How long will we have to struggle to hold on to our little strip of land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea?
Why do they hate us so?
Why all the world is against us, no matter what we do?
These questions trouble me; the answer I keep getting is not really an answer. Everyone tells me, "What choice do we have? Any ideas?"
It seems to me that, for the country as a whole, there really is no alternative. How difficult to live with the feeling that I exist only because there's no other option open to me. It's not exactly reassuring to wake up each morning and realize once again that the centuries-old dream of a peaceful haven for us tempest-tossed Jews has not yet been realized...
The most outrageous aspect of Israel's present state of the State is the hideous injustice and the intense animosity "enlightened" Western nations display toward us. Even those who, in the course of World War II, felt the blows of brutal oppression on their own flesh have not the least spark of compassion for us. Their stone-like indifference makes me shudder from head to toe.
Should we continue to secretly savor our rosy dreams of an independent, protective, welcoming, motherly Jewish State of our own, hoping against hope that they will come true? Wouldn't it be foolhardy to ignore the whispers that reach our ears from throughout the world: "Why?" one enemy asks the other. "Why should we not build our own Auschwitz here? Or perpetrate another pogrom, another Masada, as in days of old?" Is it so simple to live in a country that has known nine wars and two intifadas in the sixty-three years of its statehood? Sometimes I think we made a mistake somewhere along the line. Have we chosen the right path in life?
THE GREAT DREAM AND THE DOLEFUL REALITY
Our people aspire for peace, independence, and security. Will they ever see their dream come true? How elusive is peace! It involves independence, hanging by a thread, surrender, liberty, territorial tradeoffs, and much, much more. Have you ever stopped to think about the refrain that echoes again and again through Jewish history? "No Alternative; No Alternative; No Alternative!"
When did the Jewish People start to apply it? Why is there no alternative? These words were the springboard that catapulted us into action. Given no choice, we went forth to victories, and we went forth to failures; we had no choice but to act. If we thumb through the pages of our history, starting right from Day One, we will come across this theme again and again: The "No alternative" message has accompanied us throughout the ages.
"No choice!" It made its first appearance when famine forced our ancestors, Jacob and his sons, to emigrate temporarily to Egypt, the country in which we were first welded into a nation. Two hundred ten years later, again, for lack of choice, the Jewish People set out to return to the homeland Heaven had designated for them. They looked forward to building new lives in the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Centuries later, we were given no choice when the Greeks took over our country. They transformed our nation from upright Jewish citizens, proud of their monotheistic faith and their Torah into downtrodden, shamed puppets condemned to serving idols of stone and wood against their will. With no other option before them, the Maccabees instigated the guerrilla warfare that led, amazingly, to a successful revolt.
When the brutal Roman legions came close to wringing the last breath of life out of the People of Israel, we had no choice; again we went into exile, exhausted to the bone, depressed and broken, but nonetheless determined to serve our Maker. We took our "no choice" legacy with us, and miraculously, we are still here against all odds and the long years of the Diaspora.
Anyone who surveys today's headlines, as a non-biased observer from the side, will conclude that there is no logical point in our continuing the struggle for Israel's survival. The balance of power is clearly stacked hopelessly against us. Nonetheless, we continue to wage our war for life; it's our tradition. "We must stand tall! We have no other choice."
The Fate of Israel's People
Anyone who knows how to learn from the past will agree that, strictly speaking, this is not true, There is a choice, between surrender and victory. If we so wish, each individual is free to choose between death and life. Of course, not when it's too late. But actually, it's never too late.
One of the most decisive episode in world history will illustrate my point.
It happened after the Jewish People had achieved a measure of independence from a great colonial power. Babylonia. Remnants of our people returned from the exile and began to rebuild their homeland. Years passed, and the balance of world power changed. Alexander the Great conquered Babylonia and many other lands, establishing one of the largest empires of ancient history. With his death in 323 BCE, the empire was divided into three. At first, Israel fell to the relatively benign rule of the Egyptian sector. In 198 BCE the Syrian-Greeks wrested the Holy Land from the hands of the Ptolemian Greeks.
When Antiochus IV came to power, he was determined to Hellenize the Jews at all costs, just as he had converted the other nations he had conquered. There followed a reign of terror, during which the study of Torah and basic Jewish practices such as circumcision and Shabbat observance were punishable by death. Concurrently, worship of pagan idols in city squares became compulsory, also under pain of death. Greek battalions raided towns and villages, dispossessed the inhabitants, and made off with women, children, and livestock.
Mighty Greece flourished in our land, bringing with its legions a new, alien spirit. At the time, the non-Jewish world still worshiped a wide range of idols. The Hellenists took the spotlight of civilization and preached a new, more sophisticated form of idolatry. Now man himself, with the beauty and the power of the well-cultivated human body, became the object of man's worship. Mythology, sports and Greek philosophy led to the transfer of focus to the perfection of man's body – through sport – and mind, through the arts. All of creation was to kneel before intelligence and give homage to the power and skill of the human physique.
Greek culture spread rapidly throughout the former empire of Alexander the Great. Any opposition was brutally crushed under the heel of the Greek legions.
Anyone surveying the situation objectively at the time would have soon concluded that this was the end of the People of Israel; the brutal iron fist of the Greece would surely eliminate the last stubborn Jew who refused to bow to Hellenism.
But then there was a surprising turn of events. A faint candle of hope was lit in a small, seemingly insignificant town. Its flame eventually grew to cast its light and warmth on the history of the Jewish People, and, through them, on the entire world.
Even as Antiochus IV consolidated his campaign of Hellenization, the rebels, under Matityahu the High Priest, struck the match to ignite the first ember of resistance. Soon they were fanning the glowing coals of renewed Torah loyalty to open flames. Under the leadership of the Maccabees, this handful of proudly loyal Jews took up the call to rebellion. They were determined to preserve authentic Judaism, and to observe all the precepts of the Torah, the legacy of Israel.
Although a segment of the Jewish population – in particular, the wealthy upper class – were won over to ways of the Greek Syrians, the majority of the people had succumbed only outwardly, to save their lives. In their hearts, they sensed that Greek culture was diametrically opposed to the values of the Torah which G-d had bestowed upon them at Sinai. However, faced with the might of Antiochus, the best they might do was to moan in their hearts under the tyrannical yoke of the Greek governor. What else, they asked themselves, can we do?
The mighty Greek empire was not accustomed to resistance from those to whom it deigned to bring the "light of Hellenism." All their years of vast conquests and victories outside the Holy Land apart, the rulers felt rebuffed by this show of Jewish chutzpah. One sordid little tribe refused to acknowledge Hellenism's overwhelming superiority, and declined the opportunity to make Greek culture their own.
The tyrannical power with which the Greek governors ruled over the Jewish populace was smashed. The battle was joined and blood spilled on both sides. The Hellenized hero, the wise, beautified, and refined hero whom the Hellenists idolized as beauty and wisdom personified, now cast off his mantle of "culture" and disclosed the bestial warrior beneath. The struggle was not a dignified, verbal debate of ideals, values, and concepts. On the contrary, for all their claims to culture and refinement, the Greeks now drew forth their weapons and battled to impose their way of life on the Jewish People through the sword, blood, and fire.
One of the first targets was the observance of the Seventh Day, the Shabbat. Even before they stood at Sinai, the Jewish People were instructed to consecrate Shabbat as a testimony to the fact that all had been created by One G-d in the Six Days of Creation. Just as G-d refrained on the seventh day from His acts of creation, so, too, was the Jew commanded to desist from any creative act on the Shabbat, thus bearing witness to the sovereignty of One G-d. The concept of monotheism – of a unique, all-knowing, invisible, just and caring Supreme Being – was unknown at the time, outside of the Land of Israel. The idea was antithetical to Hellenism, with its multitude of warring gods plagued with every human weakness and vice known to man. Antiochus was determined to eradicate this belief and assert the superiority of the Greek-Syrian ethos. So odd and unique was the Jewish faith in the eyes of the typical Greek scholar that the historian Hecataeus found it striking that there were no idols or images or even statues in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Neither, he noted, were there gardens, or, for that matter, any type of plants. And, as incredible as it must have seemed to his readers, accustomed as they were to Hellenistic social norms, the Jewish priests of the Temple did not partake of "the smallest drop of wine" while they were in the Sanctuary.
