Three Members of Orthodox Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi (Image credit: Fritz Cohen/Government Press Office of Israel)
On the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev over 2,100 years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated after being wrenched back 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 never stopped — defeating Persian armies five times his size — and pushed right on to India. He 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 Shimon haTzaddik (Simon the Just), the head of the Sanhedrin (high court) and high priest.
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 Greece’s undisputed leader, however, 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 among themselves. Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria established impressive Hellenistic centers, and Greek culture was copied by all the peoples from Egypt to Babylon.
Well, almost all the peoples!
The Jewish people in the land of Israel were not enamored of the glitter or power of Hellenistic culture. The Seleucid Greeks were patient — all peoples finally came around to embracing their “superior” ways. The Jews would too, they believed. In fact, some Jews did.
Referred to as Hellenists, they were Jews at home and Greeks in the office and at the gym. In fact, since the all-important sports contests were done in the nude to celebrate the "perfect" human body, some Jews felt uncomfortable, believing their circumcisions revealed tainted bodies. Cosmetic surgery allowed them to pass.
Things were actually going just the way the Greeks predicted when, in the year 169 BCE, the Seleucids under Antiochus Epiphanes were chased out of Egypt, and victory against his Ptolemy rivals was denied to him.
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 would 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 burned alive in the scrolls. Antiochus was determined to make the Jews into good Hellenists who would "see the light."
But then, for the first time in history, a small nation (in fact a small part of a small nation) raised the banner of revolt against a world power in a bid for a 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, simply said no. When the soldiers were about to make an example of him, his five stout sons made sure those soldiers did not get to go home to tell the rest of the story. Their banner proclaimed: “Whoever 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 judged 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, Judah Maccabee (the Hammer), led the Jews. This son became the worst nightmare of the best Greek generals.
In one of the earlier spectacular engagements, Judah 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. Judah took his army to Mitzpe, 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 enemies' eyes and being surprised from behind, they fled, leaving enough supplies to arm the Jewish rebels. The other column was searching 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 Emmaus, Bet Horon, Mitzpe, Mt. Gofna, and Bet Zur. These places have since seen later instances of Jewish heroism as recently as 1948 and 1967.
And so on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, three years after old Matisyahu said no, the Jewish fighters entered Jerusalem, scattering the Greeks and their Hellenistic allies. They went straight for the Menorah, unlit for three years amid the desecration on Temple Mount.
With only one vase 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 required daily lighting. Not enough oil for more than one day? One day at a time, they said. G-d who gave them the miraculous victory would figure it out. And eight days later, that oil was still burning. "In those days at this time…”
Fast forward to the freezing days and nights at Valley Forge when General Washington tried to rally his tattered troops against the mercenaries of the British Empire during the American Revolutionary War. A story is told that on one bitterly cold night Washington made the rounds, encouraging his men to hold on until morning. Tradition says 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 even allowed to have any benefit from this candle. It is holy; it is a Hanukkah 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.”
Years later, after the war, a knock brought the young Jewish veteran to the door of his New York apartment. It was now President Washington at the door. He brought a medallion with him. On one side were the words “Valley Forge”; on the other was “Hanukkah: In those days at this time.”
I like to wonder if that Jewish soldier in Washington's army ever imagined that the Jewish people would rid invaders from their homeland — the land of Israel? Or was that beyond the realm of imagination then? It probably was.
How many Jews have fought in foreign armies for foreign countries since the Maccabees? It took 2,200 years, but Jews are finally defending their own country; not spilling their blood trying to win acceptance and appreciation from a foreign one. Here we are back in our own land and defending it to the astonishment and awe of the world. A modern miracle.
During the 1948 War of Independence, the defenders of an isolated Jewish village, Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, successfully repulsed an assault by massive Arab armies. After the victory, a moving description of what should be called the Modern Maccabees was written by one of the defenders:
"We, the few — transformed desolation into paradise… We, the few — and our young men stood by with their weapons in their hands… We, the few — did not halt the work on the farm for even one day… Have you ever seen a soldier, anyplace in the world, who stands up against the enemy in the morning and then in the afternoon works in the barn, the chicken coops, in the garden or the vineyard? Have you ever seen a female soldier in any nation, who sits at an outpost when commanded… and the next day returns to watch over young children, nurturing them and educating them… to a life of Torah and labor?
“Who can show you an army camp, where as soon as the battle has ended the soldiers put on tallit and tefillin, in order to give thanks to G-d for His salvation from their enemy...? Have you seen a settlement which is busy defending itself but where the sounds of joy and happiness have not stopped?... The sounds of a groom and a bride..?
“We are a nation, and such a nation will rise up again!"
Contact Shalom Pollack, veteran licensed tour guide, for upcoming tours at Shalom Pollack Tours: Personalized Tours in Israel. Click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.