Hanukah, of course, celebrates our nation’s miraculous triumph over the Greeks, who had ruled over Eretz Yisrael and set out to obliterate Jewish observance. While many Jews at that time simply surrendered and gave up Jewish practice, the Hashmonaim, a courageous group of kohanim, refused to accept the situation. Armed with very few weapons but a great deal of determination and faith in Gd, they waged war against the mighty Greek Empire, driving them from the land. The Hashmonaim then cleansed the Bet Hamikdash, which the Greeks had defiled, and rededicated it for the service of Gd.
A mysterious passage in the Midrash perhaps adds to our understanding of what it was exactly that the Greeks militated against – and in so doing, it may profoundly enhance our appreciation of this very special holiday.
The Midrash comments on the second verse in the Torah, which describes how at the beginning of the process of creation, “hoshech al peneh tehom” – darkness filled all of existence. According to the Midrash, this description is an allusion to the Greek Empire, “which darkened the eyes of Israel.” The Greeks’ evil decree made our lives dark, like at the beginning of creation, before light came into existence. Curiously, though, the Midrash does not point to the Greeks’ ban on Torah learning, circumcision, or Shabbat observance. Rather, it states that the Greeks forced the Jews of the time to “write on the horns of the ox: We have no share in the Gd of Israel.”
Certainly, this was a terrible decree. It is akin to a government edict nowadays requiring all Jews to place bumper stickers on their cars announcing their rejection of Judaism. But why is this, in particular, the essence of the “darkness” wrought by the Greeks? What is the deeper meaning behind this decree?
Our Direct Line
The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) develops a profound answer, explaining that this decree touches upon the core essence of our nation’s identity, our status as Gd’s treasured nation.
The verse in the Book of Devarim (32:9) states, “Ki helek Hashem amo – For Gd’s share is His nation.” The commentators understand this verse to mean that we enjoy a special, direct relationship with Gd. All other nations have an angel assigned to serve as the intermediary between them and Gd. All nations are welcome and encouraged to pray to Gd – in fact, Gd exclaims through the prophet Yeshayahu (56:7), “For My home shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” However, the prayers of the other nations are brought to Gd via the agency of an angel, whereas our prayers ascend directly to Gd. He has chosen us as His “helek,” His “share.” Each angel chose a nation – and Gd Himself chose, as well, and His choice was Am Yisrael.
The Ben Ish Hai explains on this basis the verse in the Book of Mishleh (7:3) in which King Shlomo instructs us, “Tie them [the mitzvot] on your fingers.” The difference between Am Yisrael and the other nations, the Ben Ish Hai writes, is the difference between the thumb and the other fingers. The four other fingers have a second joint attaching them to the
hand, whereas the thumb attaches directly. Am Yisrael, the Ben Ish Hai writes, resembles the thumb – enjoying a “direct line” with Gd just as the thumb is connected directly to the hand. We are symbolized by the thumb because we stand apart from the other nations, just as the thumb stands apart from the other fingers. And thus Shlomo urges us, “Tie them on your fingers” – to contemplate to symbolism of our fingers in order to appreciate the special relationship we have with our Creator.
The Golden Calf
The Ben Ish Hai writes that this is the meaning of the phrase which the Greeks ordered the Jews to pronounce: “En lanu helek b’Elokeh Yisrael – We have no share in the Gd of Israel.” The Greeks demanded that the Jews renounce the belief in the doctrine of “helek Hashem amo,” that Am Yisrael enjoys a unique relationship with Gd. They insisted that the Jews see themselves as no different than any other people.
This is why the pronouncement was to be written on the horns of the Jews’ oxen. The so-called “proof” drawn by the Greeks for their claim, that the Jews had no special status, was the sin of the golden calf. The calf – a young ox – represents Am Yisrael’s greatest moment of failure, the moment when – in the Greeks’ distorted perception – Am Yisrael forever lost their special stature among the nations of the world. A number of commentators – most notably, the Ramban (Rav Moshe Nachmanides, Spain, 1194-1270) – explained that Beneh Yisrael did not actually worship the golden calf, or believe that this statue – which they had made from their golden jewelry – was a god. Rather, they built the calf to serve as an intermediary of sorts between them and Gd. After spending centuries among the Egyptians, it was difficult for them to immediately transition to a direct relationship with Gd, without any agent or conduit. This was the motive behind the fashioning and worship of the golden calf.
