Judaism: The Most Important Lesson of Hanukkah
Yehuda HaKohenThe author is a leader in the Alternative Action movement (www.alternativeaction.org). He also teaches at several Jerusalem institutions and is a frequent lecturer on American college campuses.
For an entire generation, the ancient Judeans waged a struggle for freedom, which, in terms of intensity, has almost no parallel in human history. It was among the first recorded wars of liberation and it laid a model for nearly every revolution that followed. With an unbreakable faith and willingness to sacrifice, a handful of valiant Hebrew fighters forged the eternal covenant that resistance to tyranny is the highest and truest service to Hashem.
In those years, the cultural imperialism to which the Seleucid Empire aspired was at its peak. Hellenist values and practices were imposed on the native Hebrews by means of harsh edicts and the daggers of foreign soldiers. The victimization of the weak, rampant debauchery and the desecration of the Temple were pinnacles of the enlightened Greek culture bestowed upon Judea. I
n Jerusalem, the urban upper class yearned to be citizens of Antioch and to transform their ancient city into a "progressive" Greek Polis. When the uprising began, it arose from the mountain folk who remained loyal to G-D's Torah and to the heritage of their fathers. They were led by the Hasmoneans – Matityahu and his five courageous sons. The flame of revolt was kindled in Modiin and quickly spread like wildfire through the hills of Judea.
After Matityahu's death, his third son Yehuda took command. He became the Maccabee and his guerrilla army moved in two decisive channels – resistance to foreign cultures and armed struggle against foreign soldiers. Two wars with one goal of Hebrew independence in Judea.
The Maccabean revolt was not merely a struggle to revoke harsh decrees or secure freedom of worship. Hebrew sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael is the foundation for proper Torah observance (see Mishnah Torah Hilchot Chanukah 3:1, the Ramban's supplement to the Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot 4, Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 75:6, Pesikta Rabati 34, Magid Mesharim Parshat Vayikra and Chesed L'Avraham 3:7) and HaShem's Divine blueprint for mankind demands Jewish independence in the historic Jewish homeland.
The Hasmoneans were determined. After several Judean victories and the liberation of Jerusalem, the Seleucid Syrian-Greeks offered a truce. Freedom of worship would be restored to the natives in exchange for ending their armed struggle against foreign rule. There were some Jewish leaders naïve enough to accept the terms. A misunderstanding of our Torah caused those weak in spirit and tired of war to believe that they had already achieved their objectives. T
he Hasmonean faction, however, understood their obligation to liberate the Land of Israel from foreign rule. They also knew that without full political independence, there could be no lasting peace or real freedom of worship, as the spirit of Greece could again seek to dominate. Yehuda declared that the revolution must continue until Judea would be free from foreign influence and foreign soldiers. After nearly three decades of ferocious guerrilla war, the Hasmoneans triumphed and the Kingdom of Israel was restored (Hilchot Hanukkah 3:1).
When the Seleucid-Greek Empire began to persecute Israel, the devout heroism of Matityahu and his sons awakened within their people aspirations for self-rule. This desire for freedom – which had not strongly surfaced prior to the oppression – was catalyzed by the persecution and the fierce backlash it provoked. National independence was eventually declared and this declaration itself served as a sacred barrier against the forces of Hellenization as the very desire for self-determination psychologically impedes assimilation into the culture of an occupying power.
Without Matityahu and his sons – the holy warrior-priests who imbued the political ideal with spiritual content – the revolution would have lacked sufficient force to keep fighting and withstand the prolonged hardships of war. This is demonstrated through the miracle of the oil. The pure cruse with the seal of the High Priest shone brightly, its light permeating the collective soul of the Hebrew Nation and bestowing upon Israel the strength to fight on.
Perhaps the most important lesson of Hanukkah is that light is not merely another creation but rather Creation's ultimate goal. The Maharal of Prague teaches in Ner Mitzvah that the world was created deficient so that mankind could actively participate in its perfection. Human beings are given free will in order that we choose to involve ourselves in bringing the world to its ultimate goal.
True perfection cannot exclude anything, including the ability to experience improving oneself. As being fully perfect by definition requires one to lack nothing, it would at first glance appear paradoxically impossible for an already perfect entity to experience the acts of growth and self-perfection. The way in which Hashem – the timeless and all encompassing ultimate Reality without end – is fully perfect while at the same time able to experience the act of perfection is through human beings, who are in fact all expressions of their Divine Source (similar to the relationship between the thought and the thinker).
As human beings improve themselves and grow, G-D experiences improvement and growth. The fact that we are all unique aspects of Hashem placed into this world deficient in order to grow and improve ourselves enables Him – through us – to experience self-perfection. The more we become conscious and aware of this reality, the more we actually experience it in our daily lives and the closer our world comes to ultimate perfection. And as the main protagonist in the drama of human history, Israel is tasked with revealing this truth, thereby bringing mankind to its predestined ideal state.
