At the time of the Chanukah story, the Greeks brought the Jews the most exquisite treasures of Hellenism:
• art, music, fashion
• technology, architecture, athletics
• gourmet victuals, captivating entertainment and vigorous recreation
Beautiful institutions of every size and shape. And all they were really asking of the Jews (and at least at first, they asked politely) was come and get it – free!
Of course, there was one little provision about giving up Jewish identity in order to join Hellenistic society. But every other nation was doing it. And besides, what was Judaism compared to all the latest wonders of Greek living?
The Maccabees surveyed the merchandise and said: "Thanks, but no thanks." The Greeks couldn't understand how anyone would refuse such a magnanimous offer. So they made an offer we couldn't refuse: "Accept our culture and lifestyle, drop Jewish exclusivism – or we'll put you to death. Deal?"
No deal. The Jewish response was to launch a full-scale revolt against their Syrian-Greek overlords, led by a bunch of Kohanim (priests) with little or no military experience.
Motivation of the Maccabees
What motivated this rag-tag bunch of provincial peasant-priests to dare and take on the best organized, most powerful military machine in the world? What did they value so highly about Jewish life that they were unwilling to exchange it for the riches of Greek society and philosophy – even on pain of death and destruction?
The Maccabees were fighting for pleasure.
No kidding. Judaism is essentially a 4,000-year-long quest for one objective: pleasure. The Greeks tried to take Jewish ecstasy away from us, offering instead a bevy of similarly stimulating activities. Obviously an uneven trade: the Maccabees would have nothing to do with it.
What?! Jewish life is an exercise in pleasure? I've never heard anything so preposterous!
And besides - wasn't Greek culture the very definition of pleasure? In what way could Judaism possibly exceed the Greeks for pure pleasure value?
To find our answer, we must explore the notion of what truly gives human beings pleasure…
Hawaii in December
Imagine you are lolling lazily on the beach, stretched out on a luxurious lounge chair, liberally lavishing suntan lotion on your lithe limbs. A light breeze is blowing. Your iPod is emitting the sweet sounds of Kenny G. A frozen margarita rounds out this heaven of unmitigated hedonism. This is the life!
You’ve just settled into your state of sandy nirvana, when your partner blurts out: "I've got a headache and I want to go home." Disappointed, you help your partner back to the hotel where you offer some TLC.
What happened? You forfeit the pleasureful beach experience for a higher form of pleasure: love!
Or suppose you find yourself relaxing in that same picturesque scene, taking in sun and surf – when suddenly you espy an elderly lady trying to make her way down the boardwalk, nearly collapsing under the weight of her parcels. From a distance her eyes plead for help. Again, you relinquish your comfortable ocean view in favor of an even greater pleasure: doing the right thing.
Let's place you once more in that tranquil environment, as the rush of the waves sooth your weary soul. Given the choice, which would you prefer: To lie there on the beach, or to experience the incredible satisfaction of, say, writing a monumental literary work, or painting an artistic masterpiece? Which would you prefer? My guess is you’d waive the waves in favor of a higher pleasure: creativity and creating.
The Joy of Judaism
The point of all this? That there are pleasures far greater than those espoused by the Greeks who invaded Israel 2,000 years ago. Judaism implores us to seek out the spark of awesome eternity in even the most mundane activities. In short, Judaism is the unrelenting, interminable quest for... goosebumps.
For a moment, imagine that feeling you get when you intersect, however briefly, with that great Power beyond. When you catch a fleeting glimpse of that entirely indescribable something we call "spiritual." Like that beautiful night when you look up at the endless arc of clear black sky and think to yourself how amazing and majestic and beyond words and breathtakingly mysterious the world is. Like the time when you feel a sudden rush of untraceable, incomparable happiness, as if you could open your arms wide and embrace the cosmos in all its unity and splendor. Like the time you were so overwhelmed with the sensation of life that you burst into tears.
Wealth, external beauty, athletics, partying – for the Greeks who invaded the Land of Israel, these notions were ends in themselves, even objects of worship. For the Jews who rose up against them, these things were also valuable – but not as ends in themselves. Judaism says: Appreciate the entire world and all the beautiful, wonderful, pleasure-giving things in it. But enhance that pleasure ten-fold by parlaying the lesser "physical" enjoyments into the infinitely greater "spiritual" enjoyments. Use the former as a launch pad to soar to the heights of the latter. Make average, everyday pleasure the fuel for exceptional, sublime, transcendent joy. Uplift the mundane into the mind-boggling.
A Maccabee For Free
The Maccabees realized Judaism’s worth and were willing to fight to preserve it. They sought a life that strives for more than the glitzy superficialities of “modern culture." A life that isn't satisfied with low-level pleasures. A life that wants it all.
When you light the Menorah this year, notice the nature of the fire. It takes mundane, motionless matter and transforms it into passionate, vigorous energy. It takes a relatively ordinary, plain old piece of wax, and utilizes its resource to shine light, to spread warmth, to climb skyward, ever higher.
The Menorah is a reminder of the choice we have in life. We can focus merely on the excitement of colorful candles, or we can light our very souls on fire – transforming the average into the exceptional, the material into the spiritual, the superficial gratification... into Judaism's super-high-level-fun.
And (for the moment, anyway), you don't have to fight for it like a Maccabee. It's yours for the taking.