For the Greeks, this grave mistake signified the Jews’ own abrogation of their special relationship with Gd. After all, they themselves showed that they did not want a “direct line,” that they wanted to be like all the other nations, whose relationship with Gd is indirect, working by way of an intermediary force.
The Ben Ish Hai writes that this is the meaning of the Greeks’ decree: “Write on the horns of the ox: We have no share in the Gd of Israel.” They were, in essence, telling the Jews, “You yourselves announced through the ‘ox’ – the golden calf – that you are not Gd’s special ‘share,’ that you are like all other nations, without any stature of distinction.”
We might add that this perhaps explains the text of the Al Hanissim prayer which we add to the birkat hamazon service and Shemona Esreh throughout Hanukah. In this prayer, we proclaim, “Masarta giborim beyad halashim, rabim beyad me’atim, teme’im beyad tehorim” – You gave the mighty in the hand of the weak, the many in the hand of the few, the impure in the hand of the pure…” We repeatedly emphasize the “yad” – the “hand” of the Jews that defeated the Greeks. The miraculous triumph over the Greeks reaffirmed the symbolism of the “hand” – that Am Yisrael, like the thumb, stands separate and apart from other nations, and enjoys a special, direct relationship with Gd.
The Menorah’s Testimony
What, then, is our response to the Greeks? How do we continue believing in our nation’s uniquely direct, unmediated relationship with Gd, if our ancestors knowingly made a golden calf to serve as the intermediary between them and Him?
The answer is found in the menorah – the most obvious symbol of Hanukah.
The Gemara (Menahot 86b) teaches that one of the seven lamps of the menorah in the Bet Hamikdash miraculously burned longer than the other six lamps. In essence, a miniature Hanukah miracle occurred every night: the same amount of oil was poured into each lamp, but one continued burning after the others had extinguished. This miracle, the Gemara comments, provided “testimony to everyone in the world that the Shechinah [divine presence] rests among Israel.” The supernatural kindling of the menorah provided proof that although Am Yisrael failed at the time of the golden calf, their repentance was sincere – and thus accepted – and Gd lovingly took residence, so-to-speak, among them.
Appropriately, then, the symbol of the Hanukah miracle involved the menorah, which burned miraculously for eight nights. The menorah represents our response to the Greeks, showing that “the Shechinah resides among Israel,” that despite our mistakes and failings, Gd’s love for us remains, our special relationship with Him has not ended. Gd does not expect us to be perfect, but rather to acknowledge our imperfections and seek to improve. As long as we do that, His presence remains with us.
Our kindling of the Hanukah lights reenacts the kindling of the menorah in the Bet Hamikdash, reaffirming our unique connection to Gd. The Hanukah lights give “testimony” that the divine presence remains in our midst, that His boundless love for His nation has not waned.
Sometimes we might feel that our spiritual world is “dark,” that because of everything we’ve done wrong, “we have no share in the Gd of Israel.” We look back at the many different “golden calves” on our record, and conclude – as the Greeks wanted us to – that we are no longer worthy of a special bond with our Creator. The light of the Hanukah candles illuminate the darkness, assuring us that despite it all, we are still loved and cherished by Gd. As long as we continue working to kindle the light of Torah and sanctity, as long as we sincerely regret our mistakes and commit to try harder, we are worthy of the divine presence. This is the “testimony” given by the Hanukah candles in every Jewish home.
Hanukah is observed during the darkest time of year – shortly before the winter solstice, and at the end of the lunar month (Kislev), when the moon barely shines. The message of this beautiful holiday is precisely that even when we experience “darkness,” when we feel despair, when we wonder whether Gd is with us, we must realize that He is. His love for us remains even during our “darkest” periods – as long as we are striving to “illuminate” our lives and our world with the brilliant light of the Torah.