The Challenge of Chanuka

   One brief and insightful idea about Chanuka from Rav Shlomo Aviner is worth sharing. When all is said and done, relatively very few Jews participated in the Hasmonean rebellion. Most Jews were Hellenists, many had despaired in the face of the reigning superpowers whose culture seemed superior to that of the Jews and whose might and dominance seemed invincible, and many others simply saw the struggle for religious freedom and regained sovereignty over the land of Israel under such circumstances as a futile quest. What held them back ? In a word: realism.

     A realistic assessment of the military and political conditions of the Jews was undoubtedly a major factor in the complacency of their society. The Greco-Syrian empire was too powerful, too numerous, too strong, and too sophisticated. They had the support of the elites, they were the envy of the ancient world, and their society was unconstrained by such niceties as monotheism – deference to a G-d who is the Creator of the Universe as well as the Author of the moral code by which His creatures are obligated to live. Many Jews found “freedom” in the enslavement brought upon them by Greek culture. They had no use for the Temple and its service, or for the parochial interests of the Jewish people in the face of the pervasiveness of Greek civilization.

     By contrast, Jews were few in number, militarily and politically insignificant, and not fully recovered from the debacle that led to the destruction of the First Temple. Many “leaders” of the Jews were impious, and the Temple service itself had been corrupted. Every rational argument – every slice of realism – dictated that all Jews simply accept their fate as a vassal of the Greek Empire, and, like all other conquered nations had done, just assimilate into the great Hellenist culture.

     One family stood in the way, and they too were realists, but realists of a different sort – with one added dimension. Yehuda and his men also knew the odds against them, the superiority of the enemy, and the defeat of even greater military forces than they could muster. But Yehuda also knew that running through all of Jewish history is a streak of anti-realism, or, better, said, a realism that takes into account Divine Providence.

    It was unrealistic for one family to go into Egyptian exile, and rather than blend into that mighty empire, instead emerge from bondage as a nation eager to return to its homeland. It was unrealistic to expect a nation of millions to survive 40 years in the Sinai wilderness, or defeat 31 Canaanite kings. It was unrealistic to expect Jews to weather destruction and exile to Babylon – and return and establish a Second Jewish Commonwealth. All this Yehuda knew, and so rather than being deterred, he was inspired.

    What he did not know was that it was unrealistic for Jews to survive as a nation the second destruction of the Temple, and a long exile in which Jews were tormented by Romans, Byzantines, Zoroastrians, Christians, Muslims, Nazis and Communists for 19 centuries. He certainly did not know that such a scattered and weakened people would meet with Divine favor and again – after 19 centuries – return to its divinely-granted homeland and re-establish an independent state, both historically unprecedented achievements, and all as predicted by the Jewish prophets of old.

    For many, realism sounds rational and cogent, but this type of realism – that fails to account for all possible factors – is misleading and ambiguous. The realism of conventional wisdom is, for many, an albatross, and leads to small minds thinking small thoughts, and constricting all the possibilities implicit in the renaissance of the Jewish people. They are today’s Hellenists, and their voices are strident and their writings abound. They preach despair, concessions, and surrender. They pride themselves on forecasting the “inevitability” of … a Palestinian state, the dissolution of Israel, Iranian nuclear weapons, Islamic-terrorist power. They say “can’t” when they mean “won’t” – and it is their fecklessness that fuels their conception of what is “inevitable.”

       For Jews, the “G-d factor” cannot simply be an intellectual exercise or a pleasant abstraction, but rather an essential component of our world view and our policy objectives. G-d’s Providence is our reality, and we ignore it at our peril. Even lacking prophecy today, one can attempt to look at events in Israel with a providential eye, even if the conclusions are speculative. The natural forces afflicting Israel today are stunning, as they are catastrophic. An enduring drought has been followed this week, even partially caused, the fires that have ravaged the north of Israel and tragically consumed so many lives. Perhaps – and I write this with humility – if Jews were not so eager to freeze the land of Israel, G-d would unfreeze the heavens over Israel; perhaps if we built the land together, we would not have to behold its burning under our feet.

    I don’t know, and as hazardous as it is to speculate in these areas, it is probably even more hazardous to ignore any such implications, and instead attribute everything to nature, geopolitics, money, power and the like. That is a brutal and cold approach to life – an ungodly view – that seems to be the coin of the realist realm.

     Chanuka is unique in that it was the very first time after the era of prophecy in which Jews (a small group, to be sure) arose and stated publicly that our faith in G-d is an active and practical element of our political calculations. It was not the last – and, as always, relatively few Jews even today account for the uniqueness of our history in their deliberations, and see through the “realism” that hampers and hinders us to a greater “realism” that is before us: the inevitability of Jewish destiny of which Chanuka is an annual and joyous reminder.

    May it always guide our decisions and thoughts, may we all rejoice together on this Chanuka, may G-d give us the strength to re-plant each tree and rebuild each home in the land of Israel, and may He send a speedy recovery to this week’s injured and consolation to the bereaved.

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