Antiochus IV Epiphanes ruled the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire from 175 BCE until his death in 164 BCE. The Holy Land and its Jews suffered greatly as a result of his iron fist. The Greeks imposed their rule not only politically, but also attempted to impose Hellenistic values upon the populace. They took control of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, ransacked its riches, and erected an altar to Greek idols. They then proceeded to sacrifice swine to their idols.
The practice of Judaism was forbidden on pain of death, and Jewish blood flowed freely. Synagogues and centers of religious study were forcibly closed down. Compulsory public meetings were held, at which community leaders were ordered to prove their denial of their religion by partaking of pork and offering sacrifices to Greek idols, all on pain of death.
In 167 BCE, the fight to regain religious independence began in the town of Modi'in. It was led by the High Priest, Mattathias, who was ordered by the Greeks to publically offer a sacrific to an idol erected in the town square. When an apostate Jew came forward to offer the sacrifice in his stead, Mattathias slew him, and tore down the altar. Then, together with his five sons, the elderly priest fled to the hills and embarked on a guerilla war.
Logically, all the odds were against the handful of rebels, but their faith in G-d's assistance led them to persevere in their struggle. Dozens of like-minded Jews joined their band of fighters. The dozens grew to hundreds, and, with time, the hundreds, to thousands.
When the elderly priest passed away, in 166 BCE, his son Judah took the lead. The group repulses the troops that were sent to put down their "local uprising." One victory followed another. Eventually, they defeated the entire army, numbering 60,000 foot soldiers and 5,000 mounted men.
The entire Jewish nation rejoiced. They rushed to open the gates of the Holy Temple and tore down the Greek idols and the altars on which sacrifices had been offered to them. Then they built a new altar dedicated to their Creator, Who had granted them victory over their mighty foe.
This done, they set about restoring the Sanctuary to its previous, pure state. Anxious to renew the daily Temple service, they sought pure oil with which to light the menorah, the candelabrum which was to be lit anew each day with olive oil scrupulously prepared specifically for this purpose. Despite extensive searches through the Temple grounds, they found only one single cruse of pure oil, enough to last twenty-four hours.
They lit the menorah with the oil of this one cruse, and miraculously, it burned not for one day, but for eight. During the extra week, they prepared a new supply of ritually pure oil for the menorah lighting.
In commemoration of this eight-day miracle, the Sages ordained that future generations celebrate Chanukah with eight days of festivities, thanksgiving, and candle lighting. On the first day of Chanukah, they instructed us to light one candle, on the second day, two, on the third, three, and so on. In the words of the Sages, the light of the candles "increments from day to day."
This characteristic, ongoing incrementation, characterized the entire rebellion, from its very onset as a small, local uprising. Bit by bit, the battle expanded, gained new warriors, and conquered additional territory. Town by town, district by district, the rebels extended their circle of power, until they reached the capital, Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple itself.
After years of struggle, they subdued the mighty army of Antiochus, with its tens of thousands of foot soldiers and cavalry. They stood up to long columns of armored elephants bearing skilled archers, despite the trembling of the earth beneath the feet of the mammoth beasts.
At last the victory was theirs. The Greeks admitted their defeat and made peace with the rebels. But this was not the end. Judah the Maccabee continued to free the surrounding territory of enemy forces in Moab and the Gilead. His brother Simon drove the remaining alien forces out of Samaria and the Galilee. Together, they fortified the cities they had taken and continued to expand their borders. The generation of leaders who took over from them followed the same pattern.
So, too, did the third generation of Maccabees who led the nation. All were true to the pattern of "incrementation and increase."
This pattern is not merely a fact of history. Jewish holidays are not merely an occasion for nostalgia over past events. Each has its moral to impart, a concept to convey to us today, for our times.
The rebellion of the Maccabees is eternal. The struggle is not yet over. Within each of us there lies a trace of the tendency to Hellenism, a drive to conquer, to rule, to wield power and to win a wreath of laurels. It tries to impose its alien values on our personality. The name of this inner tendency is the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, which lies inside each human being who has been endowed with free choice.
