Chanuka and Jewish Pride
Rabbi Pinchas Chalk
At the time of the Greek religious persecution of the Jews, there were four specific mitzvos that the Greeks forbade on pain of death. These mitzvos were bris mila; the study of the Torah; Shabbos observance; and kidush ha'chodesh. 1 (Kiddush ha'chodesh is the declaration and the sanctification of the new month by Beis Din that causes the moadim that fall within that specific month to be operative. Without kiddush ha'chodesh there can be no Yomim Tovim.) What is the common denominator of these mitzvos? Why did the Greeks seek to eradicate specifically their performance?
Alexander of Macedonia, the founder of the Greek Empire, wanted to conquer the entire world and to unite the whole world into one people under his rule. The Syrian-Greeks, after him, also sought a similar goal. They wanted all the people whom they conquered to assume an identity similar to their own. They tried to Hellenise them - to strip them of their own culture and to endow them with the 'superior' Greek culture. Through this, they sought to solidify their power-base and to give permanence to the obeisance of their vassal states towards them. Thus, when the Syrian-Greeks conquered Eretz Yisrael, they sought to eradicate Jewish identity. They wanted the Jews to become merely another amorphous part of the conglomeration of peoples that formed the Syrian-Greek Empire. The biggest threat to their goal was the kedusha, the holiness and self-restraint of the Jews. Kedusha is that which develops the backbone and forms the personality of man. One who indulges in his every whim assumes a slipshod personality and begins to lose his charisma. One who is strong-minded and in control of himself will naturally retain his own self-identity.2
Mitzvos of Holiness
The mitzvos that the Greeks forbade have a common theme: they are signs of kedusha (holiness) in the personal life of the Jew. They are mitzvos of personal sanctity and of self-respect: Bris mila is a sign of commitment to the judicious lifestyle of the Jew; Learning Torah forms orderliness and equanimity in one's mind that will carry him forwards in an intelligent and astute manner through life; on Shabbos we sanctify the world as we relate the entire creation back to its Divine source; on Yom Tov we celebrate Hashem's intervention in the world that He created. We declare that Hashem did not merely create a world and then withdraw from it, but that He continually inspires man and leads him forwards. The Greeks were astute and discerning people. They understood the power of these mitzvos and that within them lay the backbone of the Jews. Thus they sought to eradicate these mitzvos and to deprive the Jews of the succor that they provide. Through this they sought to break their spirit and to control their minds.3
Alexander of Macedon
The Midrash4 relates that Alexander of Macedonia once crossed the Mountains of Darkness and came to the lands on the other side. Alexander was curious to see how judgment proceeded there and he requested of the King to be present at a tribunal. Two litigants appeared before the King. One of the litigants had sold a field, in which a buried treasure was subsequently found, to the other. Each of the litigants wanted the other to have the treasure. The vendor claimed that the treasure should belong to the purchaser, as he had sold the field with all of its contents. The purchaser reasoned that as he had obviously never intended to acquire the treasure, it must remain the property of the original owner.
The King asked the litigants if they had a son and daughter of marriageable age. It transpired that they did. The King ruled that a match be made between the litigant's children and that the treasure be given to the young couple. He then inquired of Alexander how he himself would have ruled. Alexander replied that he would have killed both of them and that he would have confiscated the treasure for the royal coffers.
The King asked Alexander, "Does the rain fall and the sun shine in your country?"
"Yes," replied Alexander.
"Do you have animals in your country?"
Again the reply was in the affirmative.
"In that case," said the King, "it must be that the rain falls and the sun shines in your country for the animals, for it is not for you!"
The Midrash is very puzzling. Why would Alexander have passed the death sentence upon the litigants, and what was the meaning of the King's retort?
Society and the Individual
The King's response was the ultimate rebuttal to the empire-building Greeks who had come to conquer his country. Alexander sought to unite the whole world into one people under his rule. Alexander claimed that in order to produce such a great unity within the world, expression of individuality had to be eradicated, or at least curtailed. Alexander was prepared to sacrifice individual expression for the so-called greater good of the Empire.
The love that Alexander saw expressed between the two men was of such magnitude that, as the King had ruled, it was capable of forming a new self-contained unit of society consisting of a combination of the two families. As a result of this, Alexander reasoned that these men were culpable of the death penalty, for this was a breakdown of society as he envisaged it. This new mini-society would always maintain its internal self-respect and love. It would never need to draw upon an external standard against which to measure itself.
The King showed Alexander how far off the mark he was. The unity of the world is not something that is dependent on everyone assuming an artificially similar code of conduct and manner of dress. The heavens and the earth are two opposites. When they combine with each other, they produce the miracle that we call life. So too is it in the development of human society. Society is dependent upon individual personal development and the combination of the different strengths that are found in different people.
The Torah develops the backbone of the human being. The Torah attaches man to personal sanctity and to true forms of individuality. The defeat of the Greeks that we celebrate on Chanukah is the victory of Jewish pride in general and of pride in the Torah in particular.
1 Megilas Antiochus.
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