Hanukkah: For the Miracles

The power of the weak over the mighty.

Daniel Pinner,

Judaism השר אזולאי בהדלקת נר חנוכה בבית הרב יוסף
השר אזולאי בהדלקת נר חנוכה בבית הרב יוסף

The addition to all our prayers for the eight days of Hanukkah is עַל הַנִּסִּים, thanking G-d “for the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the redemption, and for the wars that You wrought for our ancestors in those days at this time”.

After giving a history of the Maccabean revolt, the עַל הַנִּסִּים prayer recounts the miracles: “And You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in their time of distress; You fought their fight, You judged their cause, You avenged their vengeance; You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few, and the impure into the hands of the pure, and the evil into the hands of the righteous, and the deliberate sinners into the hands of those who labour in Your Torah. Thus You made a great and holy Name for Yourself in Your world...”.

Yet there is a puzzling aspect to these words. “You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few” – it is clear why this constitutes a miracle.

And indeed it is worth investing several paragraphs exploring just how “mighty” and how “many” the Greek forces really were.

The Seleucid Empire, led at the time by King Antiochus IV, was one of the mightiest empires the world has ever seen. Based in Syria, the Seleucid Empire at its peak stretched from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) in the west to modern-day Pakistan in the east, including Babylon (modern-day Iraq), Persia (modern-day Iran), and modern-day Kuwait and Turkmenistan.

Even Rome dared challenge the Seleucid Empire only when they had powerful military allies, and even then only on the very fringes of the Empire (such in Egypt).

Hellenist culture dominated the world from Spain in the west to Persia in the east, from the Alps in Europe in the north to the Sahara Desert in Africa in the south.

And against this mighty empire and nigh-universal culture, Matityahu (Matthias) and his sons raised a guerrilla army – untrained, unarmed (at the beginning), unschooled in warfare.

Indeed, the previous time that any Jewish army had fought had been some 440 years earlier, when the Judean Army had confronted the Babylonian Army which invaded Judea. Hardly an inspiring historical memory – the Judean Army had been badly beaten, the Jewish Monarchy was defeated, and the Jews dragged off into Babylonian captivity.

The previous time that a Jewish army had achieved any victory was the Judean Army under King Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah), more than a century earlier yet. And they won that war by a miracle, when all 185,000 Assyrian soldiers who were besieging Jerusalem died in a single night (2 Kings 18:13-19:35).

So the previous time that any Jewish army had fought and won battles by regular strategy and tactics was maybe 700 years before the Maccabees. They had no one to study from, no previous battle experience to draw on, no West Point or Sandhurst graduates to train them, no martial traditions to guide them.

Yet Yehudah (Judah) the Maccabee invented guerrilla tactics, exploiting every conceivable advantage that a small and incredibly highly-motivated force could possibly use – ambushes, hit-and-run raids to requisition weapons from the Seleucid forces, reconnaissance missions under deep cover to gather intelligence on Seleucid dispositions, diversionary raids to lure Seleucid forced into wild-goose chases over desert and mountain, deception operations to mislead the Seleucids into expending their weapons by attacking where no Maccabean forces were, and other tactics which were a millennium ahead of their time.

In 166 B.C.E. Maccabean forces won an astounding victory over Seleucid forces in the battle of Wadi Haramieh near Shiloh in Samaria (where the Seleucids outnumbered them 2,000 to 600). The following year they repeated this in the battle of Beit Horon, just 8 km (5 miles) south-east of Modi’in (where the Seleucids outnumbered them 4,000 to 800).

A few months later, when King Antiochus IV ordered Lysias to defeat the Jews at all costs and using any means necessary, Lysias brought in the top three generals in the entire Empire – Ptolemy, Nicanor, and Gorgias.

With well over 20,000 troops, the Seleucid generals established camp in Emmaus (near present-day Latrun on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway). Their plan was to block the road to Jerusalem and to seize control over the entire region – a sound strategic plan, which had won and lost battles from the days of Joshua and up to the Six Day War in 1967.

Yehudah the Maccabee confronted these crack troops with about 6,000 men under his command – and once again routed the enemy.

Then in 164 B.C.E. Maccabean forces confronted the Seleucids in Beit Tzur, in the Hebron mountains. With 10,000 Judean troops against 25,000 Seleucid troops, the Maccabees once again routed Lysias’ army, forcing Lysias to flee with his surviving soldiers to Antioch.

Yehudah had already destroyed four complete Seleucid armies, requisitioned their weapons, demoralised the remaining Hellenist forces, inspired Jews throughout the country, established bases in which he and his men could live and train in safety, and asserted Jewish sovereignty in parts of Israel.

A few months later Yehudah led his Maccabean forces in their assault to conquer Jerusalem – and that was the pivotal battle whose victory we are currently celebrating: on the 25th of Kislev 164 B.C.E., Maccabean forces took the Holy Temple, which the Hellenists had seized and defiled several years earlier.

Seleucid forces still held the Acra (the Citadel) fortress facing the Temple Mount, and that uneasy stalemate would continue for the next few years: the Maccabees controlled the open spaces in Jerusalem, the Seleucids remained in their impregnable fortress. Neither side was able to dislodge the other: the Seleucids lacked the power to confront the Jews in open battle, the Jews lacked the power to storm the fortress.

Fighting continued throughout Judea, most often with Maccabean victories. And even the few victories that the Seleucids achieved demonstrated the Maccabees’ indomitable spirit. In 162 B.C.E. the Seleucids defeated the Maccabeans in the battle of Beit Zecharia, just 10 km (6 miles) north of Beit Tzur. But to defeat the Jews, Lysias needed over 30,000 of his best troops and 30 elephants.

