Unlike many who have tried to rule the Jewish people over the course of human history, the ancient Greeks did not set out with evil in their hearts when they overtook Judea more than 2,300 years ago. To the contrary, they were seen as benevolent and enlightened by the standards of their time. When Alexander the Great conquered Judea in 333 B.C.E. and instituted Greek rule throughout the Land of Israel, he extended religious and national autonomy to the Jews living there.
The Jews and the Hellenist Greeks, though, had vastly different cultures and a fundamentally different world view, a divide unacceptable to Antiochus IV when he came into power in 175 B.C.E. The ruler's very name hinted at imminent struggle; Antiochus added the title "Epiphanes" to his name because it meant "God made manifest." That underscored the primary difference between the ancient Greeks and Jews: The Greeks glorified the magnificence of man, while the Jews measured man's greatness through his partnership with the Creator.
For the children of Israel, man was created in the image of G-d; for the ancient Greeks, god was created in the likeness of man.
The story of Chanukah began when Antiochus tried to force Hellenism (Greek culture) on those faithful to Jewish belief and culture, requiring Jews to accept pagan gods of the Pantheon and outlawing Torah study, Shabbat observance, milah (circumcision) and nashim (Jewish brides).
But the Jews resisted Antiochus' edicts and worshiped in secret. The conflict festered before finally coming to a head in Modi'in, a small village outside Jerusalem, where a priest named Matityahu rose up against a Greek soldier who dared sacrifice a swine on the village altar. Soon thereafter, Antiochus' army swept through Jerusalem and ravaged the Holy Temple, torturing and murdering many Jews along the way.
Matityahu and his five sons were forced into hiding, escaping to the mountains where they were joined by thousands fleeing persecution in Jerusalem and elsewhere. History referred to this as the "Greek exile," even though the Jewish people were not banished so much as coalescing for a fight.
In the mountains, Matityahu's son, Judah Maccabee, assembled a peasant army to reclaim the Holy Land. Despite being horribly outmatched by the mighty Greek army, the spirit of the Jewish fighters was indomitable. Three years after the revolt at Modi'in, the Jews reclaimed Jerusalem and planned to rededicate the Holy Temple. Of course, what happened next is what makes Chanukah one of our most uplifting holidays today. The Maccabees entered the Beit Hamikdash to restore that which the ancient Greeks had defiled but found only a day's worth of sacred oil to light the holy temple.
Yet somehow the oil burned for eight days straight. The improbable victory of the Maccabees had been consecrated by a miracle.
When night falls on Dec. 21, I will celebrate Chanukah with my family as I do every year, eating latkes cooked in oil to remember the divine light that filled the Temple, spinning a dreidel with my daughter Hani to remember that "a great miracle happened there," and kindling my menorah to share the Chanukah miracle with those closest to me.
The story of Chanukah is timeless, and its message of hope -- that even in the face of persecution, people can liberate themselves by walking with G-d -- extends to anyone who is not living in freedom today. Contemporary American life affords so much freedom and opportunity that it can be easy to forget the many sacrifices of liberty and life that made it possible for all Americans, including Jewish Americans, to live so freely.
Chanukah reminds us of a very inspiring struggle of the Jewish people, and the miracle of the Temple reminds us of our responsibility to be guided by the light that G-d provides and to work to improve the world, good deed by good deed, mitzvah by mitzvah.
This article is reprinted with permission from Farbrengen magazine, published by Chabad of California.