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A Titanic Victory and a Small Cruse of Oil

Eyes Fixed on Eternity

by: Rabbi YY Jacobson

David Brooks, in an engaging but superficial article on Hanukah in the New York Times (The Hanukah Story, NY Times, December 10, 2009), sheds light on the brighter side of the Greeks who emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience and brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities. He also illuminates the darker side of the Maccabees, who liberated the Jews from barbaric Syrian-Greek oppression, but whose own regime became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.

While admiring the Greek contributions to civilization -- its politics, philosophy, art and architecture – it is easy to forget what Greek society was really like. Mr. Brooks fails to discuss the barbaric daily practices in the Hellenist culture -- infanticide, pedophilia, pederasty, the "Spartan Lifestyle," and the glorification of torture in many instances. None other than Aristotle himself, the teacher of Alexander the Great, argued in his Politics (VII.16) that killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote: "There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed [i.e. thrown on the trash heap or left out in the woods to die]. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state."
 
But let us focus here on the actual Hanukah narrative. A brief historical introduction is important.

The festival of Hanukah commemorates an extraordinary victory -- of the Maccabees, a relatively small and dedicated force of fighters, against one of the great imperial powers of classical antiquity, the Seleucid branch of the Alexandrian empire.
 
This story takes us back 2100 years ago, to the year 164 BCE, some 150 years before the birth of Christianity and two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Israel was then under the rule of the empire of Alexander the Great. A Syrian ruler Antiochus the 5th ascended the throne and he was determined to impose his values on the Jewish people. He forbade the practice of Judaism, set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple, and systematically desecrated Jerusalem's holy sites. Jews who were caught practicing Judaism were tortutred to death. This was tyranny on a grand scale. Sadly, he was helped in this endeavor by two Jewish high priests, Jason and Menelaus, who assisted him in banning the Jewish lifestyle and turning the Temple into an interdenominational house of worship on Greek lines.
 
To put it into historical perspective, had Antiochus succeeded, Judaism would have died. Its daughter religions -- Christianity and Islam – would have, of course, never come to be.
 
A small group of Jews, led by the elderly priest Matityahu and his sons, rose in revolt. They fought a brilliant campaign, and within three years they had recaptured Jerusalem, removed sacrilegious objects from the Temple, and restored Jewish autonomy. It was, as we say in the Hanukah prayers, a victory for 'the weak against the strong, and the few against the many.' Religious liberty was established and the Temple was rededicated. Hanukah means "rededication."
 
This was a remarkable event and an extraordinary triumph. We, the Jewish people, are here today only because of the courage and vision of this small group of determined Jews who would not allow their G-d and their Torah to be reduced to the dustbins of history by the Syrian-Greek tyrant.
 
Yet astonishingly, the Talmud, the classical text of Jewish law and literature, gives us a very different perspective on the Hanukah festival.
 
“What is Hanukah?” asks the Talmud (Talmud, Shabbat 21b.) The answer given is this:
 
“When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all its oil. Then, when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over them, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the High Priest—enough to light the menorah (candelabra) for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving for G-d.”
 
So, according to the Talmud, the festival of Hanukah is less about the military victory of a small band of Jews against one of the mightiest armies on earth, and more about the miracle of the oil. The Talmud makes only a passing reference to the military victory (“when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious”), and focuses exclusively on the story with the oil, as if this were the only significant event commemorated by the festival of Hanukah.
 
This is strange. The miracle of the oil, it would seem, was of minor significance relative to the military victory. Besides the fact that this was a miracle that occurred behind the closed doors of the Temple with only a few priests to behold, it was an event concerning a religious symbol without any consequences on life, death and liberty. If the Jews would have been defeated by the Greeks, there would be no Jews today; if the oil would have not burnt for eight days, so what? The menorah would have not been kindled. Would the latkes taste any worse?
 
Let us grease the question with a contemporary touch.
 
Imagine that following the extraordinary Israeli victory of the 1967 six-day war, during which six Arab armies were determined to exterminate Israel and its three million Jews, a candle located in a Jerusalem synagogue would have burned for six days. Sure, it would have added a nice sentimental touch to the euphoria of Israel’s salvation, but would have this, rather than the deliverance of millions of innocent human beings from a second holocaust, been the cause of celebration? Would this detail even make it to the front page of the media?
 
Similarly, the burning of the Temple candelabra for eight days was, no doubt, a heart-warming follow up to a great victory. It was a demonstrative sign that G-d cherished the sacrifice of His children and had rewarded them with an astounding miracle. Yet it is clear that this was merely the icing on the cake, a coup-de-grace to a historical momentous victory on the battlefield. Yet the Talmud turns this minor detail into the decisive motif for the Hanukah celebration?
 
What is more, the miracle with the oil is the only element of the Hanukah events that we commemorate to this very day. We have no custom or ritual commemorating a miraculous triumph. What we do have is the kindling of a menorah for eight days, commemorating the fact that the oil in the Temple menorah lasted for eight days. How are we to understand this?
 
The answer allows us to appreciate the essential ingredient that has defined 4,000 years of Jewish history. The military victory was extraordinary; yet it didn't last. The dynasty of the Hasmonean family became entrenched in civil war and corruption. 210 years after Hanukah, in 68 CE, the Temple was destroyed, this time by the Romans. Jerusalem was plundered, Israel was decimated and the Jewish people exiled. It was the beginning of a period of Jewish powerlessness, dispersion and persecution which had lasted almost two millennia.
 
Unfortunately, the political and military victory of Hanukah did not last. What lasted was the spiritual miracle -- the faith which, like the oil, was inextinguishable.
 
Strength that is founded on military power alone is temporary. It may endure for long periods of time, but ultimately, its might will wane and it will be defeated by another power. Strength that is founded on moral and spiritual light can never be destroyed.
 
The sages who instituted the Hanukah holiday keenly understood this truth. With their eyes focused on eternity, the rabbis of the Second Temple era grasped that the timeless core of Hanukah was not the victory on the battlefield alone, but rather the fact that this military triumph led to the re-kindling of the sacred light and the moral torch. The military victory was an enormously significant event that we must be deeply grateful for. Yet what makes Hanukah a vibrant and heart-stirring holiday thousands of years later across the globe is the story of a little cruse of oil that would not cease to cast its brightness even in the darkest of nights and among the mightiest of winds.
 
David Brooks writes that “Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.” He missed the point. The oil miracle constitutes the very foundation of the Hanukah holiday.
 
For more than two millennia, Jews have been gathering around their Hanukah candelabras, kindling each night an additional candle. As they gazed at the dancing flame atop their menorahs they can hear the candles sharing their story. It consisted of a simple punch line: The flame of Jewish faith, the flame of Torah, the flame of the Mitzvos, would never be extinguished. The candles were right: Judaism lives.
 
Imperial Greece and Rome have long since disappeared. Civilizations built on power never last. Those built on care for the powerless never die. What matters in the long run is not simply political, military or economic strength but how we light the flame of the human spirit.

Comments (19)

thanks

Monday, Dec 14 2009 - כ"ז כסלו תש"ע
sharon
thanks for lighting our yomtov in such a deap way
i work in a speicial dorm for girls in crisis and this is a real inspiration for all
thanks
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chanukah

Monday, Dec 14 2009 - כ"ז כסלו תש"ע
roslyn
goot gezukt
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Thanks for Rebuttal

Monday, Dec 14 2009 - כ"ז כסלו תש"ע
Gary Sternberg
Thank You for the rebuttal.

I found the article loathsome and exactly what I would expect from the Times.
The article embodies a smugness and ignorance so typical of the perversion that liberalism has become - you addressed it well in your article - Brooks easily overlooks the darkness that was a part of the greek culture and consigns the maccabees (or any strong believers) to being "extremists".

