The Kohanim are a family from the Tribe of Levi that serves as ministers to our people. The Maccabees were a group of Kohanim that led the Jewish rebellion against the representatives of Greek culture living in Syria who attempted to extinguish the spiritual light of our people. These representatives of Greek culture also had Jewish allies who had abandoned the teachings of the Torah and who had adopted pagan Greek values. The rebellion of the Maccabees against the Greek cultural imperialists and their assimilated Jewish allies led to the miracle of the light, and the following is a summary of the Talmud's description of this miracle (Shabbos 21b):
When the Syrian-Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils that were in it. When the Maccabees entered the Temple, they searched for pure oil in order to light the Temple Menorah (lamp), but they found only one container of pure olive oil which had been laid aside in a hidden place with the seal of the "Kohen Gadol" - High Priest. There was, however, only enough oil to light the Menorah for one day. A miracle occurred, and the oil gave light for eight days! This gave the people the opportunity to prepare and bring to the Temple a fresh supply of pure olive oil. The following year, the sages fixed and established these eight days as a festival of praise and thankgiving which became known as Chanukah.
What is the deeper significance of the need for pure oil in order to light the Menorah? The purer the oil, the clearer and stronger will be the light, moreover, the light of the Menorah represents Torah - the Divine Teachings. If this light is to be clear and strong, then the "oil" - the spiritual teachings which produce this light - must be free of any impure influences which can weaken the clarity and strength of this life-giving light.
King Solomon proclaimed, "Torah is light" (Proverbs 6:23), and this pure light is meant to spread all over the world through the power of our own example. In this spirit, the Prophet Isaiah conveyed to our people the following Divine promise regarding the messianic age: "Nations will walk by your light" (Isaiah 60:3). All human beings are to be inspired by this light, and as a reminder of this universal goal, we place the Chanukah Menorah in a window or outside the door of our home, so that it can be viewed by others.
In our current series, we have begun to discuss Torah teachings regarding our relationship to other creatures. These teachings are an aspect of the life-giving light that we are meant to share with the world. If this light is to be clear and strong, then the spiritual teachings which we discuss must be free of of any impure influences which can weaken the clarity and strength of this life-giving light. This is why our recent discussion has focused on the need to distance ourselves from those animal rights activists whose ideas and tactics degrade the human being. Chanukah, however, brings us an additional challenge, for the story of this festival teaches us to distance ourselves from the pagan Greek philosophy which views the human being as the sovereign of the earth. As the ancient Greek philosopher, Protagorus, said, "Man is the measure of all things." This Greek view clashed with the Jewish view that Torah - the Truth of the Compassionate One - is to be the measure of all things.
Before the rise of Greek power, paganism stressed the frailty and the insignificance of the human being; thus, the pagan peoples feared and worshiped the powerful forces within nature, including the forces within other creatures. The pagan Greeks, however, stressed the significance and power of the human being; thus, they worshiped various "gods" which represented their own desires, lusts, and ambitions. Instead of serving the Compassionate One Who created the human being in the Divine image, the Greeks served lustful or greedy gods and goddesses that they created in their "own" image.
The Jewish people also stressed the significance of the human being, but according to their spiritual view, the true significance of the human being is found in the human ability to emulate the universal Divine love, compassion, and justice. It was the willingness of the Jewish people to defend this spiritual view that led to the miracle of Chanukah.
Students of history and philosophy are aware of the major influence of ancient Greek civilization on modern western civilization. We who grew up in this modern western civilization have therefore been influenced by the Greek view that the human being is the absolute sovereign of the earth - a sovereign that is free to exploit the earth and its creatures. This contradicts the Torah teaching that the human being is to serve as the custodian of the earth and its creatures, as it is written, "And the Compassionate and Just One placed the human being in the Garden of Eden to serve it and protect it" (Genesis 2:15). As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:
"The earth was not created as a gift to you - you have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God's earth, and everything on it as God's creation, as your fellow creature, to be respected, loved and helped to attain its purpose according to God's Will." (The Nineteen Letters - Letter 4)
In our modern western civilization, many human beings tend to view other forms of life not as fellow creatures, but as objects which exist solely for their selfish gratification. This western view, rooted in Greek thought, increases the darkness in the world. Our response to this darkness is to renew the light of the Torah; however, in order for this light to be clear and strong, we, the People of the Torah, must eliminate the impure influence of this western view on our thinking and way of life. In this way, we can experience the fulfillment of the following messianic prophecy:
"Arise! Shine! for your light has come, and the glory of the Compassionate One shines upon you. For, behold, darkness may cover the earth and a thick cloud the kingdoms, but upon you the Compassionate One will shine, and His glory will be seen upon you. Nations will walk by your light, and sovereigns by the glow of your dawn." (Isaiah 60:1-3)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen