I see you visibly, and now believe
That he, the Supreme Good,
Would send a glittering guardian, if need were
To keep my life and honor unassailed.
Was I deceived, or did a sable (black) cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err; there does a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night,
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.
John Milton – Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634
Darkness is a powerful enemy. When one is in its shadow, the despair can be overwhelming. Such are the circumstances that Mattitayhu and his sons find themselves in when the Hellenist Jews rise to power in Jerusalem and Judea.
Since Antiochus’s rise to power in 175 BCE, the kehuna gedola has gone to the “highest bidder”. These Kohanim Gedolim were anxious to please Antiochus. Onias, the Kohen Gadol when Antiochus becomes king, tried to convince the king of his loyalty, but Onias’s brother Jason bought the high priesthood from Antiochus and ousted him, Jason then established Greek institutions in Jerusalem in order to turn Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city to be named Antioch. The darkness began its descent.
Then, Menelaus, who wanted more drastic change, bought the kehuna gedola from Antiouchus, and he immediately took money from the mikdash treasury to give to Antiochus. This is a breaking point for the Jews in Jerusalem, and they revolt. Menelaus retaliates by putting idols in the Beit Hamikdash. The darkness grows deeper.
In 167 BCE Antiochus tried to quash the rebellion by taking away the rebels’ right to live according to the Torah. He saw the Torah and mitzvot as the guiding light that propelled the rebels, and he thought that if he extinguished their light, they would lose the will to fight. And at this darkest of moments, “a sable (black) cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night” in the rallying cry of Matityahu, מי לה’ אלי.
And the darkness was pushed back one battle at a time. The Maccabean forces took control of most of Judea by 166/5 BCE and they liberated Jerusalem in 164 BCE. The Maccabim rededicate the Beit Hamikdash and restore the light both literally and figuratively to the Jewish people. Rav Moshe Lichtenstein comments that the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days served as a heavenly sign that God was pleased with their actions. This heavenly light was joined to the light of the faithful, demonstrating the eternal covenant between G-d and His chosen people.
What is astounding and inspiring about the Maccabim is their ability to create light in the darkness. It is easy to imagine the Maccabim reciting the Psalm מזמור שיר חנוכת הבית לדוד, traditionally said every day on Chanukah. The words of this mizmor articulate an unshakable faith that G-d will not allow the enemy to be victorious, as well as the belief that G-d will turn the lament into dancing, and the mourning to joy. The concluding verse articulates what is at the core of the maccabim’s mission:
So that I might sing hymns to You endlessly; LORD my God, I will praise You forever.
In an interview shortly before Rosh Hashana this year, Rabbi Sacks, z”l, referred to
this perek of tehillim as a source of inspiration whilst in the shadow of COVID. He said:
“I came back to this perek of tehilim time and time again throughout the pandemic- it is all about passing through a period of great danger…G-d had hidden His face and Dovid was so afraid…Yet Dovid still says:
הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי לְמָחוֹל לִי פִּתַּחְתָּ שַׂקִּי וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִׂמְחָה
Somehow Dovid knew how to transmute negative energies into positive energies. Musicians know how to make beauty out of pain. This is our spiritual challenge this year …. to find within the pain moments of joy and to take strength in our faith for a brighter future.”
May we all have the strength to seek out the silver linings and make light in the darkness.