Shining a light in the darkness


The battle between the physical and the spiritual


By: Aron Ziegler

Unlike Purim, which occurred while there was still some remnant of prophecy remaining with the Jewish people, the events of the miracles of Chanukah could not be immortalised in our Holy Scriptures as our prophetic abilities were no more. In order to remind us of the extraordinary miracles that Hashem did for us in those days, the Rabbis chose to build upon the seemingly insignificant miracle of “the small jar of oil lasting longer than expected” and instituted a mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles each year at that same time. Through the candles, we are meant to be reminded of those events: the Greek’s attempts to extinguish Torah, the battles of the Chashmonaim against them, and of the salvation that came from Hashem, as we recite in the Al HaNissim prayer.

The four empires

Already in the second verse of the Torah[1], our Sages saw a reference to the Greek Empire and the other three mighty empires that would dominate the Jewish people. “The Earth was empty and void, and darkness was over the depths…” ‘Empty’ refers to Babylon; ‘void’ refers to Medea; ‘darkness’ refers to Greece; and ‘depths’ refers to Rome.

If we consider the choice of descriptions for each of these empires, however, we may be surprised as to why our Sages identified the word ‘darkness’ with the Greek empire. The Greeks did not exile the Jewish people from our land, nor did they lay waste to the land or destroy the Temple with Holocaust-scale bloodshed and decimation, as was the case, for example, with the Babylonians, who physically deported our survivors away to Babylon after we had experienced close to a thousand years of stability in our own land. As we say in Tehillim[2], “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and cried when we remembered Zion…”

Add to this the fact that our Sages also identified[3] ‘darkness’, albeit in an abstract way, with the Angel of Death. Moshe told[4] the nation that at Har Sinai, “You heard the voice [of Hashem] that came out from the darkness…” and this reference to ‘darkness’, they say, refers to the Angel of Death. Surely then, it is the Babylonians, who, with their infliction of massive destruction and death, ‘darkened the eyes of the Jewish nation’, more so than the Greeks. The Greeks merely took over the governance of our land, but allowed us to continue living there. Surely Babylon represents the epitome of the darkest exile experience for the Jews, so why then is it Greece who is identified with this title of ‘darkness’?

Darkness and death

The Sages’ metaphor of ‘darkness’ representing the Angel of Death has many scriptural parallels. ‘Darkness’ accompanies the shade-of-death in a number of places in Tanach, as those who are in ‘darkness’ are literally in the Shadow of Death, away from life-giving light. Without light, one is without life. Creation began with light, and the sun is the source of physical life in our world. Light and darkness cannot co-exist, as a single ray of light can dispel much darkness. Light is to darkness, as life is to death, for where there is light there is life and pleasantness of life, while darkness is symbolic of bitterness. Accordingly, our Sages found it simple to equate darkness with death.

We also find that ever since man was created, his chief concern has been trying to dispel darkness. In honour of the very first Shabbos in the history of the world, the sun continued to illuminate the world for the whole duration of that Shabbos.[5] At the departure of that very first Shabbos after creation, when darkness began to encroach on the world, Hashem imbued Adam with knowledge, inspiring him to strike two stones together, creating light-giving fire.[6] This is, in fact, one of the advantages that man has over all other creations. All creations long for and thrive in light, but other creations don’t have the wherewithal to dispel darkness with light, as Hashem bestowed this knowledge, which resembles a Heavenly power, exclusively upon man, enabling him to produce light and drive out darkness. Ever since man first produced light from striking two rocks together, he has not ceased from searching for different means of illuminating the darkness of night, eventually discovering the properties of the olive, which holds within it illuminating oil. From the time that the dove brought to Noach the olive branch of peace, safety, and hope, the olive became a symbol of light for the world.[7]

Illuminating the darkness within

Man has continued to search for means of brightening his life – even until today with electricity and technology dispelling the dark ages of mankind with greater and greater technological enlightenments. How astonishing, however, is the realization that, despite all of the technological and enlightened mechanisms of easing and brightening man’s life that he has discovered and developed over thousands of years, he has only been able to dispel the darkness that exists in his external environment, but has yet to succeed in dispelling the more insidious darkness that resides within himself, in the depths of his own soul. For just as there is, both literal and figurative, light and darkness in the world in which man finds himself, so too there is light and darkness in the heart of man – the light of righteousness, which illuminates for man the paths of his life and guides him on upright paths, and the darkness of oppression and tyranny, which subtracts any remnants of man’s superiority over beast and leaves man to be but a developed or sophisticated animal.

