Yes, Chanukah is here. A festive time for the Jewish nation. We light our candles, do song and dance, dreidels and latkes, Hallel and Hoda’ah and… we recite Al HaNissim.
Al HaNissim is our blueprint for what it is that we are actually celebrating. It tells us exactly what was the objective of the Yevanim and how miraculous was our G-d given victory. We were few and they were many. We were weak and they were strong. We were righteous and they were wicked. But HKBH stood up for us in our time of need. He fought our battles, rendered our judgments, and wrought our vengeance.
We were victorious and so, we restored the Beis HaMikdash and the seder hakorbanos.
We learn from this that with G-d’s help, anything is possible. It doesn’t matter if we are few and weak. If HKBH is on our side, victory is assured.
Oh, and another thing. We cannot just sit idly and wait for divine intervention to save us. We must be proactive and take matters into our own hands.
This philosophy has penetrated the hearts and minds of myriad devout Jews over the centuries. And it seems to have a firm basis from the story of Chanukah. The Maccabees have stood out as symbols of heroism and mesiras nefesh in the face of overwhelming odds. We make comparisons to the Maccabees when we talk about the resistance groups and uprisings in the face of the Nazi beast during the Holocaust and likewise of the refuseniks of Soviet Russia.
Unfortunately, in some religious circles, the philosophy of taking matters into our own hands has grown so strong that they have lost sight of the first half of the lesson – that we need G-d’s help. Without G-d’s help we cannot succeed no matter how righteous we are and how pure are our intentions.
Where do we learn this from?
We learn this from the Dry Bones.
The navi in Yechezkel 37 tells of a miraculous event. The Prophet Yechezkel (my favorite) was brought to the Valley of Dura where he saw a heap of dry bones. HKBH commanded Yechezkel to prophesy that they should come to life, and behold, so it was. The bones grew new sinews and flesh and became living people.
The gemara in Sanhedrin (92b) debates whether this event actually occurred or was it merely a vision. On the side that it really took place, it further asks: Who precisely were the people who initially possessed these bones?
One answer the gemara presents is that these were the bones of the segment of Shevet Ephraim who miscalculated the predestined time for the exodus from Egypt, made a unilateral get-away, and were killed by the Plishtim (Palestinians?) of Gath. They held that the 400 years of slavery begins from the initial pronouncement at Bris ben Habesarim in the year 2018.
One has to wonder, why did only these Bnei Ephraim go up? Why didn’t all of the Jews go with them? Didn’t everyone want redemption from Pharaoh’s yoke of slavery?
Obviously, the other Jews did not concur with their [erroneous] calculation. They maintained that the 400 years don’t begin until the year Yitzchok was born - 2048.
Then, why did they go up by themselves?
They must have been very smug about their position.
I would imagine that they must have tried to convince the other Jews to come along and it must have stirred up quite a debate. They must have brought proofs to their position. The others may have countered with proofs of their own. But I would assume many people weren’t interested in proofs. They held that if it is time, HKBH will send his messenger and secret password. We will see the divine revelation. We will not need to guess or to calculate. We will know it when it happens.
But the Bnei Ephraim held that redemption will not come by itself. We have to make it happen. We have to do it. G-d is waiting for us to make our move. Just like Nachshon ben Aminadav. When we take the initiative, the Shechina will come out of golus and join in. But, it’s up to us. The time to act is now. G-d will be with us!
When G-d finally did take us out of Egypt some 30 years later, He took care not to lead us up the shorter coastal route. Why? So that we shouldn’t see the corpses of the Bnei Ephraim lying dead in the Valley of Dura and become disheartened.
But there was a down side to this detour. Sure, we didn’t see the Bnei Ephraim and become disheartened but we also did not see them and learn a valuable lesson. And those who do not remember the past (or are ignorant of it) are condemned to repeat it. Consequently, we see a similar episode transpire in Parshat Shlach.
In the wake of the debacle of the 10 spies, HKBH decreed that we must remain exiled in the desert for another 39 years. A group of Jews (this time they may have been from Shevet Menashe), was not about to take this decree sitting down. After declaring their repentance, which was probably totally sincere, they decided that HKBH would be amenable for them to display their new-found faith in His power to vanquish the Canaanim. They assumed that HKBH’s decree was merely a cue for them to take matters into their own hands and to get the job done.
Moshe tried to tell them that they are mistaken. The decree of G-d is immutable (kind of like the freezer in Lakewood). Don’t bother trying. He will not be with you. The Torah says that they propelled forward nevertheless, but the Aron Bris Hashem and Moshe did not budge from the camp.
This did not have a happy ending.
