It was early afternoon on a hot summer's day. The fields were empty for the villagers of Modi'in had risen with the sun and worked their fields. By noon, they had all left the scorching heat for the shelter of their homes or the Beis Midrash.
In better times, this hour of the day would have found the Beis Midrash full. Men deeply involved in Torah study and voices blending into a chorus would swell on the hot air. No longer did the blend of voices produce a harmonious refrain of Torah study. Nowadays, hardly anyone dared to enter the Beis Midrash.
These were the days of Antiochus IV, the Syrian-Greek tyrant who ruled the Land of Israel with an iron hand in the second century B.C.E. He was determined to make the Holy Land no less a center of Hellenistic culture than the other countries over which he held sway. He ransacked the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and confiscated its golden vessels and its silver for his treasury. Even the gold ornamentation was torn down and confiscated, together with the funds in the Temple treasury.
The oppressive ruler had filled the Temple with pagan idols and alters to Greek gods and ordered the Jews to bring sacrifices on them. Additional altars were erected in city squares, and Jews were ordered to bow to them and to bring sacrifices on them, or else be slaughtered. Many remained loyal to the faith of their fathers and gave their lives rather than appearing to worship idols.
Another measure of his campaign forbade circumcision, Torah study, and other commandments. Torah study or instruction was punishable by death. The majority of the populace feared for their lives and complied, at least overtly. Many people fled Jerusalem, where the Greeks were in complete control. The High Priest, Mattityahu fled with his family to Modi'in, a small town a short distance from the capital.
It was no wonder that the Beis Midrash was nearly empty that summer afternoon. Only Mattityahu, together with his sons and a few other brave men, dared to enter. In the midst of their discussion, a shrill cry of frightened children pierced the air. Adult voices soon joined them. People were running in all directions. Mattityahu and the others rushed out to discover what was amiss.
As they ran toward the town center, a young lad in simple farmer's garb came running toward them. “The Greeks!” he screamed. “A battalion is coming! They're heavily armed and mounted on fine steeds. The regional commissioner is with them.”
In the distance, the tell-tale cloud of dust confirmed the boy's alarming report. Soon the hoofbeats of the horses echoed on the rolling hills. “Let the women and children barricade themselves in the houses,” ordered Mattityahu. “All the men, arm yourselves and gather in the square.”
Then Mattityahu closed his eyes and beseeched his Creator to guide him in the confrontation about to take place, and grant him success. The five sons stood respectfully to the side. They drew new strength from the awe and determination which was clearly etched on their father's face as he prayed. Then they turned to join the others in the central square of the town.
The troops arrived and took up positions on one side of the square, where they stood at attention in silence. All eyes focused on the ornate sedan chair, borne on two long poles. The door was opened. The regional commissioner stepped out and, with obvious pride, surveyed his men. Their well-polished armor gleamed in the sun. Their swords were drawn. Danger was more imminent than ever, and the air was thick with tension and dread.
The commissioner ordered his men to set up the statue of a Greek god they had brought with them. While this was being done, he proceeded to read out the details of Antiochus' decree: As part of their initiation to their new role as good citizens of the Greek-Syrian empire, each one must bow down to the idol as a demonstration of his loyalty to the emperor.
Fear gripped the Jews. It was just as they had feared; the long, iron hand of the tyrannical Antiochus had stretched out to strangle their faith even here, in the small village to which they had fled. Their very lives and those of their families were at stake. Bow to an idol? Even children knew that this was one of the three prohibitions which one must sacrifice all, even his life, to avoid.
From the houses around the square, one could see children peering out between the cracks to catch a glimpse of the drama playing itself out before their very eyes. Each small head reeled with the thought: What will my father do? He has always bowed his head only before his Creator. Would he now give a semblance of acknowledging a lump of metal, the work of flesh and blood, as a deity?
Not one Jew stepped forward to obey the emperor's orders.
“Hurry up, you dirty Jews,” roared the officer. “Bow down! All of you, before we slay you all!”
A few of the men shifted their weight restlessly from side to side, but no one stepped forward. Then, one man slowly marched forward, heading directly for the metal form in the middle of the square. The commissioner breathed more easily, and a satanic smile formed on his lips. Here was the first step to victory. His heart swelled with pride.
“Traitor!” bellowed Matityahu in a tone that froze even the soldiers to the spot.
The commissioner's head turned sharply to face the elderly priest. Gone was the smirk that had curved his lips. He resembled a regal lion about to partake of his prey only to relinquish his sumptuous meal to another at the last moment. The elderly priest rushed toward the lone deserter, shouting in defiance: “Mi Lashem eilai! Whoever is loyal to the Creator, follow me!”
As one man, the Jews fell upon the dumbfounded soldiers, who quickly scattered in every possible direction. The commissioner was slain, and the idol smashed to pieces. The revolt of the Maccabees had begun.