You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you. — Psalm 91:5–7
Today is the third day of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, a celebration of two miracles: the victory of the Jews over the Greeks and the single flask of oil that kept the Temple menorah burning for eight days.
The story of Hanukkah recalls the victory of a small group of Jewish fighters called the Maccabees over the mighty Greek army. The term Maccabee is from the Hebrew word “hammer.” The Maccabees were Jewish warriors who hammered the enemy. However, don’t think that these were the strong, well-trained warriors that you see in the movies. The truth is that these were a bunch of weaklings who were used to studying God’s Word all day. Their strength came not from their own accord. Maccabee also has another meaning. It is a Hebrew acronym for the phrase: “Who among the gods is like you, LORD?” (Exodus 15:11). The strength of the Maccabees was from God.
It’s interesting how God does this quite often. He puts us in an impossible situation so that we can come to see Him and know from whom our strength comes. Had the Maccabees been a well-trained army like Israel has today, we may not have noticed God’s hand as much. The Jewish heroes of that day were frail, outnumbered, and outgunned. And yet, they were triumphant. They defeated the greatest army in the world at that time.
According to tradition, the Maccabees would recite Psalm 91 on their way to battle and while in battle. I imagine them looking heavenward and reciting: “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” These words remind us that even if we are surrounded by terrible danger, sure to be defeated by all natural accounts, God can still protect us. God can surround us like a shield that no one – not even the great Greek army – could penetrate.
I can imagine how the Maccabees felt the first time they saw the Greeks approach on massive, towering elephants – the ancient world’s equivalent to modern-day tanks. The Jews had never seen such a thing before. But they turned to those approaching elephant-tanks and said: “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (v.2).
At night, the Maccabees recalled: “You will not fear the terror of night . . .” During the day they remembered: “ . . . nor the arrow that flies by day . . .” This is how the war was won. The Maccabees placed their trust in God, and He brought about a miraculous salvation.
This Hanukkah, let’s remember that the victory doesn’t always go to the mighty and powerful. God can make us triumphant no matter what our circumstances or what our weaknesses are. Let’s place our trust fully in God. If He could bring a small, weak group of Jews to defeat the mighty Greeks, surely He can bring victory to us, too.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President