these times…”

A story is told about the freezing days and nights at Valley Forge when General Washington tried to rally his tattered troops against the mercenaries of the British Empire. One night as Washington made the rounds encouraging his men, he came across a young man lighting a small oil lamp in a dark cold corner of his tattered tent. The general stopped to offer some warm words of encouragement. When he bent down he said, “I see you brought your own heat from home. Well done!” The soldier looked up at the VIP visitor and told the general, ”No sir, I am not even allowed to have any benefit from this candle. It is holy, it is a Chanukah candle commemorating the victory of my persecuted forefathers over the vast Greek armies of oppression in the Land of Israel.” The general paused and said, “Son, you have given me the greatest encouragement possible. I am confident that we too will overcome the odds and defeat tyranny in our land”

Years later, after the war, there was a knock at the door of this Jewish veteran’s apartment. It was the now-President Washington at the door. He brought a medallion with him. On it was engraved the image of menorah and the words: “A token of gratitude for the light of your candle – George Washington”.

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