Chanukah, 165 B.C.E

hero image
Greek Helmet
18 Dec 2008

Moshe leapt from one roof to the next, his heart pounding wildly*. His two pursuers leapt after him, spears pointed at his back. They had been chasing him for what seemed like an eternity, but finally Moshe saw his escape. The gap between the roof he was standing upon and the roof to the right was so big that his Greek attackers, weighed down with their heavy armor, wouldn’t be able to bridge it. He sped up and jumped with all his might, clearing the gap. Ducking behind a large barrel, he heard the spears whistling through the air, inches away from his shoulder.

Moshe stayed still, crouching behind the oven, waiting for his attackers to leave. His thoughts drifted to his childhood friend, David, who had begun the day with Moshe’s unit of Maccabees preparing for the assault on Temple Mount. David would never see the victory they so dreamed of. He had been cut down by the Greek patrol that found them this morning. The vicious Greeks butchered everyone they caught and were still chasing down those that managed to escape. Not knowing what fate befell the other units ringing Jerusalem, Moshe wasn’t even sure if there would be the planned assault on the Temple Mount.

Moshe looked at his reflection on the blade of his homemade sword. He barely recognized his own face, hardened, scarred, framed in wild hair, and glinting a macabre maroon through the blood on the sword. How different was this life than the life he had known so well.

Moshe had grown up in a small town full of Kohanim called Modi’in. Although he knew that Jews all over Israel were Hellenizing, adopting Greek culture and shedding their long-held Jewish ideals, it didn’t affect the small town much. The priests living there descended from generations of proud Jews, and Moshe rarely encountered Hellenist dogma, the largest threat his people faced since Egypt.

When Moshe turned thirteen, his mother packed him a few robes, a hunk of his favorite dried date cake, and sent him off to Jerusalem to train for priestly duty in the Temple. As his training progressed, he began to see more and more of his classmates dropout, attracted by the sports being played in the arena the Greeks built next door. It was the Greek temple, and the glory given to successful athletes had been luring people for decades. How painful it was to hear his childhood friends (who now called themselves Ariadne, Hesiod, and Tethys) ridiculing him, “Oh Moishele, why don’t you go offer up sacrifices to your Unigod! We’re going to play discus and field hockey with the real men!”

After watching idols being erected in the Temple courtyard, Matisyahu, the High Priest, left his beloved Temple and moved to Moshe’s hometown of Modi’in. The Syrian-Greeks tracked him down and tried to force him to publicly offer a pig to their god. That was the tipping point. Moshe could still see Matisyahu standing tall with a sword in his outstretched arm, long gray beard flying in the wind, eyes flashing fiercely as he shouted, “Mi Lashem Eilay! Whoever is ready to fight for G-d, come to me!”

Since then it had been three years of horror. The Maccabees, under Matisyahu’s son Yehuda, had fought the world’s most advanced army. Moshe had joined but it hadn’t been easy. He reddened thinking of how he had fled the first time he came face to face with the Greek phalanx, twelve men across, ten deep, with sarissa spears sixteen feet long.

Soon, however, Moshe and his comrades began winning battles. And how miraculous those battles were! Though the Maccabees were agile and swift, without the heavy armor of the Greeks, the Jews had no training whatsoever, while their enemies were hardened soldiers trained in the best military schools in the world, veterans of the many Greek conquests from Egypt to India. The numbers had also been surreal. There were days that Moshe’s tiny unit of Maccabees would battle a full Greek phalanx and emerge victorious! But there were days that didn’t go in their favor, and after three years of battle, Moshe doubted there were even thirty members of his original unit alive. This morning’s skirmish was the freshest scar in Moshe’s heart.

A shofar blast pulled Moshe out of his reverie. That was the signal for the all out attack on the Temple Mount! It was happening right now. Moshe ran off toward the temple, and soon lost himself in the thick of battle. Maccabees were pouring in from all over, ambushing the Greeks, dropping upon them from rooftops, firing arrows at them from windows. After a few hours, the Greek commander sounded the retreat horn. Leaving this battle meant they were leaving the region! This time the Maccabees didn’t even follow them, the excitement of recapturing the Temple was infectious, and everyone had only one thing in mind.

Moshe and his fellow fighters approached the Temple in an awed hush, each man silently giving thanks to G-d for their miraculous victory, and for allowing them to return to His home. As they opened the doors to the Temple, their prayers died on their lips, and soon a wailing was heard. No one had ever seen the Temple in such disgrace. There were idols dotting the entire Temple compound, pig carcasses rotting next to them, blood everywhere. Then there were the oil flasks, thousands of them, lying broken. Some flasks were still full, but the broken seal of the High Priest indicated they were no longer holy. It was clear that the Greeks had systematically destroyed every single flask in the Temple. Not only could the people not offer any sacrifices on the altar, they would not even be able to light the Menorah, the beacon of light for the Jewish people.

Moshe could hear some of the older Maccabees discussing their options.

“Let’s just go home to our wives and children, and come back after a cleaning crew fixes this place up properly,” said one bloody soldier. Another suggested that they light the menorah using some of the defied oil, citing a halachic source for using defiled oil when most of the Jews in the area aren’t ritually pure. Many listened silently, torn with indecision about how to proceed.

Then, Yochanan the son of Matisyahu called out:

“My fellow Maccabees. Hodu Lashem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo! Let us give thanks to G-d for He is good, forever is His kindness! We have finally made it! Everything we dreamt of, everything we hoped for is in our hands. The pagans have been chased away, and once again, the Temple, G-d’s resting place on earth is in our control. Let us not give up hope at the sight before us. It may look depressing, it may look daunting, it may even look like it’s impossible for us to find any holy oil. But since when did we only do that which looked possible? What did we set out to do three years ago? To defeat the strongest army in the world! We set out to do the impossible and G-d rewarded us with a victory that is nothing short of a miracle. Let us redouble our efforts to find just one bottle of holy oil! It may look impossible but our strength comes from taking on the impossible.”

The Maccabees caught a new wave of strength and hurriedly began searching every nook and cranny. Moshe wandered through the building, searching under overturned tables, behind mounds of animal skins, and between piles of broken pottery. He soon found himself in the Palhedrin chamber, the room where the High Priest would sequester himself in the week leading up to Yom Kippur. Moshe reasoned that perhaps one of the earlier High Priests hid away just one jar of oil in case a catastrophe ever hit. He started pulling up the flagstones in the small room, and as he lifted up the sixth flagstone, he saw it, one tiny sealed jar nestled in a small depression in the ground.

Just one tiny jar of oil that would light up Jewish homes for millennia, reminding his people to search just a bit deeper, to take on the impossible, to let the light conquer the stifling darkness.

* This account is an historical fiction.

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.