Just as Hashem bestowed upon man the capacity and knowledge of how to produce and discover fire to illuminate the world around him, so too He bestowed upon man the capacity to understand and intelligently choose good and to illuminate for himself the ways of his life with the light of righteousness and justice. To our sorrow, mankind has not very well used this inner compass of light-bringing righteousness for good, but rather we have used it to invent and produce tools and ideologies of destruction in order to strengthen and increase our domination over one another. And our eyes clearly see that despite all of the immense light that is in the modern world around us, awesome darkness encompasses and permeates our lives, turning the whole world into a den of monstrous beasts and savage humans who thirst for bloodshed.

Man-made death

This darkness is that darkness of the Angel of Death, which refers not to the natural death built into creation, but the type of death that man himself has manufactured via his encroachments of unjust tyranny and desire to dominate over his fellow. This unnatural death manifests literally as the simpler slingshots and arrows of ancient man, progressing to the advanced weapons of our day, which can bring unnatural death, destruction, and ruin to millions in an instant, turning entire developed cities into desolate, uninhabitable, toxic wastelands of rubble. This man-made Death also (and perhaps chiefly) manifests figuratively in the forms of tyrannical and evil speech (loshen harah), hurtful words (ona’as devarim), arguments (machlokes), and the like, that kill, dissolve, and ruin nations and economies, communities and families, and friendships and personal lives. These figurative weapons of death have also been modernised by man and have become ever more efficient and powerful in their destructive capacities and, although less gory than the physical butchering of one’s fellow, these figurative dark weapons of death are hardly less lethal.

And this is what the sages intended by the Midrash[8] regarding the verse, “You heard the voice coming out from the darkness.” The state of the world of primitive man, before the Torah was given and the voice of Hashem declared “I am Hashem your G-d … thou shall not murder”, was a world of total darkness and chaos, a world operated by the Angel of Death. Then you (the Bnei Yisrael) heard the voice of Hashem at Har Sinai declaring the path of light-living and enlightenment out of a world of darkness and void governed by man’s contrived Angels of Death.

A battle of ideals

Now that we have seen how our Sages understood ‘darkness’ to refer to this destructive and harmful Angel of Death – ie, the prominence of Man’s oppression and tyranny in the world manifest by the literal and figurative clenched fist of violence and bloodshed – we can begin to see why they chose darkness to refer to Greece. The kingdom of the Greeks was different than the Babylonians. The Babylonian’s conquest was like a regular clash of nations in which the Babylonians conquered and overthrew the Jewish State. The Greek oppression of the Jewish people, however, was more than this – it was an idealistic battle, a battle between the purely physical body and instincts of man, where the Angel of Death has influence, against the enlightened and refined moral spirit of man, where it is powerless.

The idolatrous Greeks were not prepared to acknowledge the superiority of man’s spirit, but instead focused their lives on the physical strength, beauty, and pleasure of the body. They depicted their many gods with great physical strength and beauty, while telling of their “great feats” of murder and promiscuity. Greek children were likewise trained to develop their bodies for both strength and beauty. Murder and debauchery were not considered improper. Whoever was more powerful was entitled to rule over his fellow. Their great poets and craftsmen, whose arts and creations survive even until today, wrote about promiscuity and murder and created sculptures portraying the extraordinary strength and incredible physical beauty of their gods. Any of the moral code that they developed grew out from their ideology of advancing the primitive mortal man and his physical existence.

In contrast, the Jewish people esteemed the pre-eminence of the immortal soul, along with its intangible qualities like justice, G-d-given morality, and the reverence of G-d. A mighty warrior in our eyes was not one who possessed physical might, but one who conquered his base physical inclinations. The Jews believed in a single G-d, without physical form. We despised any sort of idolatrous sculpture, as we did not idealise the physical, but rather the spirit, believing the Divine Torah that tells us that the physical body of man is simply dust of the earth, and that man’s superiority over beast derives from the spirit that has been bestowed upon him by his Creator. We sought to worship and serve Hashem by faithfully observing His Torah, espousing the same to our children. Our poets sang praises of G-d – the G-d of the Heavens and the earth – of justice and mercy, the Supreme Judge, Whose eye sees the entire universe and everyone and everything in it.

