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The War against the Jews waged in the decades before the Maccabean revolt was directed primarily at Jewish spirituality. The Syrian Greeks converted the Beis Hamikdash in Jerusalem into a pagan temple, closed the synagogues, banned Torah study and brutally enforced the death penalty for the observance of key Mitzvos. In short, they tried to put an end to the Jewish way of life.
Resistance to the oppressor was not quick in coming. And when it came, the challenge was small-scale. A single family said "No" to the soldiers who had descended upon their village to force them to worship a pagan god. In defiance of an empire, the elderly Mattisyahu cried out "Whoever is for G-d, come join me!" And he and his sons were joined by tens of others. But the tens grew to hundreds. And the hundreds eventually grew to thousands.
Poorly armed and trained though they were, the Jewish rebels defeated the garrison sent to restore the status quo. And then they defeated the regiment sent to succeed where the smaller force had failed. And then they defeated an army, and then a still larger army of some 60,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry!
By this time, the entire nation was ablaze with enthusiasm as Yehudah Maccabee reclaimed Jerusalem and undertook the cleansing of the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple. It was during this effort, of course, that the mere one-day supply of pure oil burned miraculously for eight days – long enough for the Jews to produce additional pure oil for the Menorah.
In lighting the Menorah during all eight nights of Chanukah, we seem to be commemorating only the miracle of the oil. But if we think about it, we will see that our practice of mosif v'holeich, "adding (an additional candle nightly) as we go" through the eight nights of Chanukah, had broader implications.
Historically, "adding as we go" characterizes the increasing magnitude of the Maccabean victories. Additional victories were scored, by the way, following the signing of a peace agreement with the Syrian-Greek enemy and their departure from the Land of Israel. Yehudah Maccabee subdued enemies closer to home – in Moav and Gilead. And his brother Shimon overcame the gentiles in Samaria and the Galilee.
Chanukah and Us
Jewish Festivals and Holidays are not intended merely as nostalgic commemorations of past events. They speak to us in the present as much as they speak of our ancestors in the distant past. This is nonetheless true for Chanukah. The Maccabean battle against Greek materialism and paganism has not yet been won. Both the secular society all around us and the yetzer hora within us work overtime to pull us away from the real purpose of life: service of Hashem and the unparalleled pleasure that comes with it. They entice us with a million and one distractions and amusements and try to sell us philosophy and art as substitutes for spirituality.
When a Jew stands up to this "conspiracy of distraction" and recognizes Hashem, he is nothing less than a modern-day Mattisyahu, calling out "Whoever is for G-d, follow me!"
Who exactly is he summoning?
First and foremost, he is summoning himself and the spiritual strengths at his disposal. He is showing his willingness to take on the powerful habits, desires and inclinations of a lifetime.
If the chances of success strike us as slim, we do well to remember the Maccabees and their miraculous victory over the mighty empire of Antiochus. Hashem stands ready to help us just as he helped them. Our Sages assure us that if we want to cleanse and purify ourselves, G-d will assist us. And how! As the Talmud puts it: If we sanctify ourselves a little, G-d will sanctify us a lot; if we sanctify ourselves from below, G-d will sanctify us from Above, if we sanctify ourselves in this world, G-d will sanctify us in the World-to-Come (Yoma 38-39).
Mosif V'Holeich – On the Personal Level
The Maccabees did not defeat the Syrian Greeks in six days or six months. They concerned themselves with one battle at a time, rebuffing ever larger enemy forces. Indeed, they did not win their greatest "victory" on the battlefield, as noted in the Chanukah issue of Arachim last year. The force of 120,000 soldiers sent to subdue the revolt once and for all pushed back Yehudah and his men from Beir Zecharya, near Jerusalem. But G-d brought about the rebuff of the many in another way: through a revolt back in Antioch which forced the commander to take his army home.
The events of Chanukah teach us that we, too, are not expected to re-make our lives in a matter of days or months. But if we embrace the approach of mosif v'holeich – of continued and consistent growth – we will succeed.
Like the Dawn
In the timeless words of the prophet Hoshea, we find a reflection of this approach that has special resonance for many who participated in the Case-of-Torah Seminar. We emerged with a genuine desire to finally get serious about our heritage: "Let us know, let us pursue the knowledge of G-d," we said to ourselves and to one another.
How to proceed? "Like the dawn," the prophet tells us in the very same verse (6:3). As Rabbenu Bechaye explains, Hoshea is alluding to the slow but steady pace of the dawn. Precisely because it comes in this way, the effect of daybreak is not shocking or harsh. We adjust to the growing light with ease.
In this same spirit, the Mishnah speaks of starting with an "easy mitzvah, for one mitzvah brings another in its wake…"
The light of Torah and Jewish values is capable of vanquishing the darkness of Hellenistic materialism and paganism (regardless of whether or not the "old immorality" is disguised as the "New Morality"). This applies both on the macrocosmic and the macrocosmic planes – both to our society and ourselves. But to the most effective in this great enterprise, we need to increase the light-level one candle at a time. Mosif V'Holeich!