The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Doron Perez’s recently published book entitled “Leading the Way”, collected writings on some of life’s most important matters.
A powerful observation and living example
Margaret Mead, a leading American anthropologist, made the following observation half a century ago: “Don’t ever deny that a small group of passionate and committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
I often marvel at how true this statement is, especially in context of the history of the Jewish people. I believe that our collective Jewish experience is the clearest living example of this principle. We all know that there are only around 15 million Jews in the world today of a total world population of around 7 billion. That makes us 0.2% of the world population – an almost negligible percentage. For most of human history, the Jewish people have represented a similar minuscule percentage of the global population. If the 4 000 years of our history has taught us anything, it is this – a small group of loyal, passionate and committed people can make a remarkably transformative difference in so many areas of human endeavour totally disproportionate to their size. Paul Johnson, in his important book: The History of the Jews – which Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says is the most important book of Jewish history in the modern era – maintains that no people have contributed more to the spiritual and moral furnishings of the human mind and spirit than the Jewish people. Johnson highlights this with the following two examples. Firstly, one man, Avraham, along with his wife Sarah – one couple – began to disseminate the belief in a monotheistic, moral, purposeful and personal G-d to a handful of followers. These monotheistic ideas would eventually grow to inspire over 3 billion people who follow them in some way or another. Secondly, the earth-shattering Divine revelation at Sinai of the Aseret HaDibrot – the 10 all-encompassing ethical statements – has become the basis of the moral foundations of a large sweep of humanity, enabling the Jewish people to play a key role in navigating the spiritual and moral course of human history. Indeed, the Jewish collective experience is a living testament to Mead’s observation.
One man, one family
This is true not only of the Jewish impact on human history, as mentioned above, but also of the miraculous survival and thriving of the Jewish people against impossible odds. To my mind, nowhere is this clearer than in the Chanuka story. One man, Matityahu the Kohein, and his five sons: Yehudah, Shimon, Yochanan, Elazar and Yonatan – one small priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, changed the course of Jewish history forever. This event took place 2 300 years ago, yet its reverberations continue to echo into eternity.
This was a time of Greek world domination, systematic global acculturation and assimilation of the inhabitants of the conquered nations and minorities throughout the Empire. Judea, the Jewish country at the time, like all the other provinces, was heavily influenced by the engulfing hedonistic lure and the enticing Hellenistic culture. At the time, the Jewish people were in grave danger of losing their national and spiritual identity, and G-d forbid, vanishing as a distinct culture from the platform of human history; the fate of so many nations of antiquity. Had this small Hasmonean family not placed its finger into the rupturing dyke, and not cemented the breach of the tumultuous and raging waters of cultural assimilation, the flame of Torah and Jewish destiny may very well, G-d forbid, have been snuffed out forever. The reason that we still observe Chanuka today, 2 300 years later, is a testament to this miraculous display of human courage and faith, the belief in the justice of our cause and the unswerving commitment and dedication to Torah values and Jewish destiny. They displayed almost super-human courageousness in the face of impossible political and military odds. They stood up and rebelled against the harsh decrees of the Syrian Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes, who threatened to uproot every last vestige of Torah observance from Israel. This small group of people grew in number, sparked a revolution, created a revitalised Jewish political sovereign state, brought cultural independence to Judea, rededicated the Temple in Yerushalayim to Hashem, and removed all traces of idolatry. They succeeded in not only stemming the tide, but reinvigorating the Jewish people’s belief in themselves and Hashem enabling them to survive and supersede the military, political and cultural onslaught of the superpower of the day.
The book of the Maccabees in its own words
The Chanuka story is told clearly in the books of the Hasmoneans and the Maccabees. What follows are some quotes which appear in the opening chapters of the first Book of Maccabees, which so succinctly captures the enormity of the Hasmonean period.
