Avraham, Gidon, and the Hasmoneans

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat miketz – shabbat chanuka

SICHA OF HARAV YAAQOV MEDAN SHLIT"A

 

Avraham, Gidon, and the Hasmoneans

Adapted by Guy Zviran

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

Sefer Makkabim recounts the evil actions of the Greeks: they institute pagan sacrifices in the Temple and establish altars for idolatry throughout the cities of Judea. When they reach the town of Modi'in, they invite Matityahu – whom they view as an important public figure – to be the first to offer a sacrifice upon the altar. Matityahu refuses, another Jew offers a sacrifice in his stead, Matityahu slays him on the spot, as Pinchas had done hundreds of years previously, and then he destroys the altar. Following this, Matityahu is garbed with the divine spirit and calls upon the people to join him:

 

… A Jewish man came, in the sight of all, to sacrifice on the altar which was at Modi'in, according to the king's command. And Matityahu saw this, and he was filled with zeal, and his reins trembled, and he cast forth his rage according to judgment, and he ran and slew him upon the altar. And also the king's commissioner, who was compelling [Jews] to sacrifice – he killed him too, at that time, and he pulled down the altar. He was zealous for the Torah, as Pinchas had done towards Zimri, son of Salu. Matityahu cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying: "Whoever is zealous for the Torah, and maintains the covenant – let him follow me!" (I Makkabim 2:23-27)

 

            The story of Matityahu is reminiscent, in many ways, of a similar narrative from Sefer Shoftim – the story of Gidon. Gidon, too, initiates the rebellion against the Midianites by smashing his father’s idol to Ba'al:

 

And it was, on that night, that God said to him: "Take your father's young ox, and the other ox that is seven years old, and throw down your father's altar to Ba'al, and cut down the Ashera that is by it." (Shoftim 6:25)

 

            In the wake of this act Gidon is garbed with the divine spirit, and he calls to some of the tribes to join him in waging war against Midian:

 

The divine spirit garbed Gidon, and he sounded the shofar, and Aviezer mustered behind him. He sent messengers throughout Menashe, who also mustered behind him, and he sent messengers to Asher and to Zevulun and to Naftali, and they came up to meet them. (Ibid. 34-35)

 

            Another point of similarity concerns the identity of the soldiers. The first to respond to Matityahu's call are his sons: "So he and his sons fled to the mountains" (I Makkabim 2:28). Likewise, Gidon's first recruits are his brothers and other members of his family: "Aviezer mustered behind him" (Gidon's brothers are killed in the war against Midian; see Shoftim 8:18-19).

 

            In both cases, the war is waged between "the few and the many." Matityahu starts the rebellion with but a few men, and even later on, when Yehuda ha-Makkabi wages the first battles against the Greek forces, his army is described as a small one:

 

And when they saw the camp coming towards them, they said to Yehuda: "How shall we, being few in number, be able to fight against this strong multitude?" (I Makkabim 3:17)

 

Similarly, Gidon prepares for battle with only three hundred men, against the entire army of Midian.

 

            There is significance not only in the number of soldiers, but also in their quality. The battle is not only a matter of "the many against the few," but also "the wicked against the righteous, and the brazen against those who are occupied with Your Torah." Yehuda's fighters are very few in number, but they believe in their path – at a time when it was perhaps easier to integrate into the prevailing Greek culture, as many Jews were indeed choosing to do. The idolatrous worship did not carry so much religious weight (did anyone in Antiokhus's kingdom believe that the Greek gods ruled the world?) as cultural significance. It was a matter of lifestyle, role models, and morals.

 

            In Gidon's time, too, worship of Ba'al does not seem to have been meant as a clear religious statement that it was Ba'al who would bring rain, etc. In Gidon's time, Am Yisrael worshiped both God and Ba'al; they were straddling both ways of life. They worshipped God, because this was the tradition of their forefathers. And they worshipped Ba'al – because this represented integration into the surrounding cultural milieu.

