The Ageless Message of Chanukah
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The Ageless Message of Chanukah
Rabbi R. Mermelstein
Chanukah, or The Dedication, signifies different things to each of us. To the child it means gifts, candy, latkes (potato pancakes) and spinning the dreidle toy. To some Holocaust survivors, it brings back bittersweet memories of secretly performing the mitzvah of lighting the menorah, the eight branched candelabrum symbolizing the one in the First and Second Temples in Ancient Jerusalem, in dread of being caught by Nazi concentration camp guards. Their love of Judaism endured even during some of the darkest hours in the history of our people. Some people have told me that though they lack a fuller understanding of Chanukah's significance, the slender burning candles rekindled in them hope for a better future; that even in a world plunged into immorality and ethical oblivion there remains room for optimism that one day soon a new era of morality, tolerance and human goodness will dawn with the coming of the Messiah which the Jewish people have longed for throughout our history of exiles and persecutions.
To kindle a menorah is the most powerful statement a Jew can make. It shouts to our persecutors, "You may stage your pogroms, loot us of our wealth, exile and attempt to murder us by the train car load, but you'll be gone from the earth long before we cease to live as a vibrant nation—a shining testimony to G-d and His Torah." The Torah, or the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy) , was given by G-d to Moses at Mount Sinai after the Jews' exodus from their bondage in Egypt. It is the foundation of Judaism containing the 613 commandments which sets the Jews apart from all other creeds and religions of the world. The Torah, alone, has given unity to a relatively small nation and ensured its survival these last 3,500 years. Down through the centuries untold numbers of faithful Jews have chosen martyrdom rather than transgress the Torah's precepts of monotheism and G-d's commandments which are held as dear as life itself.
As Jews, we are not permitted to sit back and rely on miracles to insure our survival. There are times when relentless oppression must be answered with force. This is not trusting to our martial cunning in lieu of trust in G-d. But, just as we must plant if we expect to harvest, we are obligated to make the efforts necessary to prevent our annihilation either as individuals or as a people. If a situation warrants force of arms, we have a mandate from our Torah to do just that. When we fight, we are under the same mandate to fight to win. And what constitutes a reason to rise and take up arms against oppression within the parameters of the Torah? The reply to this question is the story of Chanukah.
The year was approximately 170 BCE. Alexander of Macedonia had lifted Greece and Grecian culture to a pinnacle of power throughout the Western world and the Middle East. Greek society worshipped aesthetic beauty and wisdom. King Ptolemy who ruled over the Egyptian sector of Alexander's empire yearned to make his domain a center of learning and wisdom. He commanded the sages of Israel, they being in his jurisdiction, to translate the Torah from its original Hebrew to the Greek tongue so that they, too, should have access to a work which even they accepted as Divinely inspired and a well-spring of wisdom.
As long as Alexander lived, he revered the sages of Israel and showed uncommon friendship to the Jews. After Alexander's death, his dominion was divided three ways with seats in Egypt, Syria and Greece. Israel fell to the syrian domain. Alexander's love for the Jews and their Torah was soon forgotten and the new government began to oppress the Jews with unusual harshness. This hatred and persecution was fueled by the Jews' refusal to assimilate into the Hellenic culture.
In terms of physical strength there was no contest. The Greeks were the conquerors with a huge standing army. If it were to be a battle of minds, the stubborn Jews cleaving to their Torah prevailed to the consternation of the conquering forces. The once benevolent government now launched an all out campaign to completely subjugate the Jewish Nation both in body and mind.
At first, the Greeks thought the Jews would be attracted to Hellenism and its trappings through peaceful techniques. The shallow minded among the Jews were won over to the Grecian values in exchange for governmental appointments and even for elevated positions in the Temple itself. The Priesthood, given by G-d to Aaron, the older brother of Moses, and his descendants had now become a political football to be used as an incentive to swallow up our people's minds. The Jewish apostates to Greek culture, called Hellenists, tried to sway other Jews to their new, distorted views. The great majority of Jews were not seduced away from their Torah heritage. In time, the Jewish Hellenists were shunned and treated as outcasts by the Torah-true majority.
When the rabidly Jew-hating Antiochus came to power in 168 BCE, his annoyance at the failure of the Hellenists to achieve Greece's aims was intense. He took the obvious tack and sent in his military to force the Jews to assimilate or be slaughtered. Antiochus conducted this new campaign in the most vicious manner. Tens of thousands of Jews died sanctifying G-d's Name rather than convert. The Hellenist traitors helped to hunt down Jews who had gone into hiding. Jews that couldn't flee were tortured. Jewish women were taken by the enemy to be defiled.
The barbarians then began their desecration of the Temple and dedicated it to the worship of the mythical Zeus. A high altar was built to Zeus and a pig, the quintessential symbol of non-kosher animals which the Torah prohibits the Jews to eat, was sacrificed on the new altar. The pig's blood was brought into the Holy of Holies where even the High Priest could only enter on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. This abomination was without precedent.
