This Week: Why We Celebrate Hanukkah
Hi, Gentle Readers. POP QUIZ: Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?
The quick answer is, of course, “Because one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days!” But think about it. The only people who’d make a tzimmis over that for two thousand years are the producers of oil – and they never liked us Jews anyway.
Bibi referenced the Real Reason when he quipped a while ago that if most of those in the world who join in our annual Hanukkah celebration had a clue what it’s about, they’d fold their tents quicker than the U.N. in 1967 and never ever light a candle – menorah or no menorah – again.
The Real Reason is that the central event of Hanukkah – homeland Jews wresting back homeland independence from the Seleucid heirs of Alexander the Great – was one of those decisive moments in Jewish history when Jewish history hung in the balance.
It wasn’t the first such seminal moment. What if the Golden Calf worshippers had prevailed over Moses and his broken stone tablets at Sinai long, long ago? What if Joshua and the tribes had failed to penetrate Canaan (or, as the “indigenous origin” camp would have it, the disgruntled lowland Canaanite farmers hadn’t fled up into the hills which, because of them, became the Judean and Samarian hills)? What if David, that hill country village chieftain who managed to get the name of his House carved on a rock by a foreign king a century or so after his death, had failed to capture Jerusalem? What if the Maccabees had failed against the Seleucids? What if the Jerusalem rabbi who sprang out of a coffin before the astonished Vespasian had been unable to start that post-Great Revolt school in Yavneh? And – and this is the essence of this essay today – What If today’s Israel fails in its War of Independence?
[Notice (as reader Henry always notices) that I put this last question above in the present and not pluperfect tense. We comfort ourselves that the State of Israel has fought and won all these wars – its War of Independence (Bernie would call it Israel’s “War of Creation & Founding,” but there’s three thousand years’ difference in meaning between those two names for it), the Sinai Campaign, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, etc., etc. But I think that history will record that these were simply battles in only one war, Israel’s War of Independence, and it is still being fought. If you doubt this, reflect – ten seconds will do – on the whole world’s views on “occupation.”]
When we celebrate Hanukkah, what we’re celebrating is one of those shining seminal moments in homeland Jewish history when what would have been the end of homeland Jewish history, and ergo Jewish history, was through heroic action and great sacrifice, narrowly averted. We picked the Maccabees moment, but Hanukkah is emblematic of all of these moments, including those in our lifetime. Don’t kid yourself. The Super-lib Jews who’d hijack Hanukkah as a celebration against “Global Warming” (though how everyone lighting more and more candles every night for a week fights Global Warming only a liberal can tell you) know what we’re celebrating, which is why they pick Hanukkah.
But, having said all this, we adult lighters of the Hanukkah candles and distributors of Hanukkah-gelt to our young descendants have to confront two clouds hovering over the shining Hanukkah menorah – that the Maccabees were religious zealot fanatics, and that their war, which we characterize as a homeland revolt against the ruling Seleucid Empire, was really a Jew-vs-Jew civil war.
It is true that if the Maccabees could come back and look in my ‘fridge, they’d likely slice off my head faster than you can say “ISIS.” But as with George Washington today in America, the Maccabees have to be viewed in the context of their time. “Secularism,” in 168 BCE, wasn’t one of the options. As the gifted writer Moshe Perlman movingly painted in The Maccabees, Antiochus confronted the Jews of Judaea with paganism and Zeus, utter defiling of the Temple, forced eating of pork, ending the Sabbath and all other centuries-honored Jewish life practices expressly to stamp out non-conformity within his Empire. On the other side, in the Judaean province of that Empire, stood the Maccabees.
Indeed, there were Jews in second century BCE Judaea who sided with the Seleucids, just as there were many, many people in America (though we don’t teach this in school) who in the eighteenth CE century sided with England. Did that make the American Revolution a Civil War? No, for the reason that America’s Revolutionary War resulted in an independent sovereign America, just as the Maccabees’ war against the Seleucids resulted in an independent sovereign Judaea, for all that it crashed headlong into Rome (which was already a factor in the Maccabees’ time) and was soon extinguished (though it lasted a few years longer than today’s State of Israel has lasted so far).
There are many tales in the folklore of a People that has both had a homeland and wandered around our planet for three millennia. One of them, a version of which I just “googled” down from the internet, and which I like to believe has a grain of truth in it, is about a Jewish soldier with General Washington’s ragtag army in the bitter winter at Valley Forge. The general rides by as the soldier is lighting the first night’s Hanukkah candle outside his hut, and inquires what he is doing. He explains that he had brought this menorah with him from his persecuted father’s home in eastern Europe, that he draws inspiration from the story of the victory of the Maccabees against an empire for the eventual victory of Washington’s army against the British empire. “Soldier,” says General Washington, “carry on.”
The worldwide condemnation of the action this past week of the President of the United States recognizing the reality of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, albeit seventy years later than should have been done, does not diminish the Jewish homeland history magnitude of the President’s action. It enhances it. Bear that in mind in lighting the candles commemorating that long ago victory of homeland Jewish forces against foreign empire rule that established the Jerusalem-capital native state that existed not just long ago but was the land of Israel’s immediately-previous native state to present-day Israel.