Regarding the decrees of King Antiochus, the book states: “And King Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people and that each should forsake their own laws. And he sent letters to Jerusalem and to the cities of Judah that they should profane the Sabbath and festivals, pollute the sanctuary and build altars, temples and shrines to the Greek idols. And whoever shall not do according to the word of the King – he shall die. And he appointed overseers over all the people and he commanded the cities of Judah to sacrifice each city, city by city…
“And in those days rose up Matityahu, the priest who dwelt in Modin. And he had five sons called Yochanan, Shimon, Yehudah – who was also known as Maccabi – Elazar and Yonatan…. And the King’s officers spoke to Matityahu, saying – ‘You are a ruler, an honourable and great man in the city, Modin, and strengthened with the sons and brethren, now therefore come you first and do the commandments of the King as all nations have done…’ And Matityahu answered and said in a loud voice: ‘Though all the nations that are under the King’s dominion obey him, and fall away each one from the religion of their fathers, my sons and I and our brethren will walk in the covenant of our fathers.’ And Matityahu cried out in the city in a loud voice, saying ‘Whoever is zealous for the law and maintains the covenant of G-d, let him follow me.’ Then all were gathered together unto them, everyone that offered themselves willingly for the Law of G-d and all they that fled from the evils were added to them. And they became many, pulled down the altars and pursued after the sons of pride.”
Thus begun the rebellion which became a revolution.
Amazingly, it was only a few months after the beginning of the rebellion that Matityahu died and was replaced by his courageous son Yehudah. The book of Maccabees continues: “And the days of Matityahu drew near that he was about to die and his son Yehudah rose up in his stead… King Antiochus sent 40 000 footmen and 7 000 horses to go into the land of Judah and to destroy it.” Yehudah and his men were heavily outnumbered by around 20 to one, and his untrained men faced legions of the best trained and armed military force on earth.
The following remarkable speech was made by Judah before going into battle as the Book of Maccabees continues. “And Judah – who was called the Maccabi, said: ‘ Victory in battle emanates not from the multitude of numbers but rather in the strength given from Heaven. They come unto us with forms of insolence and lawlessness to destroy us and our wives and children, but we fight for our lives and for our law. It is better for us to die in battle than to look upon the terrible decrees of our nation and sanctuary. Nevertheless, whatever the will of Heaven be, so shall it transpire.’”
With a tiny group of untrained men, the Hasmoneans not only defeated this large army, but continued over many years to face even larger forces which were continually sent to put down the rebellion, and even greater miraculous victories took place. Later, the Book of Maccabees recounts: “On the 25th day of the 9th month, which is the month of Kislev, and on the very date that the heathens had profaned it (the Temple), on this very day was it dedicated afresh.” Hence, the festival of Chanuka is an ongoing celebration and commemoration of these events.
On 20 August 1940, Winston Churchill, the newly elected British prime minister, made a speech in the midst of the Battle of Britain to the British Parliament, after the incredible of fall of France in a few short weeks just previously. Hitler was attempting to destroy the British Royal Air Force through a massive aerial bombing to gain air supremacy, and then to launch a land invasion of the British Isles. This would give him total dominion over Europe and who knows where to from there. Around 2 500 Royal Air Force pilots heroically defended Britain during the many torturous months of bombings and somehow managed to hold off and repel the massive onslaught of the German Luftwaffe. Reflecting on this in his speech to the British Parliament, Churchill stated: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” These courageous pilots became popularly known popularly as ‘The Few’.
Indeed, with regards to the Hasmonean House, we could say: Never in the field of the struggle for Jewish survival was so much owed by so many to so few. They are ‘ The Few’ of our people.
The Hasmonean spirit in the modern era
We live in a privileged generation which has seen a remarkable revival of the Hasmonean spirit. After the devastation of the Shoah and the horrific murder of one-third of our people and the destruction of almost the entire Yeshiva world, we have witnessed two miraculous rebirths. A handful of surviving Torah giants have rebuilt the world of Yeshiva learning over the course of a few short decades into arguably the largest cadre of Torah learners in the history of our people. A small band of Zionist pioneers have created out of the desolate backwater of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine, the miracle of modern-day Israel. These two revivals, the rebirth of Torah and Israel, provide yet again two powerful examples of the particular relevance of Margaret Mead’s words to Jewish history and destiny.
As we light our Chanuka candles and see the growing number of flames each and every day of the eight days of Chanuka, we are celebrating the miracle of Jewish fate, survival and destiny. We are celebrating the eternal wisdom of our illuminating Torah and its values, and the mind-boggling courageousness with which it has been observed and defended. We reflect on the privilege and responsibility of what it means to be a Jew. Wherever we are and at whatever juncture we find ourselves in our personal or collective odyssey, within our families, community and people, we would do well to remember the very sentiments that were expressed at the outset. The only things that seem to make a significant positive and transformative difference to the world is when a small group of passionate and dedicated people commit themselves selflessly to a cause greater than themselves.