5771 - #10

Miketz / Chanukah


            Rashi, Bamidbar 31:2 makes a most powerful distinction regarding anti-Semitism that is often overlooked. He asks the question: why did God demand of Israel vengeance against Midian and not against Moav, after all they were both involved in the attempt to destroy the moral backbone of the Jewish People?1 Rashi actually presents two answers but in his first one he distinguishes between each nation’s motivation to attack Bnei Yisrael. Midian was motivated by what we may term base anti-Semitism, hatred of the Jews simply for being Jews. They had no reason to quarrel with the Jewish People but they still wanted to attack them. Moav, however, was different. They had reason to fear the Jewish nation camped at their border. Their hostility against the Jewish People had a reason albeit misdirected. This was a different form of anti-Semitism – not a hatred of Jews per se but a concern for how the Jewish nation may negatively affect them. Anti-Semitism is not always about a desire to harm Jews but, rather, it may also be motivated by a desire to better one’s own lot. It is just perceived that the only way to forward one’s own interest involves the harming of the Jews. What the Torah is effectively telling us is that it is important to recognize and define this distinction in the anti-Semitism that one may encounter.

            While in the case of Moav, God determined that this distinction in anti-Semitism should result in a difference in consequences, it may be that this is not always necessary the case. Sometimes anti-Semitism of any nature must be recognized as just anti-Semitism and needs to be responded to simply as such; the motivation behind the anti-Semitism does not matter. We also cannot simply determine from the Torah that hatred motivated anti-Semitism always demands the more severe consequence. Sometimes it may even be that the anti-Semitism motivated by the desire to further one’s own interest is worse than a simple hatred of Jews. While in this case Midian was the one punished, in another case it would be a Moav that should be punished. In fact, in that in all potential future wars we can never first offer peace to Moav and Ammon as we are to do in all other cases,2 Moav actually may have eventually received a more severe consequence.3 The essential point, though, is that not all anti-Semitism is necessarily the same and this is something that needs to be recognized. The fact that the actions of Moav and Midian were distinguished by Hashem must inform us that there is a purpose in identifying these distinctions in anti-Semitism and their effect upon our response.

            This idea is a great significance in regard to Chanukah. Many people would seem to describe the Syrian-Greeks as simply motivated by a hatred of the Jews. It is thus perceived that the Syrian-Greek desire was to persecute the Jews and they chose to do so by attacking the latter’s faith and religious behaviour. The opposite, though, may have actually been the fact. The true desire of the Syrian-Greeks may have really been to attack Torah, the Jewish system of knowledge, and the persecution of the Jews was the method by which they felt they could achieve this end. The motivation of the enemies of Chanukah was thus not base anti-Semitism. They did not simply hate Jews. What they hated were these ideas that were being expressed within the Jewish world. More than being anti-Semitic they were anti-Torah. Their enemy was the intellectual framework of this Jewish world. The fact that many Jews sided with the Syrian-Greeks reinforces this point. These Jews were not anti-Semitic in its base form. We could even possibly say that they loved their fellow Jews; it was the belief of their fellow Jews that bothered them for it stood in the way of the advancement of their own perception of life, the Hellenist view of reality.

            The real enemy of Chanukah is, thus, not really the Syrian-Greeks but rather Hellenism. It was not a nation that wanted to attack another nation; it was a philosophy of life and a perception of reality that wanted to defeat another philosophy and view. This distinction is most important for while the battle was fought between people – and the manifestation of the persecution was in its terrible cruelty to people – the real war was in the world of ideas. This is indicated by the focus in T.B. Shabbat 21b, on the fact that the Hellenists defiled the oil in the temple. Of all the acts that were done against the Jewish People, why does the gemara only mention that they defiled the oil? The Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash represented the light of Torah4 and this was the main focus of the Hellenist attack. It did not want to wipe out Torah; they respected wisdom, thought and intelligence. They just wanted to change its focus, to essentially defile it by removing its holiness, its recognition of Hashem. The gemara is simply focusing of the essence of the battle. Everything else they did was to serve this purpose.

            What difference was their, though, in our response to this attack? It is in the recognition that the battle did not end with the defeat of the enemy but, rather, in the re-dedication of the Beit Hamikdash. In fact, at the historical point of the story of Chanukah, the human enemy was not even fully defeated. The war went on for years afterwards. The point is that with the lighting of the Menorah the real enemy, Hellenism, was defeated in the midst of our people. Victory was not in simply stopping the persecution of Jews by the Syrian-Greeks.5 In a modern sense, we could similarly say that it is not enough for Israel to be a haven from anti-Semitism. Victory in the time of Chanukah was in the furtherance of our vision of life. Again, in modern terms it is important for Israel to stand for something. To know your enemy is to know what you are truly fighting for. Chanukah is not a celebration of the defeat of a persecuting people. It ultimately is a celebration of our commitment to who we are.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See Bamidbar 25:1-9. Bilaam advised the nations of Moav and Midian to weaken the moral fibre of the Jewish People by sending their women into the midst of the Jewish nation to promote promiscuity. The verses make reference both to women from Moav as well as from Midian.

2 See Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh 56. See, also, Lo Ta’aseh 53.

3 This is not necessarily to say that Moav was eventually punished more severely specifically for listening to Bilaam’s advice. Devarim 23:5, however, does include the Moabite King Balak’s hiring of Bilaam in the reasons for this command. Other Moabite misdeeds, though, are also mentioned so it may be that this consequence was in response to the collection of misdeeds that Moav did to the Desert Generation. It is, of interest, to note that while Moav was deemed less deserving of punishment in the short run, i.e. in the time of the desert, in the long run its punishment was most severe. This is a matter for future investigation.

4 See Maharal, Chiddushei Aggadot.

5 I am reminded of the movie Independence Day which concluded with the defeat of the aliens. The story was simply and completely about aliens wishing to destroy humans and victory was accomplished in the stopping of this. There was thus no need to include the re-building of society in the story.

Nishma 2010

Return to top