The culture gap was far too wide for the Greeks to tolerate. They also outlawed observance of the laws concerning the sighting of the new moon which fixed the date of the first of each Jewish month. This concept was an expression of the power which G-d bestowed upon the Jewish People to consecrate time by declaring the onset of each month, and thus fixing the date of the Three Festivals and other holidays. The idea that the calendar, and all its events, was subject to Divine laws was a direct contradiction of all that the Greek culture stood for.
A third, and no less significant commandment which the Hellenists were determined to eradicate from Jewish practice was that of circumcision of baby boys. On pain of death – both of the perpetrator, and of the infant who had been circumcised – the practice was declared illegal. The idea that the Jew was willing, even anxious, to permanently stamp upon his body the symbol of his covenant with the Creator of the Universe was, again, more than the Greek conquerors could tolerate.
For the Jew, the ritual of Bris Milah, of circumcision, was a constant reminder that he was created. So much so that even his body, just as his deeds, was subject to the Will of his Maker. With this heightened awareness of his true place in the universe, the Jew was no longer susceptible to the human tendency to deify his heroes, whether in the sports arena or in the fields of arts and sciences.
Two diametrically opposed worldviews faced off to combat each other; one, mighty, numerous, and with almost unlimited resources at its disposal. Never had the legions of the Syrian-Greeks been defeated. And never had the collection of Jewish farmers, headed by the High Priest, Matityahu, won even a single battle against the mighty forces of the Hellenists.
The campaign to eradicate any trace of Torah and Judaism started at once. What would be the fate of the rebels? Was it not foolhardy to take on so superior a foe? The leaders of the rebellion were certain of the justice of their cause, but nonetheless were fearful lest they bring further catastrophe upon their fellow Jews, who were already suffering unbearable restrictions and oppression.
It was a terrible moment of despair. Whoever had seen the mighty arm of the battle-hardened troops of the Greek empire, and was honest with himself, evaluated the enemy's strength as it truly was and realized that the uprising had not one chance in a thousand – or even a million – to succeed. By all logic and reason, the fate of the Jewish nation was sealed before the battle began; there was no question but that they were doomed to extermination. The only question was whether they would fall to the sword, in active battle, or die a slow, drawn-out death in a cultural battle of conflicting cultures. Either way, there was not even a sliver of hope for the Jews to emerge the victors.
Whoever assumed the mantle of leadership at such a fateful hour in the history of the Jewish People must be capable of assessing the situation accurately, despite the hopelessness of his position. In addition, he must be wise and deliberate in judgment, and willing to take full responsibility for a nation under siege, a nation scattered and dispersed, and lacking any training in military arts. It would be his task to guide his nation either to a death by suicide in defending all that was dear to them, or to annihilation through a drawn-out war of attrition that would lead to national surrender of their national identity as the Jewish People.
Fortunately for that generation and all future generations of the People of Israel, there arose a great leader who was equal to the task. Matityahu, then serving as the High Priest, had all the qualities needed to meet the challenge successfully. The seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing his people served to ignite a holy flame in the patriarch's heart. He perceived the significance of the situation; he recognized the greatness of this hour. There was no choice but to act. Once again, it was a case of "No Alternative." In his wisdom, Matityahu foresaw that having "No Alternative" was the greatest asset to help the Jewish People to win their battle against Hellenism.
The Drama of the Moment
Careful analysis of the conditions of the conflict led Matityahu to conclude that this war must differ from all past military conflicts the world had known. This was to be an uprising against an individual monarch who presumed to impose his will on an entire people, and that people which represented G-d's dominion over the universe, the strength of Torah, and man's ethical mission in this world.
To Matityahu, Hellenism represented not culture and refinement, but the evil of arrogance, idolatry, the worship of power, and illusionary dreams of grandeur and might. He knew that in a conflict between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood, nothing would be decided by the victory of the stronger forces. Truth cannot be overcome and rewritten through military might and coercion. Therefore, it followed that the only path to follow was to arise and call out: "Whoever is on the side of G-d, gather round me!"
Those who answered his call were relatively few, but they were sincerely dedicated to the Truth. Matityahu led them to the battlefield knowing full well that they were not going to their death, but to a higher standard of life, a life of truth that would lead them to victory. This was not a suicidal campaign, but a march to a victory whose outcome was clear in advance. Few in number, physically weak, and pitifully underrated, but their faith in the mission and destiny of Israel as G-d's nation fortified them.
