And almost Happy Chanukah!
One of my favorite versions of the Chanukah story comes from an old Saturday Night Live episode. A bunch of soldiers are sitting around the Temple, and ready to light the Ner Tamid, the eternal light and note that they have just enough oil to last one day…
It lasted two days. One soldier asked, “Is this a miracle yet?”
Someone responded, “No not yet…”
This goes on every day, “Is this a miracle yet? No, not yet” for six more days, until they reach the eighth day.
Someone asks again, “Is it FINALLY a miracle?” and a brave soul responds, “Yes, NOW it’s a miracle…” They all rejoice and celebrate his pronouncement.
And then someone suggests, “We should celebrate every year. What should we call the new holiday?”
They all scratch their heads, and finally someone looks over at the soldier played by Dan Akroyd, and offered, “Hey, Chanukah, why don’t you name it?”
And that, according to the writers of SNL, is how Chanukah came to be…
But really, not so much.
I noticed in religious school on Tuesday, that the story of the oil is the only one our kids know. So let’s try the story again here, and relate it to this week’s torah portion… But first the story…
Some context: the first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE — more than 2,500 years ago, by the Babylonians – what is now Iraq.
70 years later, the Persians (from what is now Iran) conquered Babylonia, and encouraged us to return to Judah and rebuild the temple.
In the 4th century BCE – about 150-200 years later, Alexander the Great conquered Persia and much of the known world at that time. And he and his armies spread Greek culture, with its theatre, and poetry, and philosophy, and sports. Many people thought Greek culture was the height of cool, brilliance, intelligence, and just the best. Some of the people of Judah began to incorporate some of the practices into their lives. Sort of like eating McDonald’s in Paris.
When Alexander died at a young age, his empire was divided into three parts – the Greek part, the Syrian part, and the Egyptian part. Judah was buffeted between Syria and Egypt, as the wars continued.
Eventually, in 175 BCE, King Antiochus IV took over in Syria and had dreams of reuniting Alexander’s empire. Initially, he let the Jews keep our practices and he, like King George III after him, just wanted money from us to support his war efforts. Then something happened to really irritate him, and he decided to “purify” Jewish culture, requiring us to give up kosher food and eat pig, give up Shabbat and other Jewish laws and practices.
Some people refused, and many of them were killed for their refusal. They were called the Hasidim, the Pious Ones. They also refused to defend themselves on Shabbat or try to rid Judah of the king, because it says in the Torah not to do those things. They were also the first religious martyrs.
Then, in the town of Modi’in, the local priest, Mattathias, refused to obey and started an open rebellion. He and his five sons, including Judah, formed a guerilla band (called the Maccabees, meaning the Hammer, so Judah Maccabee was Judah the Hammer)… The Maccabees included supporters from the range of Jewish belief and practice at the time: both militant Hasidim and Jews who liked and participated in the Greek culture, but objected to the ban on Jewish practices. The Maccabees fled to the hills, coming down to fight the large Syrian army. They knew the territory, the best places to attack and the best escape routes.
After three years, the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple from the Syrian Army. Then, they waited for the Messiah to come. They didn’t recognize the military victory as a miracle and waited three months for a sign from heaven, every day that went by being a crushing disappointment to the Hasidim… While waiting three months for the dedication (that’s what Chanukah really means), the Maccabees proceeded to purify the temple again, removing the Greek statues, and the altar that had been the site of pig sacrifice, and preparing to relight the Ner Tamid…
The military victory is only a part of what we celebrate during Chanukah. Just as important are other contributions made by the Maccabees: Mattathias and his sons challenged the Hasidic thought that put each halakha on equal footing with each other. They established the concept of setting priorities within the halakhic (legal) principles when they are in conflict. So when trying to decide between the halakhot (plural) of accepting the God-appointed king, or observing shabbat, or choosing life when you can’t do all three, they selected choosing life as the most important of these precepts. They also claimed, just as Thomas Jefferson did later, that a king who asks people to do things that are against the Torah – or laws of nature – has relinquished his authority or right to govern. The Maccabees incorporated Greek philosophical thinking to arrive at their halakhic decisions, employing what would become the hallmark of Jewish survival – taking the best of the surrounding culture to weave into Jewish life, so that Judaism keeps growing and thriving, or surviving in the worst times… At the same time, they maintained the principles and practices that are vital to being Jewish, and rejected those parts of the dominant culture that diminish being Jewish.
The Maccabees, or the family of Mattathias and Judah, called the Hasmoneans, came to power after the war ended. After the five brothers were dead, their children and grandchildren were priests and kings. However, the family became corrupt, so corrupt that initially people were happy to have the Romans come in and take over. (After the destruction of the Temple, they probably changed their thinking.)
The rabbis of the Talmud, our sages, had a big disagreement with the Hasmonean family, for a number of reasons, including the corruption. As a result, the Books of the Maccabees, which tells the Chanukah story, were not admitted into our sacred canon, our accepted holy books. The only mentions of Chanukah in the Talmud concern the miracle of the oil, and even there, the details are sketchy and the halakhot around candle lighting. There is no mention of a military victory. Later sages, such as Maimonides, brought the military victory back into our thinking, however.
So when we think about Christmas trees and lights, and caroling, and midnight mass, I think the best way we honor the Maccabees is to notice and maybe even enjoy those things with our Christian friends, but to consider what about being Jewish is important to us now, what is valuable both to ourselves, our families and the world at large, and then think carefully about preserving the best and dedicating ourselves to that vision.
And finally – how does this relate to the Torah portion…? This week we read Vayeishev, near the end of Breisheit or Genesis. We meet Joseph, and unparalleled sibling rivalry, when his brothers sell him in slavery. He becomes known as a dreamer and interpreter of dreams. We watch his maturation… The connection to Chanukah, however, is the very first line of the portion: Vayeishev Yaakov b’eretz m’guray aviv, b’eretz cana’an: And Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan… he settled.
The rabbis and Rashi and Avivah Zornberg – sages spanning millennia, discuss at length this one sentence. Jacob settled. They ask – who is a righteous person that he – or she – thinks they can just settle for a quiet life in this world? They will get that in the world to come; why should they expect it – or settle for it here in the physical, in the real world of today? It is our job not to settle, they argue, but to do the task for which we were born. Each of us has a piece of the world to repair, a part in tikkun olam, and rather than just sit there, dwelling in our parents’ house, we need to stand up and be counted. If you see injustice, don’t let it continue. If you hear someone’s pain, don’t let it fester. If there is something you CAN fix, then do not sit there – do something. And the rabbis tell us in Pirkei Avot, in the Mishnah, you are not required to finish the task, but you must start it. Had Mattathias settled for being able to live quietly in the land, and hadn’t stood up for what he knew to be right, if his followers from ALL beliefs of Judaism hadn’t stood up to join the Maccabees, we might not be sitting here tonight.
And so, when we start lighting our candles on Tuesday, let’s recount why being Jewish is important and how we can stand up for what we believe in.
Lovely. Thank you.
Marian Blanton says
Not only is your sermon insightful, connecting Maccabean history to parsha of the week, Meredith, but you provide a lot of history not generally known by members of congregations unless they, themselves, have been curious enough to do some research. Yours is one of the most perceptive sermons I’ve read on Chanukah. Just hope your Congregation appreciates both wisdom and learning you’ve put together for easy digestion. We’ll miss you mightily, this Chanukah. Hope some of the “regulars” join you and new friends at Tahoe.
Thanks for taking the time to share with your fans.
Fran Danoff says
Thank you so much, R. Meredith, for sharing and teaching.
Wishing you, your family, and congregation a very Happy Chanukah
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