The Darkening of Jewish Eyes
The Midrash explains that the four expressions describing the world before G-d introduced light are hints to the four exiles that the Jewish people would endure throughout their history. The third, darkness, refers to the Greek exile, because, as the Midrash states, “the Greeks darkened the eyes of the Jewish people with their decrees.”
Obviously this language is metaphorical; there is no mention of the Greeks ever decreeing that Jews must endure smoke torture or have black mascara applied to their faces against their will. Instead, it is meant to indicate how the particular attempts of the Greeks to undermine Jewish dedication to Torah and mitzvos was tantamount to them darkening the Jews’ vision. Even still, this requires explanation, because how exactly does their forbidding Torah study, Shabbos observance, bris milah, sanctifying the New Moon, and their other very specific decrees have anything to do with removing light?
The best way to understand a metaphor is to expound upon it and understand its depth. One of the ways our eyes become darkened, as the Midrash said, is to slowly dim the light that the eyes are accustomed to. Once our eyes get used to a certain degree of light, any diminution of that light will also affect how well our eyes can see. But there are several ways to reduce the strength of light; which would be the appropriate example of the Greeks’ spiritual attack on Jewish values?
Again, we turn to the metaphor. A candle serves as the best symbol of light because it is the predominant expression of light (e.g., Shabbos candles, Chanukah candles). One can extinguish a candle by blowing it out, but the Greeks didn’t extinguish Judaism. One can suck the air out of the room through a vacuum; this would be tantamount to removing the neshamah of the Jews (as air and the soul are closely connected).
However, this too is flawed, because the Greeks didn’t seek to kill Jews so long as they weren’t violating their draconian decrees. Haman in the time of the Purim miracle was more interested in killing Jews than relieving them of their spirituality, and yet his actions were never compared to darkening the Jewish light.
Instead, we must say that the Greek attack on Judaism was most comparable to the removing of the fuels that feeds the flame. By siphoning from the oil of the candle, one slowly draws away the candle’s source of sustenance until there’s nothing left and the flame goes out on its own.
This was how the Greeks sought to eradicate Judaism from the Jews: by cutting off the Jews from their Source by removing from them those mitzvos from which they draw the most light. Torah, Shabbos, milah, and even Rosh Chodesh are of utmost importance in connecting to Hashem, the Source of all their spiritual power. Even if the Jews would still have close to 600 mitzvos still remaining, were they to lose these crucial connections, then they could undermine everything.
Why does the Midrash state that these decrees specifically attacked the “eyes of the Jewish people”? Of all the senses, the eyes are those that gather the most information about the world at large. Unlike the others, the eyes need no direct contact with the objects being seen; the viewer simply looks and detects everything within his field of vision.
Of all the mitzvos, the one specifically targeted by the Greeks provide a very important perspective on fundamental aspects of this world. Milah proves the fallibility of the human body; Shabbos diminishes the superiority of one’s physical efforts; sanctifying the Rosh Chodesh grants humans (specifically Jews) domination over time; and Torah submits one’s intellect to that of Hashem’s (so to speak). By taking away these constant reminders, the Greeks therefore sought to remove these constant reminders of the truth, which was tantamount to darkening the Jewish people’s eyes.