Chanukah celebrates not only the miraculous lighting of the menorah in the Beis Hamikdash, it also represents the salvation of the Jewish people fromtheir oppression at the hands of one of the infamous four malchiyos (kingdoms) which are said to be Klal Yisroel’s nemeses; in this case, Yavan — Greece, or Greece/Syria.
Let me share with you a little history, if you are as puzzled as I always was as to just who or what a Greek/Syrian is. Yefes, the son of Noach, had seven sons. The fourth son was Yavan (Greece).Hashem bestowed upon the Ancient Greeks in particular the trait of esthetics which was promised to Yefes (Bereishis 9:27, 10:2).By the time Greece had conquered the Persian Empire (some time after the Second Temple period began), Greece had become a significant contributor to world civilization, culture, and philosophy. At the beginning of the Second Temple Period, Yisroel was under Persian rule. After the Persian Empire’s downfall, Yisroel was subjugated to Greek rule. In 3442, Alexander succeeded his father, Phillipus, as Greek ruler. Alexander of Macedonia transformed the Greek Kingdom into a mighty empire which spread across Africa and the Middle East. After Alexander died in 3454, the Greek Empire was divided into four among the rulers Ptolemy, Selecus, Antigonus, and Philippus. Their kingdoms eventually became known as Egypt, Greece, and Syria. Eventually, a Northern Kingdom coalesced under Syrian dominion, and became known as the Selucidean kingdom, after Selecus, founder of its royal family. Thus — Greek/Syrian.
An elaboration of the four malchiyos (and especially Yavan) and their conceptual role in their battle against Yisroel is treated in many sources; perhaps most famously by Maharal in his sefer on Chanukah, Ner Mitzvah.
Many sefarim also attempt to show how the four malchiyos, and the way they oppressed and subjugated Yisroel, and Yisroel’s reaction to them, are reflectedin the history and the events surrounding our avos, as a manifestation of the historical rule ma’aseh avos, siman l’banim — the deeds or events which occurred to our avos are an indication of what would occur to their descendants (see Ramban Bereishis, 12:6).
Rambam writes in his Igeres Teiman that ever since the Jews accepted and received the Torah at Har Sinai, the world, jealous of us and hating our special relationship with the Alm-ghty, have attempted to destroy us, decimate us, replace us as the Chosen People, change the Torah, change Shabbos, convert us, exile us — anything and everything, in order to uproot us. And indeed, this is what our history — and current events — demonstrate. Anti-Semitism can be explained in one sentence (and perhaps the millionsupon millions of dollars spent studying its causes can be put to better use): the world’s jealousy-turned-to-hatred of our chosenness, by and with G-d (Gemara Shabbos 89B, with Maharsha).
The Rashba, in his commentary on Hagadda Shel Pesach, comments on the famous dictum stated there: how in every single generation some nation rises against us to destroy us, and Hakadosh Boruch Hu saves us from their hands. Rashba explains that the Jewish people are constantly surrounded by enemies, in the words of Chazal, “Like a sheep living amongst 70 wolves” (just look at a world map if you want to know what thatlooks like), and our very existence is thus constantly dependent directly upon Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s specific protection. And the reason for all our suffering throughout the ages is the fact that we are imperfect, and we thus suffer the consequences of our own actions and deeds.
Have you ever thought: now, just how bad can we be? In fact, we say to ourselves, we think we’re pretty darn good…. Ok, we lose a few, but we win quite a few, and on balance, do we really deserve what seems to be our fate? And the answer must immediately come that yes — inasmuch as we are indeed surrounded by the 70 wolves who would have us eradicated, any slip-up in our national endeavor — service of Hashem — leaves us quite vulnerable. As the Seforno writes about Yaakov’s wrestling with malach of Esav (see Bereishis 32:26), the malach had no ability to harm Yaakov as long as he was fully bonded and united with Hakadosh Boruch Hu. He managed to throw Yaakov off balance (seethe Seforno there, who also explains just how this was accomplished), lesseningYaakov’s deveikus, and the result was the ability of the malach to harm him.
And so, combining the Rashba with the Seforno, we have our answer: Yes, we are good. At times, excellent! But we are not quite good enough, we could be better, and given the precarious state of our existence (our inescapable fate, but one to be celebrated and acclaimed, as we know what awaits us at the end of the story) we have to suffer the repercussions of our lack of perfection.
But it is axiomatic and fundamental that this can only be truebecause we are capable of being better. Hakadosh Boruch Hu does NOT withdraw his presence from our midst unless it it true that in real life, with real people, in real time, we could have done better. It may be hard for us to accept that, but it is intrinsic and essential to our basic belief — and it is repeated throughout Chumash Devarim, and especially in parshiyos Ki Savo, Ha’azinu, Nitzavim, and Vayeilech.
Let’s take a look at Chanukah. Bach (in Tur OC siman 670) writes that the various gezeiros which make up the “before” story of Chanukah were a result of Bnei Yisroel’s negligence and laxity regarding avodas Beis Hamikdash. Now, certainly the Bach is choosing his words carefully — hisrashlus. The record shows that the avodah was not ignored or undone. There was “only” a laxity, but, midah kneged midah, this brought about, as a punishment, a temporary total cessation of avodah.
(And the yeshu’ah [salvation]came about, Bach explains, when Klal Yisroel “went the extra mile” and were moser nefesh to do battle with odds that looked impossible andsuicidal. That being the polar opposite of their former laxity, it freed them from Yavan and culminated in Chanukah as we know it. And other sefarim explain the resulting appropriateness of the main mitzvah of Chanukah — the lighting of the neiros — having a built-in mehadrin level and even a mehadrin-min-hamehadrin level.)
In part two, we will examine these concepts further, and im yirtzeh Hashem relate them to our own lives, and personal avodah.