I’ve found that—while I can say the pleasantry of “Happy Chanukah” or “Happy Holidays”, I am finding it hard to actually mean it. I choke a little over these words with people I have a deeper relationship with. This Chanukah, I am reminded that Chanukah literally means “dedication,” and we have the opportunity to dedicate ourselves, to the best of our ability, to something that has meaning to us. That we have an incoming president who more resembles Antiochus IV, the tyrant who sparked the Maccabean revolt, than even the worst presidents of my lifetime, and we must be prepared, as the Maccabees were, to resist.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg wrote in the Washington Post this week:
In 175 B. C., an insecure, despotic ruler came to power. He was narcissistic and known for a level of extravagance and display that bordered on the bizarre. Despite his occasional ability to captivate his subjects by appearing gracious, he was said to have, in his heart, a cruel tyrant’s contempt for his subjects. Political positions under him were easily bought; he installed unqualified cronies in high positions and quickly turned on one if another offered him more money for the same job. He was quick to anger, nicknamed “the madman,” and it wasn’t long into his reign that he began curtailing civil liberties, restricting the freedom of religion, and pillaging his subjects’ resources for his own profit. He allowed bribes to drive his appointments of the high priest several times and plundered the treasury of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for its gold.
Remind you of anyone?
At the same time, the Greeks understood that, to conquer a people, military might isn’t sufficient. You also must persuade people to accept your value system, your way of living in the world. The Greeks had brought Hellenism, their very appealing culture filled with music, art, drama, beauty, and many Judeans were attracted to it.
But enticing wasn’t enough for Antiochus IV. In a fury about a humiliating loss in Eygpt, he imposed a legal push in assimilation. No longer was it to be about what was more appealing—he forbade us from worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem, studying Torah, observing Shabbat and tried to force us to eat—and indeed worship—pig. This was about denationalization, an attempt at what Ruttenberg called “full eradication” of our way of life.
And this is where the Maccabees enter the story. Matisyahu—Mattathias, a local leader, smote a Jew who agreed to eat pig in his village of Modin. And that first act of resistance to assimilation, to the power of the tyrant, sparked a guerilla war—the first one in recorded history, where the people who truly knew the land could out maneuver the larger, better armed enemy. Matisyahu and his five sons, led by Judah, the Maccabee (“The Hammer”) gathered a small army around them. Together, they stood up for religious freedom, for survival and for their beliefs. And they won. And they won by adapting Jewish law, following the precept that the halakhot–the path–are about how to live, not a path to death. So, for example, they broke the Sabbath to fight for life–they learned the importance of flexibility and adaptability on their way to religious freedom.
It’s important to remember that the story of Chanukah is not found in our sacred texts—our rabbis and priests did not consider it sacred enough for the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. The story is found in the Christian Bible in the Apochrypha, in the Book of the Maccabees, a book we chose not include. And the only mention of Chanukah in the Talmud, the compendium of Jewish wisdom compiled through about the 6th century CE, contains the story of the miracle of the lights. The sages didn’t include it for a number of reasons: the Maccabees became a corrupt group of leaders themselves; we had had enough of war with the Romans, who later nearly annihilated us and the Talmud sages decided we needed to turn from physical to verbal combat, and to seek spiritual strength.
One of the stories that used to be told around Chanukah was the story of Judith, also found in the Apochrypha, but left out of our Bible. It tells the story of a heroic woman who defended her town of Bethulia when all the city’s elders believed that all was lost and were prepared to surrender in a few days if they were not rescued. The town had been surrounded by the Assyrian army led by the cruel Holofernes, and was on the brink of famine. If Bethulia fell, it was feared all of the country would fall under Assyrian control. To prevent the surrender, Judith, a young widow, entered the enemy camp, with only her maid by her side. Holofernes, apparently smitten by her beauty, invited her into his tent. When he fell asleep in a drunken stupor, apparently a common experience for Jewish heroines, Judith prayed to God for help, took Holofernes’ sword and decapitated him. With the Assyrian army thrown into confusion, she urged the Israelites to launch a surprise attack and they emerged victorious. [Thanks to the Jewish Women’s Archives for keeping this story alive today—I heard it again in a wonderful video essay on Facebook that told of the Jewish version of women facing adversity compared to the Disney princess version—totally worth a look.]
We are still celebrating a victory that happened more than 2000 years ago, and yet our motives for celebrating keep changing. The original reason was supposedly to celebrate Sukkot, which we couldn’t celebrate while the Assyrians were in control—that’s the 8 day holiday we were emulating with Chanukah’s rededication of the Temple. When we went to light the Temple’s menorah, we saw only enough pure olive oil to last a day, while it would take 8 days to purify more. And yet, we learn that the one container of oil burned until we had more.
And that’s the miracle the Talmud teaches is the miracle of Chanukah—not that we beat off a much larger army and survived to live another two millennia. Because we were bringing light back to our roots, we were rededicating ourselves to a holy purpose.
And I believe that’s what we must do for ourselves, every year, but especially this year. Professor Julius Lester asks us,
What would it be like if dinner conversation during the eight days of Chanukah centered on learning what you and others are devoted to, focused on what purpose, if any, do you want to give yourself to?
For myself, in this year when Antiochus seems to have returned right here, threatening to make the US unrecognizable to me, I find that, once I got over the fear, I uncovered my dedication to standing up with and for all those people who will be threatened with some form of eradication. It is time to dedicate myself to standing up for what we believe in, to be together to support each other, and “the Other” in defending each other—women, Muslims, LGBTs, immigrants, people with disabilities, native rights, people at risk for losing their newly found health insurance, people at risk for losing their Medicare and Medi-Cal, anyone who cares about civil rights, education, the environment, the globe, human rights…
Let that be what we talk about tonight.