So here we have two conflicting ideologies on the proper way of seeking redemption from galus. The Dry bones/Maapelim model indicates that it’s a good idea to stand by for clear instructions. שב ואל תעשה עדיף The Maccabee model indicates that we need to take the bulvahn by the horns. מה תצעק אלי? דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו!
Oh, what’s a good Jewish body to do?
This debate rages on to the modern era. Until the beginning of the 20th Century, the notion of the Jewish people taking themselves out of exile was an unattainable dream. But some hefty World Wars changed all that. That along with the development of steamships, trains, and planes that could swiftly transport Jews back to the Land from all points on the globe. (Along with an assumption that nobody else cared for this desolate strip of real estate anyhow.) And, so, some Jews decided it is time for action.
Now, I do not intend to discuss the secular Zionists who were never interested in a third Jewish Commonwealth and a Beis HaMikdash. These folks merely wanted an independent state where there were no European goyim around to remind them that they are Jewish and to disallow them to participate in their indulgences. They preferred to dispel the golus through diplomatic means. And HKBH was not part of the picture.
But the religious Zionists were not the same. While riding on the diplomatic coattails of the seculars, they did aspire to a third Commonwealth and felt that HKBH will stand by them in their quest whether by friendship or force. They drew inspiration from the mighty Macabees – to win against the odds; the few in the hands of the many, the strong in the hands of the weak, the wicked in the hands of the righteous. And they brought up all kinds of references from Tanach and Talmudic sources to back them up.
The Chareidi Rabannim, for the most part, disagreed (perhaps there were exceptions…). Some of the sources are misinterpreted. But most of them are not looked upon as being relevant in the here and now. "The fruit - and hence, the time - is not yet ripe. The restoration of Malchus Bais Dovid (Moshiach) has not come. The navi has not given us the secret password. We do not yet have a true parah adumah.We cannot eat matzo on erev Pesach. כלה בלא ברכה אסורה כנדה.The Torah world is lodged in the West. The Aron Bris Hashem and Moshe have not budged."
But then, HKBH, in His infinite sense of irony, teased us all. He destroyed the Torah centers of Europe but reestablished them in America. He gave us miraculous victories but we only won an independent state and not a Jewish Commonwealth.
Of course, the Torah community has thrived here as well. And with it come the religious right-wing activists. Some are the hilltop settlers. Some are the Temple Mount Faithful. Some are the Kahanistim. Some are the Temple Institute. And some are all of these. Many are indeed devoutly religious and are infused with a religious fervor to bring about the geulah and to restore the Beis HaMikdash and the Korbanos. And they know all of the snappy pickup lines. “Mitzvos are applicable in all generations and at all times. We have found the Techeles. We can establish a Sanhedrin (or, we already have). Korban Persach does not require a Beis HaMikdash. Tumah hutra b’tzibur. Let us do it now.”
And the debate rages on.
They say we must be like Mattisyahu and his sons, the Maccabees. It is imperative. If we do not act, we will be held accountable. The others say, we must not be like the Bnei Ephraim and the Ma'apelim. It is forbidden. If we act, we will be held accountable.
Who is right?
To be honest, I am not quite sure myself.
I think the only way to answer this is to go to the “source”. Why did HKBH support the Macabees but not the Bnei Ephraim and the Maapelim? What is the difference? Wasn’t everybody acting l’shem Shamayim?
One possible answer would corroborate a story that I heard attributed to Harav Yitzchok Hutner, ZT”L.
The story goes that there was a young bochur learning in a given Yeshiva and he was doing just fine. The boy’s father thought that his son may have even greater success in a different yeshiva. He approached Rav Hutner, ZT”L to ask him if it is a good idea to transfer his son to a presumably better yeshiva. Rav Hutner responded as follows:
When we say Hallel on Sukkos and recite the wordsאנא השם הושיעה נא (Please Hashem, save us!) we wave the 4 minim. When we recite the wordsאנא השם הצליחה נא (Please Hashem, help us to succeed!) we do not wave the 4 minim. Why do we do this in the first case but not in the second?
The answer is that when one is being threatened with an intolerable situation and imminent physical or spiritual harm and he needs a salvation and keeping the situation as-is is not an option, he cannot sit still. He must be proactive and do what is necessary and trust in Hashem to help him. Conversely, when one is not facing an existential threat and the current situation is tolerable (i.e., things will not deteriorate) but merely he is looking for greater success and achievement, he must not move on his own but wait for HKBH to guide him to greater success if He so wishes.
Hence, Rav Hutner was telling the petitioner that if his son is succeeding where he is at, it is best not to make any “improvements”. He would not have said the same if the boy was not succeeding.