Brooks sits in a tower of knowingness that is really a tower of ignorance and uses that platform to spread his ignorance to the many.
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more explanation

Monday, Dec 14 2009 - כ"ז כסלו תש"ע
yisroel
The explanation of “spiritual light” is quite brief when compared to the lengthily question and quotes from DB. Just doesn’t feel balanced, but leaves you thirsting for it to be more clearly spelled out.
What the oil represents, its significance, etc.

I personally enjoy your essays and weekly videos! And continue to share pieces of them, the way you present, etc. in my own chabad house.

On another note: I was wondering as to the mokor (is there one?) of the Kidush b’mokom seuda vort you elaborated on so nicely at the 19th kislev farbrengen.
The concept is obviously all over chassidus, I’m asking about the makor to connecting this concept to this halocha.
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Greeks/Romans

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
Shmuel Melech
In latter years, the Greeks and Romans by converting to Christianity declared that There is one G!D, the Creator, who had Revelation at Sinai. that their past philosophy and life styles were wrong and the Jew was right! They just weren\'t ready for a complete acceptance yet. But they are getting closer, perhaps.
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Brooks articel

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
Ray Merson
Nice rebuttal. Brooks, who is Jewish ,wrote an article many Jews found superficial and offensive. I understand it was labelled "Offensive" on Facebook and taken off. Insulting, politically correct, and catering to the snobbery of the Times, Brooks\' , the piece was a disaster. Many, not all, NYTimes readers thought it was fine. Because the Maccabees became corrupt, does not give Brooks permission to besmirch a Jewish Holiday of Joy. For shame.
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The Hasmonean Disgrace

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
John W McGinley
The writers of the Talmud were well aware that the Hasmonean Dynasty -- inaugurated by the Maccabees -- was, arguably, the worst period of Jewish rule in Jewish history up until that time. The whole period is an embarrassment for Jewish History. It is noteworthy that the Hasmonean production of the heroic Maccabean stories about the foundation of the Dynasty were nothing but a blatant whitewash and a false glorification. The Rabbis, to their credit, did not allow these deplorable fictions into the Biblical canon. The Rabbis properly focused in on the one and only "light" in that period of embarrassing darkness: the re-dedication of the Temple. Even so the rededicated Temple itself effectively became re-descarated by the way the Priesthood totally cooperated with the embarrassingly corrupt Hasmonean leadership.
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educate en masse

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
Esther
I suggest you submit this article to the New York Times as a rebuttal to Brook\'s let\'s get some equal time and request they publish it to give equal time to the other side of the story.

It is very disheartening to me to say the least, that the NY Times would print an article that is so denigrating to the holiday of Chanukah--and Jewish tradition.

It is an ominous sign of the times.

Esther
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military victory did last

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
mordi
I disagree. The military victory did last. If it didn\'t, there would be no Judaism. All other religions were wiped out by the Syrian Greeks. Judasim survived, and you are here to tell the story. No victory, no oil, no story, and to underplay the victory is wrong. To this very day Jewry fights to stay alive. We look back into our history for inspiration. The Macabean victory was a miracle. Similarly, the Six Day War. To downplay our historic battles is wrong. Sorry.
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Wrong

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
Zeev Berg
Who am I to disagree ?
But....
The Talmud was written many 100\'s of years after the miracles of Chanukah...in Galut (Babylon). Maybe the Rabbis of Babylon were too scared to emphasize the military "miracle". (Don\'t want to excite the natives into thinking that the Jews have any strenghth). And isn\'t a military miracle just as spiritual as an oil miracle ?
Same thing with Lag B\'Omer.......
After so much Galut, we make up new meanings to the source of our holidays/heritage. For instance:
1. the bow & arrow on Lag B\'omer..does it not symbolize Our Kosher, physical fighting spirit ?
2. opinions that R. Akiva\'s students died on the battlefied as holy Jewish warriors....after all, R. Akiva backed the Bar-Kochba revolt.
But, instead of praising the Jewish physical might (which is also spiritual) that Hashem gave us, We make up new themes to our holidays (eq. - his students died because they did not respect each other),..Why ?... because of our fear of the goyim who we must bow down to due to 2000 years of living (& being slaughtered) in their lands.
And isn\'t this the same, embarrassed mentality of our confused Israeli government of today. Too ashamed & scared to say right out:
God is on our side. Watch Out ! We have supernatural military power (even if we sometimes corrupt it like the Hashmonaim).
Just thinking.
Would appreciate a short reply or article.
Thank You.
Zeev Berg
Tiberias
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great

