Light of the Chosen Nation

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
  • הדפסה

וחשך על פני תהום – זה גלות יון שהחשיכה עיניהם של ישראל בגזרותיהן שהיתה אומרת כתבו לכם על קרן השור שאין לכם חלק באלוקי ישראל.

Our Sages interpret the verse, “There was darkness upon the face of the depths,” as a reference to the Greeks, who sought to darken the world by extinguishing the light of the holy Torah.  Among their evil decrees, they ordered us to carve on the horns of the ox (השור) that we have no portion in the G‑d of Israel.[1]

Since the letter ה appears before the word שור it seems that our Sages referred to a particular ox, upon which the Greeks ordered us to carve this blasphemous proclamation.  To which ox did they refer?

To answer this question, we must first understand the essence of the war between the Chashmonaim and the Greeks.  The oppression we suffered under the hand of the Greeks was very different from the military onslaught of the Babylonians and Romans, who conquered our land, destroyed our Beis HaMikdash, and exiled our people.  The Greeks, in contrast, allowed us to remain in Eretz Yisrael and left the Beis HaMikdash standing.  For the most part, they allowed us to go about our lives as we pleased in all matters except for those concerning our religion.

As such, it seems that the Greek’s vendetta was not against the Jewish nation per se,  but against the unique role of the Jews as Hashem’s chosen people.  The Mishna tells us that the Greeks broke thirteen breaches in the outer “soreg” wall, which surrounded the Beis HaMikdash.[2]  The Vilna Gaon explains that this wall symbolizes the division between Jews and gentiles, since gentiles were forbidden to pass beyond it on penalty of death.  By breaking holes in this wall, the Greeks mocked the very notion that Jews were any different from gentiles.

 The Midrash states:

וכי מה ראה לעשות שור ראש לכל הקרבנות? אמר ר' לוי משל למטרונה שיצא עליה שם רע עם אחד מגדולי מלכות ובדק המלך בדברים ולא מצא בהם ממש. מה עשה המלך, עשה סעודה והושיב אותו האיש בראש של מסובין. כל כך למה, להודיע שבדק המלך בדברים ולא מצא בהם ממש. כך אומות העולם מונין להם לישראל ואומרים להם עשיתם את העגל, ובדק הקב"ה בדברים ולא מצא בהם ממש לפיכך נעשה שור ראש לכל הקרבנות, הדא הוא דכתיב שור או כשב או עז.

Why is the ox listed first of all the korbanos?  R’ Levi explained with a parable of a queen who was rumored to have had an affair with one of the king’s most prestigious ministers.  The king investigated the rumors and found them baseless.  To publicize his wife’s innocence, he hosted a feast in which he sat the accused minister at the head of the table.

So too, the nations of the world taunt Bnei Yisrael, accusing us of having made a golden calf.  After HaKadosh Baruch Hu investigated their claims and found them baseless, he placed the ox first of all the korbanos.  Therefore, the verse states, “If an ox, sheep or goat [is born, it shall remain with its mother for seven days.  From the eighth day onward, it will be acceptable as a korban for Hashem].[3][4]

Were Bnei Yisrael truly innocent of the sin of the Golden Calf?  Hashem Himself said, “On the day that I shall punish, I shall punish them for their sin.”[5]  Our Sages explain this to mean that every punishment which befalls us contains within it a partial punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf.[6]  How then could the Midrash say that we were innocent of this sin?

In truth, Bnei Yisrael did sin with the Golden Calf, but the nations of the world jumped to inaccurate conclusions.  They claimed this sin was proof that Bnei Yisrael have no special relationship with Hashem.  Just as the nations of the world feel free to switch from one deity to another, as suits their interests, so too Bnei Yisrael sometimes worship Hashem, and sometimes the Golden Calf, chas v’shalom.  They drew from here the conclusion that our service of Hashem is no more than a shallow religious ritual with no real devotion.

Like the king in R’ Levi’s parable, Hashem investigated this claim and found it to be baseless.  Our failings do not diminish the purity of our korbanos, which symbolize our role as Hashem’s chosen nation.  Although we may occasionally sin, and be punished for our sins, we are still Hashem’s beloved children.  Our service of Him is not self-interested or flippant.  To demonstrate our innocence, and proclaim to the entire world that Bnei Yisrael are truly Hashem’s chosen nation, Hashem listed the ox first of the korbanos.

