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The Overlooked Chanukah Miracle
I just read a footnote in a book that left me gasping with awe.
We know what Chanukah is about, right? There's the incredible, extraordinary victory of a small group of Jews over the powerful Greek-Syrian army. There's the recovery and rededication of the Beis HaMikdash over eight days, as described in the Book of Maccabees (and quoted by ArtScroll!). There's the recovery of political independence. There's the Bavli's account of the miracle of the oil.
But all this, amazing as it is, perhaps misses the greatest miracle of all. Because all of the above, while it has inspired us for two thousand years, was only really directly relevant to certain Jews back then. But there's something else which is directly relevant to all of us today.
Over forty years ago, there was a series of books on the Festivals published by the Jewish Publication Society of America, called the Anthology series. These were a fascinating, high eclectic mix of history, laws, insights, poetry, and even recipes and children's stories. (The entire set has been recently republished). In The Hanukkah Anthology, the opening chapter about the history of Chanukah is written by historian Solomon Grayzel, and that's where I found something fascinating.
In all the discussion about Chanukah, we normally only think about the Jews who were living in the Land of Israel. After all, that's where the action was! Yet there were, of course, also Jews living in other places. Still, these were truly not part of the Chanukah story. Grayzel points out that Antiochus's original decrees against Judaism were only ever directed at the province of Judea. They did not apply to Jews living in nearby Egypt, or even to Jews in the Syrian Diaspora.
So far, this makes Chanukah sound less significant. But then comes the footnote which changes everything:
"It is easy to see, however, that had Judea been hellenized, the Diaspora Jews would not have long survived as Jews."
If you didn't catch the monumental significance of that line, let me explain it. While there were Jewish communities outside of the Land of Israel, they drew much of their identity from their brethren in the Holy Land. Had Mattisyahu of Modi'in acceded to orders to bring a pagan sacrifice, rather than fleeing with his family to the hills and launching a rebellion, the non-Hellenist Jews would all have eventually either given in or been killed. With the loss of morale that would have caused, and without the Jews of the Holy Land to lead by example, there would have been little drive for the already partially-Hellenized Jews elsewhere to hang on to their Judaism. They would have lost their identity, like so many ancient peoples of that time. Judaism and the Jewish nation would have ceased to exist.
We only exist today as a nation, with an extraordinary history to look back upon, because a man from Modi'in decided not to compromise and take the easy way out, and some others decided to follow him. It was that decision which meant everything - not just for the Beis HaMikdash, not just for Jews in the Holy Land, but for Jews everywhere and for all time. (UPDATE: It was further pointed out to me that this preserved monotheism, and thus Christianity and Islam would never have come into being without the events of Chanukah!)
Is that not awe-inspiring?