Chanukah is the only festival that was initiated after the Bible was already canonized. As such, it needs to be explained without the benefit of a Biblical reference. Passover and the other festivals are mentioned in the Torah and the Purim story is discussed in the Book of Esther but Chanukah is only mentioned by authors who lived at a later period. One of the most striking points the insightful reader of the Chanukah literature will notice is that no matter whose version of the Chanukah story one reads, one word is constantly repeated-decrees (guzru gazeirot). Certain decrees are mentioned by name-it was forbidden to observe the Jewish Sabbath, have circumcision, or determine the Jewish calendar-but there seems to be an emphasis on the evil decrees in general, not merely the malicious actions carried out by the Syrian branch of Greek empire. We do not find this recurring word and theme in any other holiday and therefore it behooves us to discover the lesson this anomaly teaches us about being Jewish.
One source often overlooked when discussing the Greek empire is the Midrash, an ancient commentary on the Bible whose profound messages are often disguised in parables or metaphors. One example of this is when there are four elements mentioned in a series. When this occurs, it is a reference to the four empires of the ancient world (Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome) who dispersed the Jewish people from the Land of Israel into the diaspora.When discussing the creation of the world, four rivers are mentioned. The name of the third river, Tigris, is a reference to Greece. The Hebrew name of that river is chidekel (חִדֶּקֶל), which can be phonetically spliced into two words, chad-sharp; penetrating and kal-light; the Greeks were sharp and efficient with their decrees. The Midrash mentions that one of those decrees was that they ordered the Jewish people to inscribe on the horn of their oxen, You are no longer part of the Jewish people; you no longer believe in G-d. In today’s world, it would be like forcing every Jew to have it inscribed as the wallpaper of their cellphone.
Another Midrash comments on the first two lines in Genesis.
In the beginning… the earth was empty… and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1:3).
“Darkness,” says the Midrash, refers to Greece because they “darkened the eyes of the Jewish people with their decrees.” (Hence the idea of “light” on Chanukah). It is not just about the attacks and violence; there seems to be something about the decrees themselves. They had the ability to issue and enact decrees that were effective in making the lives of Jews unbearable. What is it about the efficiency and effectiveness of the Greek’s decrees that caught the eyes of the scholars of the Midrash?
Until that time, Judaism had encountered primitive brutes and savages who imposed their will through violence and hostility but Greece was a civilization; they were different. These were thinkers; people of arts, letters, philosophy, and poetry. One of the reasons that Chanukah is enshrined in Judaism is to stress this point. They weren’t fighting the Canaanites, known for savagery or one of the other primitive ruthless empires; this was not just another pogrom or act of violence, it was Judaism’s first test against a society with a moral code. It was Judaism’s first chance not to defeat the other culture, but to instruct them and influence the society around them.
But there was a particular challenge here and it was epitomized by the decrees. Because of the democratic nature of this logical state, decrees became the weapon of choice because no longer was sheer brute force the only tool-now there was a more powerful tool; persuasion to the exalted Greek culture. The Greek approach was so compelling because its culture and education had been so successful in influencing the peoples of the lands it conquered and had brought humanity out of its hovels and introduced them to the metaphysical delights of theater, poetry, philosophy, and literature; surely there must be something to it. In Greece the world had found success and stability rather than anarchy and therefore their system must contain truth. Their ability to enact and carry out their decrees is what allowed for their expansion and success; decrees based on lofty ideas had become the weapon of choice and, for the first time in history, those decrees had emerged from a democratic process. It was a far more effective and powerful weapon because it is was psychological. Physical weapons can defeat armies on the battle field but are ineffective in defeating ideas. The only way to defeat an idea is with another more compelling idea.
Greece was the victor in the battle for ideas in the ancient world and therefore their decrees were more dangerous because they emanated from such seemingly progressive and civilized nation. Part of the heroism of Chanukah is that the Jewish people as a whole were not overwhelmed psychologically by pieces of paper that carried huge weight for the rest of the world. The Jews were not swayed by what seemed to be multinational consensus. Despite Greece’s contributions to western civilization, in at least one particular area, the polytheistic Greek empire was wrong in their hostility toward monotheism. Even if this civilized nation had a consensus of opinion, it was not compelling to the Jews, who regarded it as fraudulent and self-seeking. The Jewish people were the only ones who were not seduced by Greece; this is one of the great miracles of Chanukah because we would not be here today if they would have succumbed to Athens, the way the rest of the world did.
It is now thousands of years later and we are at the end of 2016. As fate would have it, Chanukah enters this year at a time of another nefarious decree; a negative U.N. resolution toward Israel. To say that every single settlement, large or small, is illegal, is a reminder of the ancient evil decrees. If they would say that settlements are an obstacle to peace, that would be an objective opinion believed by many people even though others do not believe it to be a significant obstacle. Both sides of this discussion have strong feelings on it but the U.N. has not given a recommendation or expressed an opinion, they have called it illegal. It is not a matter of opinion, it is downright unlawful. Confronting this decree is no different than that of the decrees thousands of years ago because it carries with it the weight of a UN, a body of nations who seem to be giving a ruling that is a world consensus without bias; an assemblage of nations who gather and share ideas, and who try to figure out how to achieve world prosperity and harmony. Existentially, to most of us it appears to be so absurd that it is a joke. There is a human tragedy of half a million people being murdered in Syria (and Israel even absorbs some of those refugees), yet with all that bloodshed and tyranny it’s the settlements in Israel that cause so much hostility and rejection.
This is nothing new and although we cannot ignore the sanctions and boycotts (and have to deal with them on a practical level), psychologically, existentially, and religiously we should view this as something that has occurred before; we have seen this drama unfold.
We come to Israel not as occupiers but as spokesmen for the reason why we are there. We are a nation returning to our homeland that stands for ethical monotheism and our model should be a light for other nations. We are not the occupiers, we are the instructors.
Even though we are the minority it is nothing new and although the UN is a disappointment, it is not a surprise. In the special prayers, we say on Chanukah we thank G-d for allowing the mighty majority (Greece) to fall into the hands of the small minority.
On these remaining days of Chanukah, let us remember that we are familiar with this battle field and recognize its maneuvers. They are not necessarily military or weapons based, papers and resolutions are the part of the tools used for this war against Jews. We have been there and done that; let us strengthen ourselves with the knowledge that we fought and won this battle in the past and we have done so for all subsequent centuries . We have to believe in our ability to bring light to the darkness; indeed, it is our raison d’etre as Jews.
(Source: A Midrash for Chanukah: Greeks, Decrees, and the UN Resolution Against Settlements by Rabbi Moshe Taragin)