Individuals and whole nations drew their lines in the sand. The Greeks had now crossed that line. Open, armed rebellion against the Greeks and the traitorous Hellenists was now agreed on by the sages of that generation as incumbent upon G-d's people if they hoped to survive. It had been many centuries since the Jews had waged war against the inhabitant nations of the land of Canaan. Who would lead this peaceful people into battle against Antiochus and claim a decisive victory?
Matisyahu, a lineal descendent of Aaron the High Priest, and his five sons rose to the occasion. The third son, Judah, took for himself the title "Maccabee", meaning the Hammerer in the Aramaic language that was the vernacular of the Jews during that period, and assumed the generality for the planned rebellion. Judah Maccabee gathered an unorganized militia from the faithful and brave. They fought with a mission: slay or be slain. The Greek standing army was better armed and better trained. Conviction, however, must come from within, and this the Greek rank and file lacked. The Al-mighty, for whose sanctity the Jews fought, saw that their efforts to sustain the Torah Nation would not be in vain. In the year 165 BCE, the conquerors became the vanquished. They were driven at sword point from the borders of Israel by a ragtag group of underdogs who fought with courage and cunning, but most importantly with conviction and inviolate principles. Judah Maccabee and his principled followers taught an object lesson for all time.
Jewish pacifists may wonder at this historic event and ask, "How is it that the Nation of G-d should resort to brute violence? Weren't there in that generation any righteous, saintly Jews who could supplicate G-d through their prayers? Why weren't public fast days instituted, with the Torah leaders exhorting the nation to repentance? It's axiomatic in Judaism that no Divine punishment is meted out without wanton sin preceding it! What is the meaning of this display of force which is so UN-JEWISH?"
The pacifist's complaints (ranting and raving?) would have been dismissed at that ancient time as well as today with logic similar to this: "Your light-our Torah-is in our hands. Our light-our souls-is in Your hand. You have entrusted Your Torah in our hands and we have entrusted our lives in Your hand. If we will guard Your light, You will guard ours. If we save Your light, You will save ours."
All that we have thus far explained is the true significance of Chanukah. Why, then, is it that every child in a Jewish school comes home only to tell about the miracle of a one day supply of spiritually pure oil for the Temple menorah lasting for eight days when the Temple was reconsecrated? How has the important lesson of fighting for a just cause been diluted or lost in Jewish tradition? There was no perfidy at work here. For a time after the banishment of the Greeks that event was celebrated as a military victory aided by Providence. However, within the following 200 years the Second Temple was destroyed, the city of Jerusalem was sacked and the surviving Jews were taken prisoners by Titus and the Roman legions. The remnants of the Torah Nation were for the second time exiled from their homeland (the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of Nebuchednezzer and the Babylonian army was the first exile). It's hard for a shattered, homeless people to rejoice over a battlefield victory two centuries past. The menorah, though, went with the Jews throughout their wanderings and tribulations in the Diaspora. It alone remains as a symbol of one of the greatest events in our history; the weak few versus the powerful many.
No advocate of strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution believes that great document to be Divinely inspired. English is so rich in synonyms that it could have been worded differently without the meaning or intent being lost. What is referred to as "inalienable rights", however, is clearly rights of all persons that are Divinely ordained. Plainly, they are independent of the whims of legislators and political action or special interest groups. They are indelible and inviolate. They require no defense, apologies or justification. Their continued existence need not be won through legalistic argument before any court or congress. Debating those who would argue that a Divinely ordained right is obsolete or not applicable to a modern, civilized society through logic is not necessarily productive or even called for. Such rights are above question or scrutiny by the cognoscenti. That's the meaning of inalienable rights. Off limits. Untouchable.
Without the ability to exercise rights that are at the very heart of human existence, anyone of sound mind would agree that death would be preferable to the life of cattle. If you look edible, you ll probably be eaten; subjugated and ruled by elitist, power hungry autocrats.
As hard as it is to fathom, these rights of which we speak are under attack. When our elected representatives become self appointed shepherds so much wiser than those who put them in office and then commence to rule rather than represent, there exists the tinder for a conflict that won't be resolved in the Opinion and Editorial section of the newspaper.
We Americans consider ourselves a free and civilized people. We pay our taxes and park within 18 inches of the curb. We pride ourselves on being good, law abiding citizens even while our inalienable rights are slowly being eroded under the guise of Public Safety. This same Public Safety lie was used when the United States government placed thousands of Japanese-Americans on the Pacific Coast in Mojave Desert internment camps at the outset of World War II. Incredible atrocities have been committed by governments in the name of Public Safety.
Reactionary pro-gun slogans aside, Americans who truly cherish their freedom as the Jews of Ancient Israel cherished theirs must ask themselves, "Where do we draw the line in the sand?" And when it is crossed, what are we really prepared to do about it? Chanukah is a deeply spiritual holiday. It's a model of right defeating evil. If it is a truism that people get the government which they deserve, then there isn't a soul alive on whom to lay the blame the day we begin to look like food.
*Historical facts were adapted from Sefer HaTod'ah (The Book of Our Heritage), by R. Eliahu Kitov.
The Book of Maccabees is found in the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha contains the 14 books of the Septuagint. These books are of questionable authorship and are not part of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis through the Chronicles). They are, however, incorporated into the Roman Catholic bible.
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