Not for the Sake of Victory
Miracles, salvation, wars, the threat of the Greeks, Divine assistance, the mighty defeated by the weak, the victory of Torah and the rescuing of the Jewish People. These are just some of the dramatic points touched upon in the Al Hanissim prayer that we say during Chanukah. It is descriptive, emotive and uplifting. Yet the prayer ends with the words:
“and they (the Sages) established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great Name.”
This seems to be a surprising ending. After the preceding drama, it appears anti-climatic. Moreover, why does the official legislating of Chanukah as a festival have anything to do with the miracles to which the prayer is supposed to relate? Wasn’t that just a historical, legalistic afterthought?
The origin of the name Chanukah is discussed by the Rishonim. The Ran writes that חנו-כה refers to “resting on the 25th (of the month of Kislev).” Later commentators explain this to mean that the Jews stopped fighting on that date. Why do we refer to the date on which fighting stopped as the first day that we celebrate?
Famously, the Bach explains the contrast between Purim and Chanukah. On Purim, the Jews sinned by indulging in material pleasures and were thus threatened, measure for measure, with physical extinction. On Chanukah, they had become weak in religious observance, and were therefore subject to Greek decrees against spiritual life. Yet we also find that the Greeks fought a physical war against us. How does this fit into the picture?
These three questions all point us in a similar direction and bring out a crucial message of Chanukah.
Certainly there was a long drawn-out physical war waged by the Hashmonaim against the Greeks. However, the importance of the victory in the war, as elucidated by Rabbi Chaim Freelander, was not the actual overcoming of the enemy. It was, rather, that now the Jews could free themselves from the shackles of the spiritual Greek decrees. The war was not for its own sake; it was for the sake of the spiritual freedom that it enabled. The main theme, as the Bach writes, was the spiritual agenda.
“Victory in Europe Day” marks the day that Germany surrendered to the Allies. “Victory in Japan Day” marks the day that Japan surrendered to America. Historically, nations have emphasized military victories over their enemies. In contrast, victory over the Greeks was not a cause of celebration in its own right. It was a means to an end. It was the means to enable living a free spiritual life – “they rested on the 25th” (חנו-כה) – the whole goal of the war was the right to rest, not the need to be victorious.
This explains why Al Hanissim ends by reporting that the Sages instituted an eight-day festival. The Greeks had waged a fierce campaign against the Torah and its scholars, “to make them forget your Torah and to make them stray from the statutes of Your will”. While the Greeks had some footing in the Written Torah (even translating it into Greek), the Oral Torah eluded them, going against their entire approach to wisdom and scholarship. The real victory of Chanukah was the return to a situation in which once again those Sages could learn, disseminate and legislate the Oral Torah. The ability of those in charge of the Oral Torah to institute an eight-day festival was not a mere historical response to the victory over the Greeks. It was the very purpose of the entire clash.
As the Rambam writes, the main feature of Messianic times will be the ability of the Jewish people to learn Torah and perform mitzvot in a manner free from the pressures exerted by other nations. For the Jew, as Chanukah demonstrates, victory is always only a means to something greater — never an end in itself.