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Sunday, 4 January, 2015 - 6:46 pm

A Jew, A Catholic, and an atheist are rowing in Lake Erie when their boat springs a leak. The Jew looks skyward and says, "Oh, G-d, if you save me, I promise I’ll sail to Israel and spend the rest of my days praying at the Wall." The Catholic looks skyward and says, "Oh, Lord, if you save me, I promise I’ll fly to the Vatican and spend the rest of my days singing your praises." The atheist says, "Oh, guys, if you pass me that one life preserver, I promise I’ll swim to Cleveland."

"And how will you spend the rest of your days?" the Jew and the Catholic ask. "Well," says the atheist, "I’m not sure, but I can tell you one thing: I’ll never go rowing with other atheists."

The festival of Hanukah commemorates the extraordinary victory of the Maccabees, a relatively small and dedicated force of fighters, against one of the great imperial powers of classical antiquity, the Seleucid branch of the Alexandrian empire.

This story takes us back 2,100 years, to the year 164 BCE, some 150 years before the birth of Christianity and two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Israel was under the rule of the empire of Alexander the Great. A Syrian ruler named Antiochus the 5th ascended the throne and was determined to impose his values on the Jewish people. He forbade the practice of Judaism, set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple, and systematically desecrated Jerusalem's holy sites. Jews who were caught practicing Judaism were tortured to death. This was tyranny on a grand scale. Sadly, he was helped in this endeavor by two Jewish high priests, Jason and Menelaus, who assisted him in banning the Jewish lifestyle and turning the Temple into an interdenominational house of worship on Greek lines.

To put it into historical perspective, had Antiochus succeeded, Judaism would have died. Its daughter religions–Christianity and Islam–would have never come to be.

A small group of Jews, led by the elderly priest Matityahu and his sons, rose in revolt. They fought a brilliant campaign, and within three years they had recaptured Jerusalem, removed sacrilegious objects from the Temple, and restored Jewish autonomy. It was, as we say in the Hanukah prayers, a victory for "the weak against the strong, and the few against the many." Religious liberty was established and the Temple was rededicated. Hanukah means "rededication."

This was a remarkable event and an extraordinary triumph. We, the Jewish people, are here today only because of the courage and vision of this small group of determined Jews who would not allow their G-d and their Torah to be reduced to the dustbins of history by the Syrian-Greek tyrant.

Yet astonishingly, the Talmud, the classical text of Jewish law and literature, gives us a very different perspective on the Hanukah festival.

"What is Hanukah?" asks the Talmud (Talmud, Shabbat 21b.)

The answer given is this:

"When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all its oil. Then, when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered them, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the High Priest—enough to light the menorah for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established these eight days as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving to G-d."

So, according to the Talmud, the festival of Hanukah is less about the military victory of a small band of Jews against one of the mightiest armies on earth, and more about the miracle of the oil. The Talmud focuses exclusively on the story with the oil, as if this were the only significant event commemorated by the festival of Hanukah.

This is strange. The miracle of the oil seems to be of minor significance relative to the military victory. This miracle occurred behind the closed doors of the Temple with only a few priests to behold. Furthermore, it was an event concerning a religious symbol without any consequences on life, death or liberty. If the Jews would have been defeated by the Greeks, there would be no Jews today; if the oil would have not burned for eight days, so what?

Let us grease the question with a contemporary touch. Imagine that following the extraordinary Israeli victory of the 1967 six-day war, during which six Arab armies were determined to exterminate Israel and its three million Jews, a candle located in a Jerusalem synagogue would have burned for six days. Sure, it would have added a nice sentimental touch to the euphoria of Israel’s salvation, but would have this, rather than the deliverance of millions of innocent human beings from a second holocaust, been the cause of celebration? Would this detail even make it to the front page of the media?

Similarly, the burning of the Temple candelabra for eight days was, no doubt, a heart-warming follow up to a great victory. It was a demonstrative sign that G-d cherished the sacrifice of His children and had rewarded them with an astounding miracle. Yet it is clear that this was merely the icing on the cake, a coup-de-grace to a historical momentous victory on the battlefield. So why does the Talmud turn this minor detail into the decisive motif for the Hanukah celebration?

