We are all familiar with the Chanukah story, how the Maccabees heroically fought for their religious freedom and the miraculous discovery of the single flask of oil that miraculously burned in the Menorah for eight days and nights. But let's zoom in (no pun intended) to get a deeper understanding of the significance of what happened then.
The occupying Assyrian Greeks were cool with the Jews retaining their unique lifestyle, based on historical traditions and cultural preferences, as long as it was not divine dogma.
You claim you need a day of rest each week, that’s fine, but don’t call it the Holy Shabbat. You enjoy studying biblical wisdom, our pleasure, but quit insisting it’s prophecy from G-d and the blueprint of existence. View Torah as a parallel wisdom to the progressive greek philosophy and culture, they argued. Only then can we co-exist.
Precisely this warped and dangerous attitude is what the Maccabees heroically fought against.
We didn’t want to be Greeks, we wanted to be Jews. Neither did we just want to “do our thing” because this is what our parents and grandparents did. We were doing it because we understood its truth, and even more importantly, because we recognized its holiness, and its G-dliness; the elements that make our way of life uniquely Jewish.
And the tide was turned by a small yet determined group of people, the Maccabees. They knew they had the truth on their side, and nothing at all could stand in their way. The truth remains the truth even when it’s unpopular.
With this in mind we can also appreciate the deeper significance of the Maccabees’ search for ritually pure oil to illuminate the Menorah in the newly dedicated Temple.
The Greeks knew that the Jews were particular to use oil that was ritually pure, sealed with the seal of the High Priest. The particular laws defining ritual purity and impurity are admittedly illogical and flies in the face of the enlightened and Hellenistic culture they were trying to impose on the Jews. Therefore, they ensured that not one flask of oil remained ritually pure in the Temple. Light the beautiful lamp, they said, but stop buying into the “ritual purity” hocus pocus.
But when the Macabees reconquered the Temple and rededicated it, it was specifically the ritually pure oil they searched for. Their entire revolt was premised on the eternal relevance of G-d’s supra rational laws epitomised by the ritual purity of the Holy Temple, and they insisted on using only ritually pure oil to light the Menorah, and the rest is history.
So the message for us is clear. Even while we are blessed to live in a free society, we can still be Maccabees today. We observe Shabbat because it is a Holy day, given to us by G-d. And we study and live by the Torah, because it is the word of G-d, given to us at the revelation at Mt. Sinai; handed down and preserved from generation to generation. Each time we do these things, we have our personal victories against the forces in our lives that seek to extinguish the beauty and holiness of our Jewish past, present and future.
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.