It is striking to note that today's yetzer hora employs tactics similar to those used by Antiochus over two thousand years ago: Entertain the masses! Distract them from true introspection and spiritual progress! Build stadiums, encourage sports, and make them an end in themselves. Make their heroes the objects of public adulation.
Cultivate the arts – music, drama, sculpture, dance. Set times for imbibing in fine wines and indulging in exotic cuisine. He provides no end of distractions world: Travel, drama, sports, literature, music, history – whatever catches man's fancy, just so long as he is preoccupied and too busy to consider the true purpose for which man has been created and placed in this world: to worship and serve his Creator and to fulfill His commandments.
Every Jew who pauses to think and to take an accounting of his life, who realizes that he has cut himself off from His Maker, and then decides to return to his roots, continues the tradition of Mattathias, the High Priest in his time. He emulates the elder of the Maccabees, who mounted the platform erected in the town square for the altar to Greek idols and called out: "Whoever is for G-d, gather around me!"
To whom does the modern Mattathias call out? To all the powers of his own character, of his soul. He summons every ounce of will power to join battle with him. Against whom is he rebelling? Against the vast empire of the evil inclination. How many habits, how many daily routines, how much "second nature" does he wish to cast off? So many practices have become ingrained in his life, that he must wage a clever, constant battle to change his ways.
What are his chances of success?
Just as in the time of the Maccabees, he will receive help from Above:
"In the days of Mattathias… the High Priest, and his sons…
You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong.
You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few,
the impure into the hands of the pure,
the wicked into the hands of the righteous,
and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah."
From Al Hanisim, special prayer of thanksgiving for Chanukah
He who arises and rebels against his personal yetzer hara is guaranteed the help of Heaven in winning his battle. The Maccabees did their utmost to locate pure oil for the re-dedication of the Holy Temple. In the end, they found a single cruse of oil – enough for one day – and went ahead and lit the menorah with it.
Heaven blessed their efforts and made the one cruse of oil burn the entire eight days required for the preparation of additional pure oil.
So, too, does Heaven bless every Jew who wishes to improve with miraculous powers. Once he begins to do a mitzvah, G-d strengthens him and encourages him to continue and to succeed. It is up to us to take the first step; then Heaven places us on a moving escalator that takes us higher and higher. The second and third steps are far easier to take than the first, brave step forward in the decisive direction.
There is another lesson to be learned from the story of Chanukah. We light the candles in keeping with the rule: "Mosif veholeich" – always incrementing. On the first night, one candle. The second night, two. The third night, three, and so forth. Each day is slightly more than the previous one.
So, too, did the Maccabees progress. Their first step was a local uprising. Mattathias refused to obey an order to sacrifice a pig to a Greek idol. He and his sons fled to caves after killing the head of the local garrison, who threatened them with death for their resistance.
When the regional commander brought his forces to apprehend the rebels, he too was repulsed and beaten, together with his men. Other re-enforcements were called in, but one victory led to another for the Maccabees. Undaunted, they continued their fight, gradually wresting more and more territory from the enemy.
Eventually, they faced the entire army assigned to the Holy Land, and won! Additional troops were called in from Aram, but they, too, fell before the determined men of Judah, who had taken over when his father, Mattathias, passed away.
Step by step, the Jewish forces added to their domain, until the entire country was in their hands.
Chanukah teaches us that we don't win battles overnight. There are no "instant revolutions." Not on the military arena, and not when fighting to remake one's character. A person needs time to become accustomed to new situations, to draw up new battle plans and position his forces. It is important not to let up, to be constant and consistent. Chanukah teaches us to "increment" – so that steadily and surely, we can win the race.
The rule of the Greeks is compared to darkness (Pekikta Rabati 33). The Torah is likened to light (Proverbs 6:23).
How do we dispel darkness? Through the light of Torah! Bit by bit. We increment. One candle, then two, then three, and so on.
But Chanukah teaches us the importance of staying with it, seeing it through, consistently, constantly.
Slow and steady, wins the race.