Up in Arms

The tribe of Levi was selected by G‑d for His service. They dedicated their lives primarily to serving in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and to transmitting the tradition to their brethren. When all other tribes trooped forth to wage war, the tribe of Levi remained steady at their spiritual posts. They received no portion of territory within the Land of Israel, nor any of the spoils brought back by Israel’s victorious warriors from wars there. It was the duty of the priests (the kohanim), selected from the ranks of the Levites, to kindle the lamps of the Temple menorah, spreading G‑dly light to Jerusalem, to Israel and to the universe. They composed songs of the spirit, meditated on G‑d’s grandeur and nurtured the spiritual center of Jewry. As masters of the mystical sacrifices, they coached their fellow Jews to slaughter their inner beasts, to transform animalistic tendencies into passionate flames of love for their Creator.

Given the role of the Levites, the following scene is all the more unexpected:

Priests from the tribe of Levi, esteemed sons of Matityahu the high priest, whose only “weapons” had been the incense pans and meat hooks used for the Temple service, now wielded broadswords and spears. Warriors of the spirit led a devout following against Syrian-Greek battalions and war elephants.

Moreover, the priests’ leadership of their small army had distinctly spiritual overtures:

The Temple guardians prepared to engage the enemy by fasting and praying in advance of each skirmish.

Combatants require weapons. These masters of tradition engraved upon their shields the acronym of a biblical phrase, “Who is like You among the mighty, O G‑d!”

Charging warriors need a battle cry. And so, the priestly congregation rushed the enemy’s ranks shouting words of an ancient declaration better echoed in a synagogue in meditative devotion—“Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is One!”

What prompted the priests to burst forth from the Temple gates and lock horns with legions of seasoned soldiers? And why their obsession with spirituality when battling the mightiest legions of the ancients?

Actually, the Greeks started it. The paradox, that is.

In their efforts to subdue the Jewish state, the Syrian-Greek tyrants made a distinctly spiritual move, outlawing the most sacred of Jewish practices and mandating idolatry. The highlight of their strategic offensive was when elite troops stormed the Temple Mount and entered the Sanctuary. Their objective was not only the Temple’s golden vessels and its treasures; they proceeded to solemnly defile the sacred oil used to light the menorah, and then, assured of victory, they returned to their army base.

Now, we can hardly accuse the ancient Greeks of being unintelligent. But, what were they thinking? Why did they care about the oil?

Essential Oils

Jewish law states that only the purest olive oil should be used for lighting the Temple menorah—the first pristine drops to issue from the crushing process. The essence of a natural product is concealed within; pressing it reveals its essential oil. In the case of an olive, revealing its essence translates into a superior kind of illumination for the candelabrum.

Similarly, the essential oil of the Jewish people is deep within. The fuel of their spiritual illumination is their complete surrender to G‑d, come what may, and their deep pleasure in that surrender. At our root is an unbreakable bond that begs: do not separate me from G‑d!

Yes, a Jew delights in Torah knowledge and takes pleasure in philanthropy, but at the core of our actions lies the deepest desire and need of a soul to bond with its Source.

A Compromised Spirit

It was not the Jewish traditions and laws that so bothered the Syrian-Greeks, but rather the complete, unshakable and irrational submission to a single, invisible, indivisible G‑d. It was the fact that this nation delighted in the physical only when it was used as a tool for the spirit, rather than as an indulgence of the corporeal and a worship of the mind and self. What is the point of physical beauty, if not for public display? Do academics not hold the right to arrogance? Are monarchs not entitled to consider themselves demigods? The Hellenist bristled at the notion of a realm into which he could not insert his ego.

And so, the enemy entered the Sanctuary and touched its sacred oil. Nothing should be without the human touch. Nothing should be unquestionable or inadaptable. Everything should be subject to the human mind and senses.

With that touch, self-importance would eventually erode sacred submission, leading to the delightful decadence of human arrogance and aggressiveness. With that touch, the Greeks wished to introduce human pleasure into the pristine blissfulness with which the Jews served and clung exclusively to G‑d. They sought to conquer the eternal nation by compromising its spirit.

Indeed, the vast majority of Jews at that time succumbed. Most Hellenized, exchanging eternal truths for ever-changing rationalism and self-serving egotism. They exchanged sacred delight in G‑dly connection for the fleeting pleasures of the tangible that greatly sour at their end. Darkness mingled with light, and sabotaged their internal menorahs.

Battle Cry of the Soul

G‑d, however, would not let His entire people go to spiritual ruin. The enemy plan fell apart because of a core group of Jews, the Hasmonean family of priests, who remained in touch with their essence. This small band of Jews, the Maccabees, were, in human terms, the one remaining small jar of untainted oil among an entire compromised nation.

The Maccabean coat of arms did not convey a straightforward statement of G‑d’s power, like “There is none like G‑d.” Rather, it bore a burst of undefeatable fervor, an exclamation of the deepest soul of Jewry, a potent mixture of sacred trembling and soulful delight: “Who is like You, O G‑d?!” What can possible compare to You? What is anything worth without You? How could anyone dream of exchanging Your closeness?

The Greeks had crushed the Jewish olive; they had touched the core of the Jewish relationship with G‑d. What poured forth was irrepressible wonder. The metal of the priests’ weapons passionately proclaimed their love for G‑d.

Crying “Shema Yisrael,” proclaiming G‑d’s unity, “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is One,” they surrendered themselves to their Creator and threw themselves upon the superpower of the ancient world.

The Greeks were disproportionately mighty, but only in mortal terms. The Maccabees came with the force of an eternal bond. They had made themselves transparent to G‑d’s light and power, which shone through them. They employed brilliant strategy and crafted arms, but their campaign carried the atmosphere of the Holy Temple, and was fueled by an unprecedented gush of soul, unleashed upon the unlucky Greeks by their own touch.

From the Maccabees, the inventive Greek world made yet another important discovery: they found that a Jew is submissive to G‑d not through rational choice, but rather, due to an essential and natural bond. When an olive is pressed, its essential oil flows forth; when a Jew is crushed, Shema Yisrael emerges.

Once ignited, this illumination could not be halted by mere priests of philosophy and worshipers of human anatomy. It did not matter that 100 Shema Yisraels faced 10,000 philosophers-in-arms with war elephants.

A Mission Fulfilled

The light of a rekindled, undefiled menorah again beamed from the Temple to Jerusalem and beyond, reviving the soul of much of the nation. The priests from the tribe of Levi had fulfilled their ancient duty to safeguard the nation’s spirit—and, in doing so, they had rescued its body as well. Within a few centuries, the Greeks became relics to be studied but not seen, while the menorah accompanied the Jew into exile to keep him eternally alive, youthful and faithful.

What began with the sons of Matityahu in those days continues in these times with each of us. We are all bearers of light, delighting in our spiritual connection. We share an eternal message. We diminish darkness by generating illumination. We toil towards the fulfillment of an ancient promise that eventually darkness will disappear. Even the enemy will exchange his club for a candelabra, as all the nations unite like so many branches of a beaming menorah to exclaim in true wonder, “Who is like You, O G‑d!”