Athens and Jerusalem

These two civilisations, the Jews and the Greeks, represented two very different worlds with entirely conflicting ideologies. The Greeks, with their physical might and prowess, ruled and dominated the physical world, including the land of Israel. They sought to also subdue the spirit of the Jews through physical domination and oppression, and, therefore, they decreed upon us harsh decrees in order to make us forget our Torah and to pull us away from Hashem. The war of the Greeks against the Jews was not a war of territorial conquest, as the land of Israel was physically under Greek rule already. Instead it was a war of a purely physical philosophy against an ideology that emphasised the world of the spirit. It was a war of darkness against light – the light of the spirit, of Divinely-dictated justice, and of the knowledge of Hashem. This is what our Sages meant when they said that ‘darkness’ refers to the Greeks “who darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees”.

Perhaps now we can understand the words of Rebbi [9], who, when he was asked why it was that the Greeks were referred to with the word ‘darkness’, replied that darkness is the same as ‘forget’ (the Hebrew words ‘darkness’ and ‘forget’ are comprised of the very same letters, only arranged differently). Rebbi’s intention was not just simply that the letters of the word ‘darkness’ could be rearranged to read ‘forget’, but that the two words have a similar meaning as well. The Greeks imposed upon the Jews “decrees in order to make us forget Your Torah”, aspiring to bring us into a Torah-less culture of oppression and tyranny – of darkness.

Light triumphed over darkness

The victory of the Chashmonaim over the Greeks was, in fact, a victory of light over darkness – a deliverance of “wanton sinners into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah”. To highlight the significance of that victory, Hashem made a miracle that involved light – the miracle of the jar of olive oil, to symbolise the light that the Jewish people bring into the world and which dispels the darkness of the Greeks. Symbolically, by lighting the menorah in The Temple, we would shine the light of Hashem’s Torah onto the entire world – to be a light unto the nations, representing the righteousness and justice of Hashem’s Torah. “Just like the dove brought light to the world when it brought the olive branch to Noach, so to you, the Jewish people, are likened to the dove, bring olive oil and light it in my Temple.”[10]

This miracle, following the victory over the Greeks, was a lesson to teach us that, not through physical might or force do we live and survive the great depths of the exiles, but through the ‘spirit of Hashem, which hovers over the face of the water’ – a spirit of knowledge and insight that will one day vanquish the darkness of the Angel of Death from all of the earth – ‘when many nations will go and say ‘let us go up to the mount of Hashem to the house of the G-d of Yaakov that He may instruct us in His ways and that we may walk in His paths’…and they will beat their weapons into ploughshares and pruning hooks, and warfare, arms-trade, and conflict will be no more…and we will walk in the light of Hashem’.[11]


Aron Ziegler has learned for over 15 years at the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, including five years full-time. He was among the first students of Hirsch Lyons School. For more than 10 years, he served as the spiritual leader of the Kensington Hebrew Congregation. He leads a learning group on weekday mornings at Cyrildene Shul. He strives, in the words of his beloved Rosh Yeshivah’s rebbe, to be a ‘Torah Jew’.

  1. *This article is based on excerpts from Shabbas u’Moed by Rabbi Yitzchak Kossowsky, ztz”l, who headed the Johannesburg Beth Din in the first half of the last century. This was written around the time of the Second World War and is very appropriate for our own time as well. Bereishis 1:2
  2. Tehillim 137
  3. See Vayikra Rabba 18
  4. Devarim 5:20
  5. See Bereishis Rabbah 11:2
  6. Pesachim 54a
  7. Medrash Tanchuma Teztaveh 5; Shir-HaShirim Rabbah 1
  8. Vayikra Rabba 18
  9. Medrash Pli’ah quoted in Sefer Damesek Eliezer by Rabbi Zusman Eliezer Sofer, Bereishis 80
  10. Medrash Tanchuma Teztaveh 5
  11. Isaiah 2:3-5

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