It was this very assertion that the Greek wished to undermine, by forcing us to carve on the horns of our oxen-sacrifices that we have no portion in Hashem.  The Greeks would allow us to offer sacrifices and practice our religion, just as other nations practice their own, l’havdil.  However, they could not tolerate our belief that we are in any way distinguished from the rest of the nations.  Therefore, they forced us to inscribe on the very korban that signifies the uniqueness of our role, that we have no special portion in the G‑d of Israel.

The Greeks did not stop the service of the Beis HaMikdash entirely.  Far worse than this, they made it into a hollow ritual, devoid of its true meaning of drawing close to Hashem.  They had no wish to replace Bnei Yisrael as the holy nation, but rather to prove that there was no such thing in the world as a holy nation.  All creeds were equally hollow in their eyes, since they denied the entire premise that holiness can exist in our world.

2.

Among all the mitzvos, the Greeks singled out Rosh Chodesh, Shabbos and Bris Milah as the most objectionable, choosing them as the battlefronts on which they would wage their war against Judaism.  Each of these three mitzvos symbolizes our role as Hashem’s chosen nation.  Therefore, the Greeks particularly wished to uproot them.

Rosh Chodesh represents our authority over the cycle of time, such that if Beis Din were to misjudge the beginning of the new month, or even deliberately postpone it, their decision would be ratified in Heaven, and the Yomim Tovim of that month would be recognized in Heaven based on their decision.[7]

Shabbos also serves as a special sign that unites Bnei Yisrael and Hashem, for which reason a gentile who rests on Shabbos is liable for the death penalty.  Lastly, Bris Milah is a sign carved into our very flesh, signifying the eternal covenant between Hashem and His chosen nation.

In order to weaken our conviction that we are truly beloved to Hashem, and distinguished from all the nations of the world, the Greeks sought first and foremost to rob us of these three precious mitzvos.

3.

When the Greeks captured the Beis HaMikdash, they did not just smash the vessels of oil; they defiled the oil with their ritual impurity.  This too can be understood based on the premise developed above.  The Greeks had no objection against our continuing the service of the Beis HaMikdash.  However, they strongly objected against our conviction that the Beis HaMikdash was holy, pure, or distinguished from the idolatrous rituals of the gentiles.  It was as if they said, “Light your Menorah, but light it with impure oil, since there is no holiness or purity to this mitzva anyway.”

 After the Chashmonaim liberated the Beis HaMikdash, they found only one vessel of pure olive oil with which to light the Menorah.  The vessel contained enough oil to last for just one night, but a miracle occurred and it lasted for eight nights, until they were able to procure more pure oil.

Normally, only pure oil may be used in the Beis HaMikdash.  However, if no pure oil is available, even impure oil may be used, according to the principle of “tumah hutrah b’tzibur – impurity is permitted, if necessary for the sake of communal offerings.”[8]  Why then did the pure oil have to burn for eight days?[9]

According to what we have explained, this is well understood.  The whole point of the Chashmonaim’s victory over the Greeks was to demonstrate the purity of our service of Hashem.  The ritualistic aspect of it was not the center of the debate at all.  Therefore, nothing would be proved by lighting the Menorah with impure oil.

4.

To confront the Greeks in this ideological battle, arose the House of Chasmoneai – a family of Kohanim from the Tribe of Levi.  The Rambam writes of the Tribe of Levi:

ולמה לא זכה לוי בנחלת ארץ ישראל ובביזתה עם אחיו מפני שהובדל לעבוד את ה' לשרתו ולהורות דרכיו הישרים ומשפטיו הצדיקים לרבים שנאמר יורו משפטיך ליעקב ותורתך לישראל לפיכך הובדלו מדרכי העולם לא עורכין מלחמה כשאר ישראל ולא נוחלין ולא זוכין לעצמן בכח גופן אלא הם חיל השם שנאמר ברך ה' חילו והוא ברוך הוא זוכה להם שנאמר אני חלקך ונחלתך.

Why did the Tribe of Levi not receive a portion of the Land of Israel or a portion of the spoils of war together with their brethren?  Because they were set aside to serve Hashem, and teach His righteous ways to the multitudes, as it is written, “He shall teach Your statutes to Yaakov, and Your Torah to Yisrael.”  For this purpose, the Tribe of Levi was disassociated from mundane pursuits.  They do not go out into battle, as do the rest of Israel.  They do not claim an inheritance, nor provide for themselves through their own physical prowess.  Instead, they are the legions of Hashem … Who provides their worldly needs, as it is written “I am your portion and your inheritance.”[10]

Had the Greeks waged a physical war to destroy the Jewish people, the other Tribes would have entered the fray.  However, since this was a spiritual war against the partitions that divide holy from mundane, and Jew from gentile, only the Tribe of Levi could raise the banner of holiness to fight against the Greeks, since this was their very purpose.

