A few years ago, I read that an acceptable rounding error of a Chinese population census is 30 million—double the number of Jews in the world! Furthermore, there are many more children in first grade in China (approximately 20 million) than there are Jews.
Despite these figures, the remarkable fact remains that this tiny people, of less than one-fifth of one percent of the world’s population, has impacted the course of humanity’s moral and spiritual history significantly more than China and arguably more than any other nation in history.
For me, one of the most profound lessons of Jewish history is this: so few can so deeply have an impact on so many. That strength lies not in numerical quantity but rather in the quality of the spirit.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Chanukah story. One man, Matityahu, and his five sons—one small family, known as the Hasmoneans—changed the course of Jewish history forever.
It was a time of Greek world domination, systematic global acculturation and the assimilation of the inhabitants of the conquered nations and minorities throughout the empire. Judea, the Jewish country at the time, was heavily influenced by the enticing hedonistic lure of Hellenistic culture. The Jewish people were in grave danger of losing their national and spiritual identity and—God forbid—vanishing as a distinct culture from the platform of human history, the fate of so many ancient nations. Had this small Hasmonean family not placed its finger into the rupturing dike, and not cemented the breach of the tumultuous and raging waters of cultural assimilation, the flame of Torah and Jewish destiny may very well have been snuffed out forever.
This one family stood up against the harsh decrees of the Syrian Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes, who threatened to uproot every last vestige of authentic Jewish life. They attracted supporters and grew in number, sparked a revolution, rebuilt a Jewish sovereign state, brought cultural independence to Judea and rededicated the Temple in Yerushalayim. They succeeded in not only stemming the tide but in reinvigorating the Jewish people’s belief in themselves and God, enabling them to survive and push back the military, political and cultural onslaught of the dominant superpower at the time.
Outnumbered by 20-1, Judah made the following remarkable speech, recorded in the Book of Maccabees, before facing one of his many battles: “Victory in battle emanates not from the multitude of numbers but rather in the strength given from Heaven... Whatever the will of Heaven be, so shall it transpire.”
With a tiny group of untrained men, the Hasmoneans not only defeated this huge army but continued for many years to fight even larger forces continually sent to put down the rebellion… and even greater miraculous victories took place.
Today, over two millennia later, as a testament to the Maccabees’ display of incredible courage and faith, and their belief in the justice of the cause of Jewish destiny, enabling them to prevail in the face of impossible political and military odds, we still observe Chanukah.
We live in a privileged generation that has seen a remarkable revival of the Hasmonean spirit. After the devastation of the Shoah—the horrific murder of one-third of our people and the destruction of almost the entire yeshiva world—we have witnessed two miraculous rebirths: of Torah and of Israel.
A handful of surviving leaders rebuilt the world of Torah study over the course of a few short decades into arguably the largest cadre of Torah learners our people has ever had. And out of the desolate backwater of the Ottoman Empire, a small band of Zionist pioneers created the miracle of modern-day Israel. Reviving a nation, reclaiming a land, rebuilding a country, revitalizing a language and reigniting our spirit.
Two powerful examples of the essence of Jewish history and Divinely-directed destiny. Of how so few can have such a deep impact on so many.
Rabbi Doron Perez is chief executive of the Mizrachi World Movement.