Israel's mission of bringing the world to the awareness of Hashem can only be accomplished through the Jewish people sovereign over Eretz Yisrael with the Torah serving as our national constitution. Only through this specific formula can Israel thin the veils of human perception and reveal the Divine light constantly present in our world, leading mankind to recognize and experience Hashem as the infinite Whole that creates, sustains and permeates all.
While the light of G-D's Truth is always present, it is often hidden from man's consciousness by curtains of perception. It is therefore currently possible for a person to acknowledge his own life while simultaneously denying the existence of the Divine Source Who not only provides his every moment of being but is also in fact his higher inner Self. It is Israel's task to lift the curtains of perception and reveal the Divine light – to bring the world to a state of perfection where all humankind achieves ultimate fulfillment and expression through a higher consciousness of our relationship to Hashem.
Although G-D's presence is hidden in day-to-day events, He continues to work through the system that He created in order to return that very system back to the full expression of His Ideal. Through a Divinely guided historical process, all of existence is sanctified and brought to the collective awareness of its inner relationship to its ultimate Source. Not only supernatural miracles but also the entire world, with all of its natural laws, is being pulled toward Creation's momentous goal through the story of Israel's national rebirth on our native soil. The full restoration of the Israeli Kingdom in our homeland will dissolve the remaining veils and bring humanity to finally recognize ourselves as aspects and expressions of a much greater Reality.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto teaches in Derech HaShem that G-D placed forces of evil into our story as an essential ingredient that enables free will and human growth. This evil has been tasked with working to prevent Israel from bringing Creation to its ultimate goal. Throughout history, this evil has manifested itself as four main human empires, each attempting in its own unique way to impede Israel from reaching our full potential as the nation that will express the Divine Ideal in all spheres of human existence. This is the inner battle between light and darkness raging through the annals of human civilization.
The four empires – Babylon, Persia, Greece and Edom – that have dominated the globe throughout most of world history emerged from the inherently deficient nature of existence. These empires aim to maintain the curtains of perception through preventing Israel from reaching our full national potential. Each of these empires, however, has had it's own unique method for obstructing the Jewish mission.
Knowing that the Hebrews must be in Eretz Yisrael in order to fulfill our national function in Creation, the Babylonians worked to physically separate the Nation of Israel from the Land of Israel. They forcibly uprooted us from our soil and exiled us from our borders and then graciously provided us with material prosperity in a foreign land. This simple separation from our homeland, although Jews remained Torah observant in the Diaspora, was enough to prevent Hashem's light from being revealed. The soil of Babylon was simply not conducive to Israel accomplishing our Divine historic mission.
The Persians had a different approach. Haman convinced his king to completely annihilate the Jews. As a descendent of Amalek, he could not stand to live in the same world as the Hebrew Nation. By removing the bearers of G-D's light from the story, he believed he could succeed in snuffing out the Divine flame.
The Greeks did not try to remove the Jews from our borders nor did they initially attempt a physical destruction. Instead, the spirit of Greece sought to pollute Israel's culture by lowering G-D's Torah to the level of a human wisdom on par with other notable wisdoms of the time. The Torah's Divinity was viewed as a threat to Greek philosophy, which valued human intellect above all else and could not tolerate wisdom beyond mortal comprehension. Unsatisfied with the success of this spiritual assault, the Seleucid Syrian-Greeks then sought to forcibly sever the Hebrew Nation from our authentic culture through the brutal enforcement of wanton anti-Torah decrees.
These three empires each attacked an essential component to Israel fulfilling our national purpose. The fourth antagonist, however, which first emerged as the Roman Empire and has since taken on numerous manifestations, is a combination of all three attempts in a much more destructive and concentrated form.
Throughout the last two thousand years, the Western world (Edom) has tried its hand at all three methods on countless occasions. Three recent examples are the terrible Holocaust in Europe less than a century ago, the British Empire restricting Jewish entry to our homeland and the Soviet Union forcibly separating its Jews from their Torah.
The international community's insistence on not permitting Israel to exert sovereignty over the whole of our country and the money spent by Western governments on diluting the State of Israel's authentic Jewish character are just two modern expression of this evil force, subconsciously aware that its end is at hand.
A candle flickers brightest immediately before it is extinguished and today the world is ready to amass itself against Jerusalem. As Israel experiences a national rebirth on our native soil, the forces of darkness are gathering their strength to wage a final war against our light. In the wake of Israel's triumph, Edom's depravity will be exposed and mankind's thinking will be liberated from the cultural tyranny of two thousand years. Concepts of righteousness, morality and truth will be elevated to meanings of newer and higher significance as Israel draws back the curtains of perception and reveals Hashem's light to all of mankind.