The miracle of Chanuka was astonishing for a number of reasons, but especially because “the few vanquished the many.” The Maccabim prevailed against overwhelming odds. Yehuda’s forces never numbered more than a few thousand, and in the climactic battle he mustered 10,000 soldiers against 60,000 Syrians – and still defeated the enemy.
The Maccabim were greatly outnumbered, even though they operated in their home territory (where usually the insurgents have a numerical advantage) because they were a minority force even among Jews. It wasn’t just a case of the Hellenist Jews predominating, although that was also true. It was also because most Jews adopted a wait-and-see attitude, in large part because this was the first time the Jews fought while not under the protective guidance of a prophet, and Chanuka is the only festival that post-dates the Bible. In every other war – the prophets led the way: Moshe, Yehoshua, most of the Judges, David, etc. Even when the Jews were not victorious – usually because they disobeyed the prophet or due to other sins – he was at least in the background and a useful resource.
But now, Jews were in the dark, literally. Faced with the occupation of our land by the world power, who knew what to do and which paradigm to follow? How could they decide, and what guarantee did they have that the decision was correct ? These questions plagued the Jews of that era, as indeed they trouble us today. To fight, to compromise, to surrender ? To look for allies, or to fight alone ? To seek the support of the majority who may not be imbued with a national or Torah spirit, or to go it alone – a few radicals leading a bunch of sluggards ? How do we decide ? How did they decide ? In Rav Shlomo Aviner’s phrase, what is the proper balance between faith and realism ?
That question really frames the issue, and in a sense, defines the challenge of Chanuka. Realism dictated that the Maccabim could not defeat the mighty Syrian empire, that the few could not defeat the many – that all the advantages lay with the conqueror, the most powerful empire in the world. But realism would also dictate that the Jews would never leave Egypt, and never conquer the land of Israel, that David could not slay Goliath (it was possible, but the smart money was still on Goliath), never return to the land of Israel, and not be able to retain it today with the international community allied against Jewish nationalism.
Often, a non-Jew gives us a clearer insight than we could derive ourselves. The famous Italian philosopher, Giambattista Vico, wrote the first philosophy of history in the early 1700’s, called the “New Science about the Common Nature of Nations.” His theory was that nations are like individuals – nations go through infancy, youth, mature, grow old, decay and disappear. All nations suffer this fate, and it is easier to track the ebb and flow of nations than of individuals, whose choices can take them out of the realm of the predictable. But Vico acknowledged, in 1725, that one nation does not fit the pattern – the Jews. The Jews, he wrote, were an “exceptional people,” who are the beneficiaries of “extraordinary help from the true G-d.” Jewish history is moved by holy forces, not simply political ones.
And that is the lesson of Chanuka and the motivation of the majestic men of Modiin. It is the idea, post-Biblical times, on which we thrive or stumble. It is easy to have faith when everything is spelled out in the Torah, and the word of G-d reaches us through his prophets – and we know clearly why we win when we win, and why we lose when we lose. That faith is a theoretical one. Yehuda knew what we needed was practical faith, taking that notion out of the books on the shelves of the Bet Midrash – out of the realm of the theoretical and implementing it in our world view, our conduct – as individuals and as a nation. Our realism includes faith; that is to say, it must include awareness of our exceptionalism. We may ignore that too frequently, but we ignore it at our peril.
This was the miracle of Chanuka, and the eternal lesson of Chanuka in every generation – that we never despair, that even at the darkest moments the miracle of light is near, and we look for the mysterious cruse of oil that suddenly materializes, and heralds the immanence of G-d.
As a military victory, the triumph of Chanuka was short-lived. But as a clarion call to faith, to the hand of G-d that is as real to us as anything material, to be active in defense of Torah and the land of Israel – then the wars of the Chashmonaim inspire us until today – in their dedication, in their tenacity, in their faith, and in the miracles they experienced, in those days in this season.