 

            Another story that has various similarities to these two is that of Avraham, in his war against the four kings. Here, again, the war is waged by the few against the many. As in the story of Gidon, there is a surprise attack at night, targeting some of the heads of the army, striking a serious blow to the great enemy camp that is fast asleep, and then pursuit and expulsion. Avraham, too, sets off to save his nephew with about three hundred soldiers, just as Gidon and his three hundred men pursue Zevach and Tzalmuna, the kings of Midian, to find out what happened to his brothers.

 

            Chazal contribute another dimension to this comparison by identifying Amrafel king of Shinar as Nimrod (e.g. Bereishit Rabba 42:7). (He is so named because he sought to throw Avraham into the fiery furnace – "amar-pol.") Nimrod wanted to kill Avraham after the latter had shattered the idols; hence, Avraham's battle similarly begins with a breaking of idols.

 

            All of these stories share the common elements of a breaking of idols, and going out to battle with a small army of brothers and fellow believers, against a foreign power that is trying to impose its culture.

 

            Both in Gidon's time and in the time of Matityahu, the Jews were faced with the prospect of integration into the surrounding culture, but only at the price of loss of their own identity. The danger of assimilation loomed over them. Both leaders made the same choice: to follow the way of Torah, and to wage a battle against the gentile culture around them.

 

            From this we deduce the principle that "There is no person who is free, except one who engages in Torah" (Avot 6:2). A true battle for freedom, with a readiness for real self-sacrifice, can bring victory in a battle between a few and a multitude, and thereby also to bring about political freedom.

 

            The miracles – both those experienced by Gidon and those experienced by Yehuda ha-Makkabi – were merely signs that God approved of their struggles. These were not miracles like the ones that happened during the battle led by Devora and Barak. Here, the war was in human hands. Without miraculous Divine intervention, there is victory only when it is a case of “the wicked against righteous people; the brazen against those engaged in Your Torah."

 

            The model of Yehuda ha-Makkabi is familiar to us from Zionist history at the time of the establishment of the State, when the attempt was made to build the Israel Defense Forces on the military legends of two specific characters: Yehuda ha-Makkabi and Bar Kokhba.

 

            There is a great, fundamental difference between Yehuda ha-Makkabi and Bar Kokhba. Bar Kokhba ultimately lost his battle, while Yehuda ha-Makkabi won. Bar Kokhba's war led to the loss of many Jewish lives, and a terrible exile that lasted two thousand years. Yehuda ha-Makkabi, on the other hand, led to the political revival of the Hasmonean kingdom.

 

            Bar Kokhba started out well, with Rabbi Akiva lending his full support – to the extent that he served as Bar Kokhba's armor-bearer (Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim 11:3) - and with a genuine inner understanding of the need to rebuild the Temple and to observe the commandments of the Torah. Later on, however, he abandoned Rabbi Akiva's path. At a certain point, the midrash tells us, Bar Kokhba asked God to neither aid nor obstruct his battle:

 

When they went out to battle they would say [to God]: "Do not help us and do not hinder us." This is as it is written (Tehillim 60:12): "Have You, our God, not then forsaken us, not going out, God, with our hosts?" (Eikha Rabba 2:4)

 

            This statement was directed less towards God Himself, and more towards those who represent His teaching and His will – the sages. The abandonment of the path of the sages also finds expression in the famous kick with which Bar Kokhba ended the life of Rabbi Elazar ha-Moda'i (see Eikha Rabba, ibid.).

 

            All of this is in contrast to Yehuda ha-Makkabi and his father, Matityhau. Matityahu started his rebellion mostly as a war against Hellenized Jews, while Yehuda ha-Makkabi transferred the battle to the enemy front. Their intention, however, was the same: they sought to preserve the way of God, Torah, and the commandments.

 

            "There is no person who is free, except one who engages in Torah." The victory of the few over the many is not possible unless it represents the delivering of "the wicked into the hands of the righteous," and "the brazen into the hands of those engaged in Your Torah."

 

[This sicha was delivered on the fifth night of Chanuka, 5764 (2004).]