Chanukah celebrates a redemption from destruction. We must understand that
despite the military conflict, the struggle was against a spiritual
destruction rather than a physical one -- and that our response each year
must therefore be a spiritual celebration as well.
Under the rule of Antiochus, the Greeks did not want to kill the Jewish
people. Rather, they wanted us to share their ideology. And our Sages say
that they focused upon three mitzvos, commanding the Jews not to perform them:
The first of these was the mitzvah of Shabbos, the Sabbath. The Greeks
believed that the earth and the universe had existed for all eternity. They
believed that there was no moment of Creation, no big bang. Yet the Sabbath
"is an eternal sign between Me and the Nation of Israel, that in six days
G-d made the Heaven and the Earth, and on the seventh day, He rested." The
Sabbath delivers the message that G-d Created the world -- so the Greeks
needed to remove that sign.
The second was Milah, circumcision, which is the sign of the unique
covenant between G-d and the Jewish People, made with our forefather
Avraham. The Greeks wanted the Jews to be like them, rather than clinging
to antiquated notions of a special mission, purpose, and relationship. So
the Greeks needed to remove this sign as well.
And the third of these was Rosh Chodesh, the [Sanctification of the] New
Moon. The Sanhedrin, the Supreme Jewish Court in Jerusalem, would accept
testimony each month if people spotted the crescent of the moon appearing
30 days after the beginning of the previous month -- if this happened, the
new month would begin on that day, while if it did not, then the month
would begin on the morrow. This, too, signified a unique relationship which
the Greeks could not conscience -- because it indicated the belief that we
can control and change what happens in Spiritual realms.
The Greeks also believed in a spiritual world; they had a whole mythology
which remains well-known today. But they believed that what humans did had
no direct impact.
The fact that human beings decide when the month begins means that human
beings control when the holidays arrive. Furthermore, we regard the
holidays not merely as commemorations of past events, but as times when
unique "spiritual energies" return to the world each year. So this too
contradicted the fundamentals of Greek beliefs, and once again, the Greeks
needed to stop performance of this Mitzvah.
But finally, and above all, the Greeks also commanded us to stop studying
Torah. For as Rav Shlomo Brevda points out in his work on Chanukah,
"L'hodos U'l'hallel," the Greeks recognized that the Jewish religion was
fundamentally different than all the others, which were built upon certain
actions which were required or prohibited. Yet even though the Torah
contains hundreds of different mitzvos, the very fundamental of Jewish life
is Torah study itself. Therefore the Greeks felt the need to issue a unique
decree, independent of their prohibition against the three particular
mitzvos mentioned above.
This is what we were fighting, this is the war which we won. And, of
course, it is so similar to the battle we are fighting today. People have
joked that the 614th Commandment is the one against assimilation, phrased
as "Thou Shalt Not Give Hitler (ysv"z, may his name and memory be blotted
out) a posthumous victory." Yet the truth is that the victory would not go
to him, but to Antiochus -- thousands of years after his own religion
disappeared into the annals of history.
The Code of Jewish Law notes that the Sages did not decree special meals on
Chanukah or anything of that nature -- for unlike Purim, which is
celebrated with food and drink, Chanukah is celebrated with special praises
and thanks to G-d. We respond to a threat of physical destruction with a
physical celebration; we respond to a threat of spiritual destruction with
a spiritual celebration.
Let us permit not only the image of the candles, but the message of
Chanukah, to burn its way into our hearts -- let us revitalize ourselves
and renew our study of Torah, for it is indeed the fundamental of all we
have. This is something we can and should do, right now -- for this is the
energy which Chanukah brings to us every year.