What is more, the miracle with the oil is the only element of the Hanukah events that we commemorate to this very day. We have no costume or ritual commemorating a miraculous triumph. What we do have is the kindling of a menorah for eight days, commemorating the fact that the oil in the Temple menorah lasted for eight days. How are we to understand this?

Many answers have been given to this question. Today I want to share an answer based on the teachings of one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 16th century, who was himself subjected to horrible persecutions from Christian authorities. Rabbi Yehuda Loew (1512-1607), known as the Maharal, was chief Rabbi of Prague, and one of the most influential Jewish personalities of his time, author of many major works on Jewish thought.

To understand what he said, we first need to understand the nature of the conflict between the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks were in many ways a very enlightened culture. They professed a love for science and logic; they created systems of logical thinking and deduction; they were passionate about philosophy, biology, and math, and they developed literature, art, architecture, sport, and athleticism. They devoted much time and energy to figuring out the mechanisms of our universe, the governing laws of our world. The Greeks emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience, and brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities.

For the Greeks, the ultimate objective was to discover the laws of nature, the science of the universe, the systems of the planets, the composition of the human body, the dynamics of existence.

For the Jew, the ultimate objective was to discover the Creator behind all of nature. Judaism wants us to understand the world around us in order to discover the transcendence of existence, to find the presence of G-d who is "gazing through the windows." The Jews didn’t take existence for granted. They asked the questions not only about the properties of existence, but about the origin, meaning, purpose and precedent to existence. Their focus was on that which preceded existence and which brought existence into being. They fell in love not just with creation, but with the Creator.

Mark Twain said, "When G-d created the Grand Canyon He failed to create the adjective to describe it." Nor did He allow us to see within the world HOW it was created, WHY it was created, FROM WHERE it was created, WHAT IS BEHIND its creation, and WHAT IS THE PURPOSE of its creation. This was the contribution of Judaism, and it is where it differed from Greek philosophy.

The Greeks took for granted that the law dictates the world "to be." The question is what type of "being" it is. For the Jews, the natural state was "not to be." Why and how in the world did we get from not-being to being?!

The difference is not just academic; rather, it has some very dramatic ramifications. The Greeks believed we live in a universe governed by fixed nature. Even if G-d exists, He is to be understood as "the first cause," or the "prime mover," the one who builds the clock, but then the clock ticks on its own. G-d is divorced from nature. For the Jew, there is unity in the world—every aspect of the world is a manifestation of G-d. Even nature is an expression of Divine will and energy. We are living in G-d’s world.

The Jews and the Greeks were thus living in two absolutely different worlds: the Greeks, in a world of nature; the Jews, in a Divine world.

The way the Greeks understood reality was that you could choose either G-d or the “life preserver.” In Judaism, however, G-d and nature are one. 
With this in mind, we can understand the need for the oil miracle. Says the Maharal: Had the oil miracle not happened, people may have attributed the military victory to the workings of nature alone. Sometimes the few do win against the many; sometimes a David defeats a Goliath; sometimes nature smiles to the underdog. Sometimes even the pauper wins the lottery. The Maccabees struck out; they were lucky and defeated the Greeks in Jerusalem, just as Israel had a lucky six days in 67’ and defeated seven Arab armies. Murphy’s Law is not always true.

But G-d? Where does G-d come into the picture? Courage and military strategy produce victory. The Maccabees fought a brilliant guerilla war and they won. Why attribute it to G-d? What does nature have to do with G-d?

This was the need for the oil miracle: there was the need for an event—even a small and insignificant one—for which there could be no “natural” scientific explanation. This demonstrated the truth that though the Maccaabees were brave, brilliant and clever, it was the Creator of the world, the author and sustainer of nature, who blessed their war and conferred victory upon them.

Had the miracle of the oil not happened, and had the military victory been attributed to caprice, it would have indeed been a victory of the philosophy of the Greeks! The Maccabees might have won the battle but they would have lost the war. With the oil miracle, they not only won the battle, but also won the war of ideas.

The victory of Chanukah was a victory of light—an ability to kindle a flame in a dark world, to shine a light on the truth of nature and essence of life. We are living in G-d’s world.

Happy Chanukah,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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