We have arrived at Chanukah, believe it or not. The last two months have been other-worldly. It is hard to believe that the Yamim Nora’im was two months ago – it feels like years to me, almost another lifetime – prior to Simchas Torah. But arrived we have, and it is vital to take strength and lessons from Chanukah to help us gain from this incredible time we are going through.

We are used to viewing Chanukah in rather simple terms. “The Greeks persecuted us, we fought against them and won, went to reinaugurate the Temple, only to find that there was only one flask of pure oil left. We lit it, and it lasted for eight days. Now let us party, eat latkes, and spin dreidels.” In more yeshivish circles, the focus on Chanukah’s character as the yom tov of the Torah SheB’al Peh (the Oral Torah), which was threatened and then renewed and is therefore a time to rededicate ourselves to learning Torah. However, that alone does not explain why the Rambam refers to Chanukah as “chavivah ad m’od” (extremely beloved), requiring a poor person to sell clothing to afford to light the Chanukah lamps. There is much more to the story, but in the space of this short essay, I cannot possibly draw a complete picture. However, there are some highlights from Sefer Makabim that are important for us to know. particularly this year.

After the death of Alexander the Great in 3429 (323 BCE), his successors split his vast empire. In Eretz Yisrael, the Seleucid Syrian-Greeks (hereafter Syrian-Greeks) reigned and deeply affected life in Eretz Yisrael as they sought to impose their Hellenist culture over a century and a half. That culture was intensely attractive, with its arts, sports, science, philosophy, and worship of beauty. On the surface, Hellenists were fine and noble people devoted to the perfection of sensual beauty, human dignity, intellectual pursuits, and reason. However, as Rav SR Hirsch writes, “Hellenistic culture contains only a small fraction of the truth, which will eventually affect the salvation of mankind. As long as Hellenism is not coupled with the spirit of Sheim [our ancestral son of Noach] – as long as it prides itself on being the sole road to happiness – it falls prey to error, degeneration, and decay… It limits itself to a superficial polishing and smoothing of the raw surface of one’s personality and lifestyle… Underneath, the desire for pleasure and material gratification remains hidden. Hellenistic culture is a protector of rights and freedom. However, these concepts are arrogantly applied only to those educated in their values. Thus, their sensitivity and concern regarding themselves are paired with an enormous callousness and utmost cruelty towards those they consider the inferior, uneducated masses (Collected Writings II, 2 Kislev).

Unfortunately, many Jews were only too happy to Hellenize and embrace the wonders of the new modern world. The Syrian-Greeks appointed Hellenist High Priests, first Jason and then Menelaus, who paid handsomely for the position and assisted the Greeks in turning Yerushalayim away from the Almighty to Greek worship and culture. The Hellenists grew in power and influence, while the majority of the nation at first felt that the best response was to seek to contain the threatening enemy by compromise and nonviolent means, but felt increasingly unable to withstand the insult to Hashem, His Torah, and His people.

In 3591 (169 BCE), the accursed Antiochus Epiphanes attacked Yerushalayim and sacked the Beis HaMikdash, taking the Menorah and Shulchan and anything made out of gold, and emptied the treasury and storehouse (Sefer Makabim I 1:22). They then went on a killing spree, murdering over 40,000 souls and taking 10,000 captives. (II 12:14). They then built a fortress and gymnasium next to the Beis HaMikdash and brought an offering to Zeus on the 25th of Kislev on the altar they constructed therein.

Matisyahu, the great kohen (He was not a Kohen Gadol, a position the Syrian-Greeks had sullied), after several terrible incidents of Jews being murdered, particularly for keeping the mitzvos, and, inspired by righteous women, gathered his five great sons. With the slogan “Mi LaShem Alai,” he began a revolt in 3593 (166 BCE) that initially had little success. But one terrible Shabbos then occurred, in which over 1,000 Jews who felt safe and in no need to defend themselves were killed. At that point, Matisyahu declared, “If we continue on this path and do not fight for our lives and our Torah, we will soon be wiped from the face of the Earth. They then determined, “Anyone who comes to fight us on Shabbos will be met in battle; we will no longer be killed as we hide in our safe rooms” (Makabim I 2:40).

Matisyahu lived another year and appointed Yehudah as his successor. Yehudah and his brothers led a successful guerilla war against the Syrian-Greeks, and after many battles and two years, they rededicated the Beis HaMikdash in 3595 (164 BCE). The Syrian-Greeks were torn by battles within and war from other enemies and recognized Yehudah as the local Jewish governor, and the next Antiochus proclaimed that from then on, the Jews were to be left to worship according to their own dictates. (Makabim II 11:22).

But after a short respite, the wars resumed. Yehudah and his successor brothers would end up being killed in battle. The Hasmonean kingdom was not fully established until Yehudah’s nephew Yochanan/Yannai’s ascension in 3626 (134 BCE). (The end of the Hasmoneans was bitter and tragic, but that is a topic for another day).

When reading this story, in light of recent events, certain things jumped out at me. The great split among the people preceding the war, the severe arguments between many Jews who have adopted Hellenist values, those standing for Jewish tradition, and those somewhere in the middle; the willingness to get along with the Greeks for a long time until it simply became unbearable; the small band of courageous Jews, burning with a love of Torah, not being prepared to stand it for another minute; and the terrible black Shabbos that sparked the revolt; over 1,000 Jews who felt safe (and in no need to defend themselves) were killed in their “safe places” – all these jarringly stood out.

I am sure that there are lessons to be learned from the parallels to what we are going through, especially after seeing the flask of oil mezuzah that one of our precious soldiers found last week in Gaza (see picture).

As I write, the war in Gaza has resumed after the short truce, and tensions in the North are ever-increasing. Baruch Hashem, after undergoing a horrible blow, the nation has largely come together and united those of all streams, both in Israel and the Diaspora. We have come to a place of renewing our National spirit, although the war is far from over, just like the time of Yehudah HaMakabi. It is time to light the lights of Chanukah and reflect on their preciousness. Let us consider why these lights are “extremely beloved.” Our Sages point out that the lights are there not only to stand in contrast to the forces of brutality and horror, but also to illuminate how to bring the light of our spiritual heritage to the forefront.

We welcome the beauty of Yefes/Greece, as long as it dwells in the Tent of Sheim/Torah (see B’reishis 9:27). We have to learn as a people to keep this unity going even after the successful utter destruction of the accursed Hamas, unlike what happened in the times of the Hasmoneans. Very soon after the initial victory, the Tzidukim and the Perushim and other splinter groups were at each other’s throats, and that hatred only increased until the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed eventually because of it.

In our day, despite the current unity, the underlying tensions are still very much there. If we don’t learn from what has transpired, we will easily fall back again into the same terrible division. We in the religious community need to remember to appreciate the good people and good intentions and many (by far not all) great things that the secular public has built for the good of the nation. However, we need to show them that they can be so much more beautiful and valued if illuminated with the Torah’s light and not with Hellenist values. We need to light our lights outside, at the doorway, welcoming others into our world, and publicizing to the greatest degree possible our appreciation for the miracles that have occurred and will continue, b’ezras Hashem, to occur. In this time of great darkness, the Lights of Chanukah, increasing every day, will lead us to the Great Light of the Final Redemption.

Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer is a writer and licensed tour guide living in Israel. Before aliyah, he served as the rabbi of several congregations, including the Young Israel of Forest Hills. He would love to show you our homeland on your next visit; he can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or (+972) 53-624-1802.