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Dvar Torah on Hanukkah

Hanukkah / - The Few, The Weak, The Good

23.11.2013 by

On Hanukkah we recite, in every shmoneh esray (the silent prayer recited three times daily) and in every birkat hamazon (grace after meals), a short paragraph thanking God for the miracles and salvation that took place on this holiday. The paragraph is called על הניסים - Al Hanissim, which means "For the miracles" - which are the words it begins with. Central to this thanksgiving prayer are six pairs of dichotomies, in which we describe how wonderous the victory on Hanukkah really was, and, perhaps, what it was really all about: "You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the willful sinners into the hands of the learners of Your Torah."

I would like to focus on this section. The first two pairs of opposites in this section, emphasizing the victory of the weak over the strong and the few over the many, seem to underscore the miraculous and unexpected nature of the Maccabee's victory, as it is usually the many and strong who defeat the few and the weak. The next three pairs, however, are not about the military imbalance between the two nations. Rather, they make value judgements about us and the Greeks, depicting us as righteous and them as wicked, us as pure and them as impure, us the learners of Torah and them as sinners. Why does the Al Hanissim prayer lump together these two very different types of distinctions, the fact that we were the military underdogs, the longshot to win,  along with the idea that we were the good guys, the ones who deserved to win, while they were evil, and deserved to be defeated?

I'd like to suggest that, although the weak/strong, few/many dichotomies certainly emphasize the miraculous nature of the Jewish victory over the Greeks, they are also very much a part of the moral-ethical dichotomies in the rest of the section - pure/impure, righteous/evil,Torah-learners/sinners. Just as much as being rightous, or pure, or a Torah scholar, are Jewish values, so, too, being weak and few in number are, in this context, values as well. After all, the strength of the Greeks was a supreme value for them; in a warrior culture, in which conquest was all, and might made right, the strong equalled the good. The Greeks were "many" through conquest: they forced their vanquished foes to become Greek. This was precisely what was behind the Greek oppression of the Jews of Israel: it was an attempt to turn them into Greeks, to enlist them into the ongoing conquest that was the Greek empire. In the way of all empires, from the Roman to the Islamic, you produce many Romans, or many Muslims, by forcing people to become members of the conquering culture, or die. The connection between being strong and being many is obvious; your strength produces many "converts" to your cause, and your numbers swell.

The Jews, on the other hand, saw being weak, in the sense of not placing strenghth at the center of our system of values, as a desired way to be. The famous dictum from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, makes this clear; איזהו גיבור הכובש את יצרו   - "who is strong? He who conquers his own will." In the Jewish tradition, strength is not measured in conquest, or the spoils of empire, or the number of people you can force to come over to your side. Rather, strength is proven in the way we control ourselves, and stop ourselves from acting on our worst impulses. Greek strength is actually weakness to this way of thinking; an inability to control one's basest and most selfish instincts, and, instead,  be seduced into committing acts of violence and oppression by the attractions of wealth and power.

The Jewish decision to not go the way of empire, to not aspire to become,  through violent conquest, the many, but, rather,  to be true to our values, even if it means we remain, on the world-stage, relatively small and weak, is what is contrasted here in the few/many, weak/strong pairings. As important as it is to study Torah, or to be pure and righteous, we must also not succumb to the drive to power for its own sake, to the allure of violent conquest, and to the will to wantonly and cruelly take and rule. 

As an Israeli, I am extremely proud of the way we have controlled ourselves, in very trying situations, and have not gone the way of the Greeks, and other imperialists. What anti-Israel propaganda would have us believe, that Israel is as bad as the worst conquerors and occupiers, is the exact opposite of the truth. Forced to fight defensive wars in which we had to take control of enemy territory, territory to which we have extraordinarily strong historical and legal claims, we have restrained ourselves, and have treated the local Arab population with extraordinary humanity and patience. While we are in a complicated and difficult struggle, and some mistakes have been made, our behavior towards the Palestinians has been nothing short of miraculous, especially given the terror we have been subjected to. Simply comparing what the Israeli army has done for the past 60-plus years to our Arab enemies with US behavior in Iraq, and the number of civillian casualties there,  or Russian excesses in Chechneya, or the ongoing rape of Tibet by China, or the carnage now going on in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world, should convince you of Israel's clear moral superiority, a superiority we have earned, by adhering to the values articulated in the Al Hanissim prayer, the values of rejecting power as its own justification, and conquest as an ultimate goal.

Hanukkah Sameach,

Rabbi Shimon Felix 

Hanukkah Summary


Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday celebrating the Jewish victory over the Greek rulers of Israel, in 165 B.C.E. The heirs of Alexander the Great oppressed the Jewish people, and, in an effort to win the local population over to Greek culture, outlawed many religious practices and seized possession of the Temple. Lead  by Mattityahu the high priest and his sons, most notably Judah the Macabbe, the Jewish rebels, known as the Hasmoneans, retook the Temple, and re-established Jewish political autonomy in Israel. Their dynasty lasted almost 200 years, until Herod killed the last of them and seized the throne. Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting the menorah, to commemorate the miracle that took place once the Temple was regained, when a one-day supply of oil miraculously burned for eight days, until new, pure olive oil could be produced.

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