Likewise, the Maccabees were facing a Greek government that was not allowing us to be Jews at any level. Shabbos, milah, mikveh and Torah learning were being taken from us. The spiritual danger was critical, the situation was intolerable. Acceptance of the situation was not an option. It was clear that action must be taken to avoid spiritual annihilation. Whether the time is ripe is not up for debate. The Maccabees needed to act and they did. They had no choice. We needed a salvation from HKBH and He came through.
Similarly when the Jews were trapped in front of the Red Sea, HKBH said that this is not a situation that can be left as is. Don't just stand still and pray for salvation - מה תצעק אלי. You must make the first move - דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו.
Conversely, Bnei Ephraim and the Maapelim were facing a bleak substandard situation that was slated to continue for just a few more decades (only 30 years in the case of the Bnei Ephraim and 39 years in the case of the Maapelim). Although the servitude of Egypt and the barrenness of the desert were not ideal, there was no imminent existential threat. Nothing they had today was being taken from them and today is not worse than yesterday. And besides, G-d had given His decree. They were looking for success but did not need salvation. This is not the time to take matters into one’s hands and be poresh from the tzibur. G-d stayed with the tzibur and allowed them to perish (from the tzibur). The Aron Bris Hashem and Moshe did not budge.
Another approach to explain this difficulty is that the Bnei Ephraim and the Ma'apelim were fighting for our zechus to the Land. For the Maccabees it was different. They were living in the Land and were not being exiled from it. It was not the zechus to the Land that was at stake but the zechus to the Torah and the Jewish neshama. For the Torah one has to fight and be moser nefesh. But not for the Land.
What is the difference?
The difference is that the Torah is not a gift. It is an inheritance. It is a Morasha – Morashat kehillas Yaakov. An inheritance is a birthright and does not need to be acquired. A newborn infant and a comatose vegetable can assume an inheritance without any knowledge or action. The Torah inherently and unconditionally belongs to us and nobody has a right to take it away even for a moment. Thus if someone attempts to do so, we have the right to fight for it and expect HKBH to come to our aid.
The Land is more like a gift. It is a privilege more than it is a right. Although the zechus to live here was indeed inherited from our forefathers, it is still subject to a host of conditions. We must observe the shmittas and we must be a holy people lest the Land spits us out as it spit out the nations who came before us. Although we are heirs, there are others. We must be worthy. We must earn the Land, we cannot demand it. We could not initially get the Land until the 400 years expired because the sin of the Emori needed to be complete. Until then, it wasn’t time. When the Ma'apelim moved in, they were trying to claim a Land that they hadn’t earned. G-d wasn’t ready to let them take it.
The Maccabees weren’t fighting for the Land. For those who know the historical facts, the truth is they did not succeed to vanquish the Greeks from the Land. Even after the great victory, the Greeks were still there. They fought for the right to remain Jews and to study and keep the Torah. This was a virtuous battle because the Torah is eternally ours and exclusively ours. For this battle, G-d will always come to our aid.
Of late, I have gotten to know some of today’s Kahanistim. As a rule, they are sincere people, devoted to Yiddishkeit and their motives are pure. And I believe the same about the group’s founding father Rav Meir Dovid ben Yechezkel Shraga Kahane, HY”D. I think most people will acknowledge that his perception about the political realities of our environs and the outlooks and goals of our Yishmaeli cousins was spot on. But the chareidi Rabbanim of his day were not in his corner.
It is interesting that among Rav Kahane (ZT”L/HY”D)’s prolific writings was a commentary on Neviim rishonim which he called פירוש המכב"י. What was the meaning of the term מכב"י?
It's an acronym for: מאיר כהנא בן יחזקאל
Aside from this actual acronym being obviously quite auspicious to his cause, it also indicates that he wants to identify his struggles as in line with those of the Maccabees (perhaps his ancestors?) He doesn’t seem to focus on the Yechezkel part (also a Kohein) which relates to the dry bones. (I wonder if his name would make an acronym מעפיל would he use it as a name for his sefarim?)
I think that the Rabbanim felt more like Rav Hutner, ZT”L. Even though his perception was deadly accurate and he was totally l’shem Shamayim, his call was more one of אנא השם הצליחה נא than it was אנא השם הושיעה נא. One that doesn’t call for proactive measures but rather to wait for HKBH's divine revelation. It was a struggle for our right to control the Land. But this can only succeed if we are truly worthy. G-d’s support and victory are not – as of yet - assured.
So after we have studied the episodes of the Maccabees and the Maapelim, the miraculous oil and the dry bones, we need to think twice about how much we are the masters of our own destiny. To what extent can we call the shots and try to force G-d’s hand. To what extent can we decide for ourselves if we are worthy of G-d’s intervention. When can we be assured of victory and when we cannot.
We must choose our battles, and we must choose wisely.
A freiliche Chanukah!
Other golden oldies about Chanukah: