…the despotic kingdom of Greece rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your law and to lead them away from the statutes of Your will.
(from the daily Chanukah prayer addition)
In 2nd century B.C.E, the Greek Seleucid Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes began a systematic campaign against Judaism, which he saw as an obstacle to the spread of Hellenist philosophy in Israel. He forbid certain forms of religious observance (such as circumcision, for example)—disobedience was punishable by death. He desecrated the Temple by sacrificing pigs there, and he put up a statue of the Greek G-d Jupiter in the Holy of Holies. Enraged, Mattathias the Maccabee and his five sons recruited a small army of Jews and launched a guerrilla war that is commonly known as the Maccabean revolt. After three years of aggressive fighting, this small Jewish army miraculously beat the huge and mighty Greek army. They took back control of Jerusalem and, on the 25th of the Hebrew month Kislev, re-dedicated the Temple and rekindled the light of Torah life.
Even though the Greeks wanted to do away with our commitment to Torah life, they found Torah study very interesting. They even had the Torah translated into Greek. But they thought that the Torah was written by human beings and should be studied only for the sake of the human wisdom it contained. To the Greeks, there was no such thing as divinely given wisdom; there was only human wisdom, born out of logic.
However, many things in the Torah simply did not make sense to them.
I find that very often—when people are first exploring Judaism—they expect it to be logical and explainable. But if we could explain it all, then that would mean that the Torah is completely reasonable and rational. If the Torah were completely reasonable and rational, we wouldn’t need a G-d to reveal such a Torah. A human being could reveal such a Torah. But if the Torah is a prophetic divine revelation, then there are obviously going to be laws and commandments in it that are beyond our rationale. But it is essential to understand that the purpose of Torah and its commandments is not simply to teach wisdom and offer good advice for better living. The Torah and the commandments express the will of G-d—what G-d wants us to do. They enable us to establish a personal loving relationship with G-d.
If the only things I was willing to do for my wife were the things that make sense to me, we might have a lot of arguments. But shouldn’t I do what my loved one asks of me just because I love her? To fulfill her request is an opportunity to show her love and bond with her.
This is also true of our relationship to G-d, our Ultimate Loved One.
Of course, the Greeks did not believe that people should be trying to bond with deities. To them, a deity was an object for meditation. What’s love got to do with it?
For the Greeks, intelligence was the highest achievement of the human being. And if the Jews studied Torah for that purpose, well then, fine. But for the Jews, the highest achievements of the human being were, and continue to be, responsibility and moral excellence. We value intelligence, we value learning, but that is because we believe that learning—G-d’s law, the Torah—nurtures our loving relationship with G-d and leads us to be more moral. G-d loves us, cares for us and therefore, He gave us His Torah so that we can experience His love for us and we can express our love for Him.
Adapted from Inviting God In: Celebrating the Soul-Meaning of the Jewish Holy Days by Rabbi David Aaron