In the prophecy of Zechariah, which foretold the war of the Chashmonaim against the Greeks, we find the verse:

ה' צבאות יגן עליהם ואכלו וכבשו אבני קלע ושתו המו כמו יין ומלאו כמזרק כזויות מזבח. והושיעם ה' אלהיהם ביום ההוא כצאן עמו כי אבני נזר מתנוססות על אדמתו.

Hashem, Lord of Hosts, will protect them.  They will devour and defeat the sling stones and drink them like wine; and be satiated like cups filled [with blood to be thrown] on the corners of the Mizbei’ach.  Hashem their G‑d will deliver them on that day, like the sheep of His nation, for they are precious stones upon His land.[11]

The commentaries interpret the sling stones as a reference to the Greeks, who valued nothing more than their physical might.  In contrast, the precious stones refer to the Chashmonaim, who are symbolized by the twelve stones that adorned the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol.  Thus, the holy stones of the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate were pitted against the sling stones of military might.

5.

While the Greek empire ruled over Eretz Yisrael, they forbade any mention of Hashem’s Name.  When the Chashmonaim wrested power from them, they made a new decree by which Hashem’s Name would be written even in business documents.  From then on, documents would be dated by the years of “Yochanan, Kohen Gadol of the Supreme G‑d.”[12]  This decree represented the ultimate victory of the Chashmonaim.  Whereas the Greeks wanted to deprive our Torah, mitzvos and korbanos from their holiness, the Chashmonaim responded by imbuing holiness in even the most mundane business procedures.  Rather than mundanity conquering the realm of holiness, holiness conquered the realm of mundanity.

6.

Chanukah marks both the victory of the Chashmonaim over the Greeks, and the inauguration of the Mizbei’ach that took place in the Desert.  For this reason, on each day of Chanukah we read a portion of the Torah describing the korbanos that the leaders of the Tribes brought to inaugurate the Mizbei’ach.

Our Sages tell us that Aharon was disheartened that his Tribe did not participate in this inauguration by offering any korban.  Hashem told Moshe to reassure Aharon that his Tribe was destined for something even greater.  Whereas the other korbanos would cease with the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the Menorah Aharon kindled would burn forever.[13]

The Ramban explains that this cannot refer to the Menorah of the Beis HaMikdash, since it too would cease together with the other korbanos when the Beis HaMikdash would be destroyed.  Rather, it refers to the Chanukah Menorah kindled in celebration of the victory of Aharon’s descendants, the Chashmonaim.[14]  From here we see that the Chanukah Menorah is considered a continuation of the lights of the Menorah first kindled by Aharon.

When Shlomo HaMelech built the Beis HaMikdash, he made ten golden Menoros, corresponding to the Ten Commandments.[15]  Each Menorah had seven branches, forming a total of seventy branches, which corresponded to the seventy nations.  As long as the candles of the Menorah burned, the nations were subjugated beneath us.  When the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and the candles were extinguished, the nations overpowered us.

The light of the Menorah represents the wisdom of the Torah, as we learn from the verse, “For a mitzva is a candle, and the Torah is light.”[16]  When we illuminate the world with the holiness of our Torah study, we find the strength to defeat both our mortal enemies, and the spiritual hindrances that distance us from Hashem.  The Torah sheds light on our path, and guides us towards the unique destiny of Klal Yisrael, as Hashem’s holy nation: unique and distinct from all others.


[1] Bereishis Rabbah 2:4

[2] Middos 2:3

[3] Vayikra 22:27

[4] Vayikra Rabbah 27:8

[5] Shemos 32:34

[6] Sanhedrin 102a

[7] Rosh Hashana 21a

[8] Pesachim 77a

[9] See Pnei Yehoshua, Shabbos 21b

[10] Hilchos Shemitta V’Yovel chapter 13

[11] Zecharia 9:15 -16

[12] Rosh Hashana 18b

[13] Midrash Tanchuma, Biha’aloscha 5

[14] Ramban, Bamidbar 8:2

[15] Yalkut Shimoni, Melachim I ch. 7, 185

[16] Mishlei 6:23