By Shalom Pollack
On the 25th of Kislev, over 2,100 years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated after it was wrenched from the hands of the defiling Greeks. Thus ended a war no one planned or even dreamed could happen.
To understand the miracle of the few against the many and the pure against the defiled, we can go back to the famous young Macedonian/Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great. Bursting out of the Greek Islands, he defeated Persian armies five times his size, pushed right on to India, and would have gone further had he not died at age 32, totally burnt out after declaring himself a god and apparently never leaving the fast lane in his personal and public life.
It should be said that when he came upon Jerusalem and was prepared to add it to his list of conquests, he had a historic meeting with the head of the Sanhedrin (high court) and high priest, Shimon the Just.
It is told in the Talmud that the young conqueror dismounted and bowed down to this high priest of the Temple of the true G‑d. His aides could not understand, but the young conqueror apparently did. Jerusalem was spared and Alexander is an accepted name for Jewish children to this very day.
With the passing of the undisputed leader, things began to get out of hand. The vast empire was divided into three parts by his generals—and they began an unending series of wars between themselves, Ptolemies in Egypt, and the Seleucids in Syria. They established impressive Hellenistic centers, and Greek culture was copied by all the peoples from Egypt to Babylon.
The Jewish people in the land of Israel were not enamored of the glitter or power of Hellenistic culture. The Greeks were patient; all peoples eventually came around to embracing their superior ways—the Jews would too. Referred to as Hellenists, they were Jews at home and Greeks in the office and at the gym. Since the all-important sports contests were performed in the nude, celebrating the perfect body, some Jews felt uncomfortable with their circumcisions revealing “imperfect” bodies. Cosmetic surgery allowed them to pass.
Things were going just the way the Greeks predicted when in the year 169 BCE, the Seleucids under Antiochus Epiphanes (the revealed god) were chased out of Egypt and victory against his Ptolemy rivals was denied after threats from Rome, the new arbiter of the region.
Antiochus vented his humiliation and frustration at the Jews of Israel as he retreated across their territory. He sacked Jerusalem, plundered the Temple, and, at the advice of Jewish Hellenists, enacted laws that would ensure all his subjects finally go Greek all the way.
Thus began the draconian and humiliating anti-Jewish laws and the defilement of the Temple, including the sacrifice of pigs to Zeus and harlotry where the priests performed the holy service. Women gave their lives to circumcise their babies. Jews caught studying Torah were burnt alive in the scrolls.
Antiochus was determined to make the Jews see the light and become good Hellenists. And so for the first time in history, a small part of a small nation raised the banner of revolt against a world power in a bid for religious principle.
When the Greek soldiers and their Jewish Hellenistic allies came to one of the rural villages to enforce the king’s edicts and have the villagers bow down to his image, an old man said no. Matisyahu the Hasmonean priest refused. When the soldiers were about to make an example of him, his five stout sons made sure those soldiers did not get home to tell the story. “He who is for G‑d, follow me!” The revolt was on.
In the beginning, the Jews would not fight on the Sabbath, but after a group of 1,000 men, women, and children would not come out of a cave to fight on the Sabbath and were smoked to death by the Greeks, Matisyahu ruled that it was permissible to violate the Sabbath in this war against the forces of evil.
Villagers flocked to the banner and soon a large guerrilla force led by the old man and his sons were routing professional and well-armed armies many times their size. When Matisyahu died, his son, Yehudah the Maccabee (the Hammer), led the Jews. This son became the worst nightmare of the best Greek generals.
In one of the earlier and spectacular engagements, Yehudah awaited the huge enemy army that was bearing down on his mountain stronghold from Samaria in the north and from the coast in the West. Yehudah took his army to Mitzpeh, the hilltop where Samuel the prophet defeated the Philistines 1,000 years earlier and where he is buried. There he fasted and prayed with his fighters and then swooped down behind one of the armies in an all-night march. With the morning sun in the enemy’s eyes and surprised from behind, they fled, leaving supplies enough to arm the Jewish rebels. The other column searched for the Jewish force in the hills when they were flanked from behind as well. The guerrilla army knew the terrain and knew why they were fighting.
One can visit the battlefields of Emaus, Bet Horon, Mitzpe, Mt. Gofna, Bet Zur . . . These places have since seen later instances of Jewish heroism as recent as 1948 and 1967.
And so on the 25th day of Kislev, three years after Matisyahu said no, the Jewish fighters entered Jerusalem, scattering the Greeks and their Hellenist allies. They went straight for the Menorah, unlit for three years amidst the desecration on Temple Mount. With only one cruse of pure olive oil, they rushed to relight the seven-branched menorah.
They did their part. They took on the Greek empire and won, and now they attended to the daily lighting. Not enough oil for more than only one day? One day at a time. G‑d who gave them the miraculous victory will figure it out. And eight days later that oil was still burning.
“In those days, in these times . . .”
A story is told about the cold days and nights at Valley Forge when General Washington tried to rally his tattered troops against the mercenaries of the British Empire. On one bitter cold night, Washington made the rounds, encouraging his men to hold on until morning.
He came across one young man lighting a small oil lamp in a dark, cold corner of his tattered tent. The general stopped to offer some warm words of encouragement. When he bent down, he said, “I see you brought your own heat from home. Well done!” The soldier looked up, startled at the VIP visitor, and told the general, “No sir, I am not allowed to have any benefit from this candle. It is holy. It is a Chanukah candle commemorating the victory of my persecuted forefathers over the vast Greek armies of oppression in the Land of Israel.” The general paused and said, ‘Son, you have given me the greatest encouragement possible. I am confident that we too will overcome the odds and defeat tyranny in our land.”
After the war, a knock brought the young Jewish veteran to the door of his New York flat. It was President Washington at the door. He brought a medallion with him. On one side were the words Valley Forge. On the other was Chanukah. v
Shalom Pollack Tours specializes in tours to pioneer Jewish communities and the Temple Mount. To learn more, visit www.shalompollacktours.co.il.
By Shalom Pollack