What is Chanukah?...When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. When the Royal House of Hasmonea overcame the Greeks and was victorious, they searched and could find only one jug of oil with the seal of the High Priest still intact. This jug contained only enough oil to kindle the Menorah for one day, yet a miracle occurred and the Menorah was kindled from this oil for eight days. The next year, the Sages established these days as days of festival, to celebrate with song and praise.
--Tractate Shabbat 21b
The Greeks and the Jews could have gotten along just fine. The Greeks were not terribly concerned that the Jews were studying Torah and doing mitzvot. They saw the Torah as a work of great wisdom. They saw the mitzvot, at least most of them, as sensible, even meaningful. They could agree with a law that said honor your parents or feed the poor. They could even understand our holidays that commemorate our great historical moments.
The problem was that we insisted on keeping those "senseless" laws, like the prohibition of mixing wool and linen or the laws of ritual purity. The problem was that we did not look at the Torah as just another book of wisdom; we looked at it as a G-dly book, a book containing a Divine light that transcends all we know.
The truth is the Greeks might have accepted even our commitment to the supra-rational laws--if only that commitment were rooted in a rational foundation. The Greeks would not have been terribly bothered if a Jew said that although he cannot fathom the reason for the laws of the Red Heifer he still fulfills them since he trusts that G-d would not create senseless laws. Even the Greeks could agree that it is rationally sound to follow G-d's laws even when no reason seems apparent.
But to do it just because G-d said so, without seeking any rational justification? This they could not accept.
In fact, they saw this "craziness" even in our performance of the rationally compelling mitzvot--the civil laws and testimonial laws. The Jew fulfills even these not only because of the reason associated with them but primarily because they are G-d's will. The Jew recognizes that all mitzvot, not just the impenetrable statutes, are rooted in the Divine will, in a place that transcends reasoning, certainly human reasoning. G-d may have decreed for certain mitzvot to don "rational" garb, yet even after they have done so they remain in essence supra-rational.
So while the conversation between Greek and Jew may have started out with some common ground, the Greek ultimately could not understand the Jew. The amicable conversation came to an abrupt end, and the Greek mind recoiled from the Jew's subservience to something higher than his own intellect. To the Greek there could be nothing higher than his own mind. And anyone who insisted otherwise would have to be educated.
And so the persecutions began--and eventually escalated into all out war on Judaism and ultimately Jews. But all along, at the heart of the matter was a war on holiness.
That is why when the Greeks entered the Temple they contaminated all the oils that were in the Temple. One would expect them to plunder the Temple's gold and silver, the precious stones, as is the custom of warriors--yet the Talmud makes no mention of this type of pillaging. What possessed them to single-mindedly go about desecrating the oil, and with such thoroughness that it was only through a miracle that one jug was left untouched?
Oil played an important role in the Temple. It was used in special offerings and to fuel the Menorah. High Priests and kings were anointed with it. What is special about oil?
The Kabbalists point to oil's refusal to mix with other liquids. Oil always rises to the top. It is a liquid that embodies transcendence, holiness. In Kabbalistic terms, oil is the embodiment of that aspect of the soul that relates to G-d in a manner that transcends intellect.
Oil is the intuitive love and commitment of the soul to G-d that is not bound by the strictures of rationality and reasoning.
It was the "oil" aspect of the Jew, his supra-rational commitment to G-d that the Greek could not abide. By all means, learn Torah! Do a mitzvah! But do it as a rational human being, following a rational code of conduct.
And so they went after the oil. Every enemy goes after the life-source of their opponent--the wells, the food stocks. The Greeks went after the oil. For therein resides the secret of the Jew.
These battles of old are still being fought today. In every generation there are Hamans and there are Greeks. Only the Greek of old is not always an outsider; he is often alive and well within our own minds, waging a persistent battle against our Divine sensibilities.
How does one engage this enemy? Like a Maccabee: with self-sacrifice. Mattityahu and his sons were weak and few yet they put aside concern for their own survival and waged war against the strong and the many. They thereby inspired their fellow Jews to risk their lives for Judaism and ultimately won the war.
And so it is with the battle against the spiritual Greek. In good times, when the light of Divinity shines bright, an intellectually based Divine worship may work. But the rational mind is incapable of negating and vanquishing the Greek enemy who cloaks our world in spiritual darkness. When the oil of the soul has been contaminated, the only answer is to summon that inner fortitude that allows us to stand strong in the face of any foe that threatens to extinguish our spiritual selves. This resilience stems from a place that completely transcends the rational mind. It is the same resilience that causes the Jew to give up his life instead of bowing to a false god. He needs no rational explanation--it simply cannot be any other way.
To bring light to the darkness the Jew must find that one cruse of oil, the innermost core of the soul--the Yechidah--that remains untouched by enemy hands. The cruse that cannot be touched for it is one with its Divine source.
What happens when the Yechidah is awakened? The enemy cannot compete. He is out of his league. He is subdued. But even more, he is transformed. When the Jew awakens his Divine essence, even his animal soul, the selfish ego, undergoes a metamorphosis. It is suddenly yearning to do a mitzvah.
From a Chasidic Discourse by the Rebbe
- Victory of Light
Chasidic Heritage Series