This last detail is more telling than most people grasp. War elephants were the tanks of those days – almost invulnerable, their skin thick enough to stop arrows or spears. On their back were thick wooden turrets, holding four soldiers (the same number as the crew of a modern tank). The elephant could trample anything and anyone in its path, while the soldiers, sheltered in the turret, could shoot arrows.

Indeed, half a century earlier, in 218 B.C.E., Hannibal had conquered Italy with 37 elephants – an invasion which Rome took 18 years to recover from. That force of 37 elephants was considered the ultimate weapon of mass destruction at the time. 37 elephants to conquer Italy – and Lysias used 30 elephants just to defeat the Jews in Beit Zechariah!

This is the power of the weak over the mighty and the few over the many.

But earlier, we introduced this topic by noting a puzzling aspect of the עַל הַנִּסִּים prayer: it is clear why G-d’s delivering “the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few” is a miracle. But what about delivering “the impure into the hands of the pure, and the evil into the hands of the righteous, and the deliberate sinners into the hands of those who labour in Your Torah”? Do we then presuppose that the impure, the evil, and the deliberate sinners are necessarily stronger than the pure, the righteous, and those who labour in the Torah?

In order to answer this we turn to the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270). In Parashat Lech Lecha, G-d forged His covenant with Abram, changing his name to Abraham and promising him that in a year’s time (when Abraham would be a hundred years old and his wife Sarah would be ninety) Sarah would give birth to a son – clearly a miraculous event. The Ramban (Commentary to Genesis 17:1) comments:

“The reason that [G-d introduced Himself here] with the Name [El Shaddai] is that it is with this Name that hidden miracles are wrought for the tzaddikim, ‘to save their soul from death and to sustain them in life through famine’ (Psalms 33:19), delivering them from the sword in war. Such was with all the miracles that were wrought for Abraham and the [other] Patriarchs, and all the subsequent [miracles] that the Torah promises in Parashat Bechukotai and Ki Tavo, [i.e. the promises of] blessings [for obeying the Torah] and curses [for disobeying it]. For all these are miraculous; after all, there is no natural reason why the rains should come in their appropriate seasons just because we worship G-d, or why the sky should become iron [ibid. 19] when we sow in the shmitta year. Thus, too, with all that the Torah commands. All are miracles, and all control natural fortune, even though the normal course of the world is in no way changed, as it was by Moshe Rabbeinu in the Ten Plagues, at the Splitting of the Sea, the Manna, the well in the desert, and so forth”.

In addressing the calculation by which Jochebed was some 130 years old when she gave birth to Moshe, the Ramban returns to this theme:

“The Tanach mentions miracles which were performed by a prophet after he had already prophesied them, or an angel who appeared for a divine mission; but it does not mention miracles which occurred spontaneously to help a tzaddik or to destroy an evil person.... The entire foundation of the Torah is hidden miracles; the whole purpose of the Torah is only miracles, not nature or custom. After all, all the promises that the Torah makes are miraculous” (Commentary to Genesis 46:15).

The principle, then, is that miracles are not necessarily interference in nature; rather, a miracle is any event which expresses the Divine will.

At the risk of digression, let us cite an incident related in the Talmud (Ta’anit 25a): “One Friday evening, [Rabbi Hanina] saw his daughter crying in sadness. He said to her: My daughter, why are you sad? She said to him: I mixed up a jar of vinegar with a jar of oil, and I poured the vinegar into the Shabbat candles. He said to her: My daughter – why are you worried? The same G-d Who told the oil to burn will also tell the vinegar to burn! And they taught that [the vinegar indeed] burnt for the entire Shabbat, until he lit the Havdalah candle from it”.

That is to say – we do not usually think of an oil-candle burning as a miracle. Nevertheless, the fact that oil burns is an expression of the Divine will no less than, say, the fire that came down from Heaven to consume Elijah’s sacrifice on Mount Carmel to vindicate the prophet and discredit the false idolatrous prophets (1 Kings 18:20-39).

And in the same way, the victory of the weak over the mighty and the few over the many is an expression of the Divine will in exactly the same way and on exactly the same level that victory of the pure over the impure, the righteous over the evil, and those who labour in the Torah over the deliberate sinners.

For sure, a small, weak, untrained, unschooled, unarmed force which defeats the world’s mightiest empire end the world’s best-trained army is an open miracle, and that expresses the Divine will. But also an army of devout Jews (however well-armed and well-trained) which defeats an evil enemy (however weak and untrained) similarly expresses the Divine will.

To express this in modern terms: in 5708 (1948), Israel was small, unarmed, and weak. The IDF had very little training, and used weapons which were decades out of date (including “Napoleonchiks” – canon left over from before the First World War).

The seven Arab countries which attacked (Trans-Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) had some of the best weapons and the best training that Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union could provide.

Israeli victory in that war was as close to an open miracle as any of the early battles of the Maccabees.

In recent years, Israel has defeated the Hamas several times – hardly a miracle, given overwhelming Israeli military superiority over the Hamas. Yet Israeli military superiority, and Israel’s natural victory, is no less an expression of the Divine will than Israel’s seemingly impossible victory in the War of Independence (or the Six Day War, come to that).

And so G-d indeed made a great and holy Name for Himself in His world by delivering “the impure into the hands of the pure, and the evil into the hands of the righteous, and the deliberate sinners into the hands of those who labour in Your Torah” – just as much as by delivering “the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few”.

בַּיָמִים הָהֶם וּבַזְּמַן הַזֶּה – in those days, and in this time!