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
Chana Bluma
terrific, as ever.
any way to get THIS into the New York Times to redress the balance?
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To Zeev and Mordi

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
YYJ
The Talmud is a work of Torah, called Torat Emet, the Torah of Truth, so its messages are a depiction of truth. Generally, we don’t find that the Talmud ignores Jewish battles and military victories.

Your point though is important: Don’t undervalue the great vital miracle of military victory. I agree. In fact, the Al Hanisim prayer recited on Hanukah, expresses thanks just for that, not even for the lamp miracle. The point of the article was that military victory alone is not the source of a timeless celebration, if it does not manage to kindle the light of the soul and the human spirit, the torch of morality, Torah and holiness.

Your example of Israel is good. Israel won in 1967, but their victory only caused them confusion and self loathing, because they did not follow it up with rekindling the spark of Jewishness. They remained stuck in a psychological and spiritual exile. Sometimes you can win on the battlefield but lose the internal war – in your mind and the mind of your children. This is the story of many a people, including modern Israel. We have won political independence, but have become mentally subjugated to other cultures and countries.

With Chanukah it was the other way around: it represented the fact that even while Jews were physically in exile, there was a part of them that was completely free. Only with that in place can you even hope for physical victory on the battle field. If your spirit and internal sense identity is lost, you have lost the battle.

Many victories have occurred in history. Chanukah is unique. Because it created something timeless. This is not to undermine at all the vital critical need to fight our foes and come out on top. It is rather a reflection on the next step – what happens after the victory.

By the way: what is the source that the 24,000 died on the battlefield?
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The Version of the Alter Rebbe

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
Sarah Oberlander
Thank you for such a beautiful and powerful article! I have read your articles through the years and feel that this is from your best articles yet. Your rebuttal is well put.
People erroneously put greater emphasis on things that make a greater impression at the moment which would seem, as you wrote, that the jug of oil was only a minimal part of our ness.
To this I might add that reading through "al hanisim" and then "Bimei Matisyahu" it is interesting to note that the Alter Rebbe removed the words "v\'al hamilchomos" from the worldly nusach of "al hanisim" which makes your article that much stronger since now it is referring totally to the spiritual ness as otherwise, and also many mefurshim, do see it as a reminder of the physical war the Yidden waged at the time.
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Chanukah Story

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
Linda Goddard
Dear Rabbi Jacobsen,
I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughtful article on the history and meaning of your lovely festival of light. I am a Christian but appreciate the Jewish people and their faith.
Happy Chanukah!
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thanks

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
bassie
beautiful and powerful piece.
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your facts are wrong

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
Belle
Only approximately 10%-20% of the Jews living in the world during the time of the Maccabees were living in Israel -the remainder never left Baylon to come to Israel, when the 2nd temple was rebuilt.
therefore, it is incorrect to say that the entire world Jewish population would have been destroyed had the revolt failed.
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Hanukkah

Tuesday, Dec 15 2009 - כ"ח כסלו תש"ע
silene Sarah
B"H
Toda raba! Beautiful!

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my point

Wednesday, Dec 16 2009 - כ"ט כסלו תש"ע
Zeev Berg
I am really (no kidding) honored that you wrote back.
I guess I was trying to say that I think us Jews are still hiding our great "spiritually" physical strength.
Anyway, I basically agree with you.
I must compliment you, even though you don\'t want it. But you taking the time to write back to an unknown person (me), shows that you are a chosid of the Rebbe. The Rebbe answered everybody.
May Hashem bless you with the wisdom & super "spiritual" strength to always help the Jewish People (lehavdil, everyone else).
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Last Paragraph

Friday, Dec 23 2011 - כ"ז כסלו תשע"ב
David Schwed
The last paragraph is worth the whole article.
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