Not everyone understood the full significance of Matityahu's battle cry; only a select few were fully convinced in their hearts that the Torah is the one source of perfect justice. As such, it has the power to bring victories on those who are faithful to it. Such were the individuals who gathered around the embattled high priest, and echoed his cry: "Who among the gods is like You, O G-d!"
Against all odds, they accomplished their goal. They cleansed the Land of the Greek gods and godesses, smashing idols and driving off those who had set them up in the first place. They burst joyfully through the gates of the Holy Temple, abandoned by the fleeing Greeks. At once, they set to purifying the Sanctuary which the Hellenists had defiled with their idols and sacrifices of swine.
The unique, seven-branched pure gold candelabrum, the Menorah, had been melted down by the Greeks. Now a temporary substitute was improvised. Now they needed ritually pure oil, painstakingly prepared as prescribed by the laws of the Temple, and stored in a cruse that had been sealed and safely stored away. But there was no pure oil to be found! In their savage frenzy to destroy any trace of the sanctity of the Jewish Temple, Antiochus' men had wantonly broken the priests' seal on the entire stock of oil containers. Now there remained only the smashed containers, all of which had been defiled. The jubilation of regaining the Temple and the preparations for the renewal of the service suddenly came to a halt. It would take at least eight days to prepare fresh oil for lighting the Menorah. What a disappointment! Everyone joined in an earnest search, hoping that the Greeks might have overlooked some hidden corner of the Temple's stockrooms. Perhaps they would find enough oil to keep the Menorah alight just until a new supply would be ready?
Suddenly, there was cry of joy! Yes, here was a cruse of oil that no one had defiled! Thank Heaven, its seal was still intact. A second wave of rejoicing… then another disappointment. The oil in the undefiled container was only enough to burn in the Menorah for one day. Again, the collective heart of the priests and their assistants fell within them. Would the re-dedication of the Temple have to be postponed because of so minor a detail? But what else could they do? It was totally out of the question to defile the Menorah – regained with such effort and such obvious assistance from Above – by using oil purposely contaminated by their vanquished enemy. It was decided to use the oil from the single sealed cruse to light the Menorah without waiting for new oil to be prepared.
And again, the miracle of "No Alternative" stood by them. The candles burned not one day, not two, and not three, but a full eight days, until the priests managed to prepare a fresh supply of olive oil as prescribed by the Torah. Here was another openly-revealed miracle. There was no other explanation for the fact that the Menorah's flames remained alight for a full eight days using only one cruse of oil.
Years went by. The history of the Jews saw its ups and downs. The Romans sent the nation into another era of exile, this one far longer those that preceded it. There remained only memories of the Maccabees' valor on the battlefield and the independence they had wrested from the Greek oppressors. However, the memory of the small cruse of oil which burned for eight days instead of only one continues to burns brightly in our hearts yet today, over two millennia later, as we celebrate Chanukah, the eight-day commemoration of the miraculous cruse of oil that burnt for eight days. We light our Chanukah candles each night to reaffirm our faith that, in the end, the light of Truth will always conquer the darkness.
Chanukah was the last historical holiday to be added to the Jewish calendar. Each year, it is there to ensure that the memory of this special oil remain bright and fresh. Even now, over two thousand years later, we recall it again each year and are re-inspired by the glow of its light.
At first glance, this might seem odd. Which was the greater miracle, the military victory of a handful of farmers, led by a family of priests, over the invincible war machine of mighty Greece? Or the fact that a small, one-day portion of oil continued to give its light and warmth for over a week?
Obviously, it is the Maccabees' military victory which was, by far, the more striking miracle. Jerusalem was retaken after only three years of fighting, but it took a full twenty-five years of combat to flush the last of the enemy out of the Holy Land and bring them to the peace table. Why, then, is it the eight-day cruse of oil that we recall to this day, rather than the miracles of the battlefield?
The explanation is simple. It is the cruse of oil, and not the victory at battle, which bears the message which is to be handed down from generation. It is the light of the Chanukah candles which arouses in our heart the motto handed down through the ages: "Whoever is on the side of G-d, gather round me!" It is the glow of our Chanukah Menorah which proclaims that "there is no choice, no alternate path for us to follow." This is the greatest, most beautiful and exhilarating message of the Jewish People throughout all generations.