The Midrash, in a famous passage (Bereishit Rabba 2:4), relates that one of the oppressive measures imposed by the Greeks upon the Jews was requiring them to engrave upon the horns of their oxen the pronouncement that “you have no share in the God of Israel” (“ein lakhem cheilek b-Eilokei Yisrael”). Many different explanations have been offered to explain the meaning of this decree, and the deeper insight expressed here by the Midrash into the nature of the Jews’ struggle against Greek persecution.
Rav Avraham of Slonim, in Beit Avraham, suggests focusing on the word “lakhem” (“you”) in this pronouncement. In his view, the Greeks’ message to the Jews was that they were not worthy of a relationship with the Creator they sought to serve. They wanted the Jews to see themselves as too lowly, too ordinary, to aspire to the lofty, sublime goals which Torah tradition sets for us. We might add that this is why the Midrash speaks of this decree as focused on the ox – the symbol of agriculture. The Greeks’ campaign, as understood by the Beit Avraham, was aimed at making the Jews feel too “human” to build any kind of connection with a Supreme Being. Living ordinary, human lives, tending to their bodily and material needs, they were to find it impossible to live lives of spirituality and sanctity. The Greeks insisted that “ein lakhem cheilek b-Elokei Yisrael’ – the Jews were simply too “normal” to connect to God.
Many writers raised the question of why the Chashmonaim felt it so important to kindle the menorah with pure olive oil after their triumph over the Greeks. Halakhic measures such as “tum’a hutra be-tzibur” were likely applicable under the circumstances, and could have allowed the Chashmonaim to use oil that had been contaminated. One possibility is that the Chashmonaim specifically wanted to show what can be accomplished even in a state of widespread “impurity.” The lone jug of pure of oil which they discovered perhaps symbolized, in their minds, the potential for sanctity under any circumstances. Even when we might feel inadequate, when we feel “impure” and “unholy” as a result of our failings, our faults, or the various forms of “oxen” – mundane activities – to which we devote so much of our time, we can and must work to find the small “jug” of purity, the spark of holiness, within ourselves. And, like the small jug of oil in the Beit Ha-mikdash, that small spark is capable of illuminating far more than we would have expected.
In describing the Greeks’ decree to pronounce, “you have no share in the God of Israel,” the Midrash comments that through this decree, the Greeks “darkened the eyes of Israel.” They sought to make the Jews see their world as “dark,” bereft of spiritual meaning and value, to feel incapable of infusing their lives with spiritual significance. Appropriately, Chanukah is celebrated during the darkest time of the year – near the time of the winter solstice, and at the very end of the month of Kisleiv, when the moon is at its smallest point – and its celebration includes the kindling of lights. The candles express our belief that life is never completely “dark,” that under all circumstances, we are capable of kindling the light of spirituality. No matter how many hours a day we find ourselves with the “ox” – struggling to meet our physical and material needs, and no matter how much “darkness” we might have brought upon ourselves through our misdeeds, we are nevertheless capable and worthy of spiritual “illumination.” Our world is never too “dark” for a connection with God, and no matter how “defiled” we might feel we’ve become, we will always find a “jug” of purity with which we can overcome the darkness and fill our lives with spiritual meaning and sanctity.