Jonathan Muskat

The Gevurah of Chanukah, Then and Now

Chanuka is a time of year when we consider multiple definitions of gevurah, or strength. On the one hand, the gevurah of Chanukah was the strength of the Hasmoneans to successfully revolt against the Syrian-Greek armies and the strength of the Hasmoneans to decide that they were allowed to fight against their enemy on Shabbat in order to save lives. It should be noted that according to the Book of Maccabees, there were groups of Jews who would fight the enemy for six days during the week, but they would not fight on Shabbat. The halacha of saving lives overriding the laws of Shabbat was not firmly established in Jewish tradition at that point. The Maccabees taught us the value of physical strength and how to use their physical strength to liberate the Jewish people from its oppressors.

However, Chanukah taught us about spiritual strength, as well. In Masechet Pirkei Avot (4:1), Ben Zoma asks the question, aizehu gibor, who is strong? He answers that the one who conquers his evil inclination is someone who is strong. Rabbenu Yonah understands this statement to mean that true strength is strength of the spirit.  It involves controlling our animal instincts. In a word, true strength involves courage. Courage is the ability to act in accordance with our beliefs, especially in the face of pressure.  True strength can either manifest itself through restraint but also through acting when it is so easy not to act. In the story of Chanukah, courage manifested itself by those who were willing to die rather than give up their Judaism and by those who were willing to fight the Syrian-Greeks.

As a nation, we have experienced unimaginable horrors in the October 7th massacre in Israel. We experienced a Holocaust-type massacre in our country, but unlike the Holocaust and unlike the tragedies that we as a nation have experienced for thousands of years, we have a country and an army now. And we are strong. We are strong and understand that a ceasefire is not the answer until our job is done, just like the Mattityahu and his followers understood over two thousand years ago that a cessation of fighting on Shabbat is not the answer until they defeated their enemies. We fight and we kill, even on Shabbat, because we must keep our nation safe and secure. Our IDF soldiers believe that they are not just waging war on behalf of the State of Israel. They are waging war on behalf of the Jewish people worldwide against those who believe that Jewish blood is free. And they are waging war on behalf of civilized society who is fighting to destroy the evil that Hamas represents.

At the same time, we are strong in spirit. There has been a resurgence of Jewish pride in Israel among all Israelis. Gone is the divisive fighting that plagued our homeland before October 7. We are united as one and we draw strength from each other. There is a feeling of love between all types of Jews in Israel from different political parties and all different religious streams. And because there is love, the has been a resurgence of Judaism, of secular soldiers wearing tzitzit and secular soldiers asking religious Jews to pray for them and to light Shabbat candles for them and to study Torah for them. The spirit of volunteerism taking place in Israel is off the charts. Everyone is making food for everyone else and is dedicated to help those who in need, especially those whose husbands are away in combat. I discovered last week that in one community there is even a dog walking whatsapp chat to help people walk dogs because their husbands who normally walk the dog are away in combat. Soldiers in Gaza are studying Torah and praying because they understand that strength for the Jew is both physical strength and spiritual strength. When we kindle the menorah lights on Chanukah, hopefully we will appreciate that, yes, there has been a lot of darkness in the world, but our brothers and sisters have responded to that darkness by illuminating the country with courage, strength and reinvigorated spirit.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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