Sunday, December 25, 2005

Achieving Hanukkah

Happy Hanukkah, everyone. Most Americans know there’s a “Jewish Christmas” that comes around this time of year. Many Americans and virtually all Jews know tonight is the start of the Festival of Lights – the night we light the first candle in the menorah.

Most Jews can tell you why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days. It’s here, but the short form goes like this. Alexander the Great conquered Syria, Egypt, and Palestine in 332 BC – that’s circa the year 3429 in the Jewish calendar (if I’ve got my numbers right). He allowed the conquered peoples to keep practicing their own religions.

More than a century later, Antiochus IV, one of Alexander’s many successors, controlled the region. In 167 BC, he occupied Jerusalem; decreed the abolition of the Jewish religion; and desecrated the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs, a non-kosher animal, on the altar. Jews who resisted were subject to execution.

Several Jewish groups, including one led by Judah Maccabee and his four brothers, revolted against both assimilation of Jews into Hellenistic culture and oppression by the Seleucid Greek (now mainly Syrian) government. The revolution succeeded. The Temple was rededicated. The priests discovered there was very little oil left that hadn’t been defiled by the Greeks. The oil was needed for the Temple’s menorah, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night.

Here’s the spine of the traditional Hanukkah story. There was just enough oil to burn for one day. But miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.

Judah Maccabee is a hero to every Jewish kid who’s every gone to religious school – we learn about him, sing songs about him. But the same Web source, Judaism 101, will tell you, “Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.”

With respect, this is disingenuous. Judah conducted what some historians view as a brilliant guerilla war against the Syrians for two years. He and his tiny Jewish army defeated Syrian generals time after time, culminating (for the moment) in his victory at Beth Zur near Hebron in 165. After Beth Zur, he captured Jerusalem and liberated the Temple.

Two years of tough fighting led to the miracle of eight days’ worth of oil.

This wasn’t the end of the story – the Jews had to keep fighting. Judah was killed in the Battle of Elasa in 161 BC. His brother, Jonathan, took up the struggle and the conflict continued for 18 years more before he was killed. Another Maccabee brother, Simon, became King of Judea in 143, under the Syrians. But there were repeated invasions and sectarian violence until Rome stepped in and imposed peace on Palestine in 64 BC.

Most of you won’t remember what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “The Four Freedoms.” (His January 6, 1941, speech is here.) The second one is the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world. Take a good read and tell me we shouldn’t be thinking about our servicemen and servicewomen tonight, when we light the first candle, and for all the nights thereafter.

There’s often not much glory in war. But the real lesson of Hanukkah is lost on anyone who doesn’t believe in fighting for freedom.

Additional reading? Try Eliezar Segal here and here. And best wishes for the entire Festival of Lights.

Here is the story of The Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp, above,
from the Library of Congress exhibition,
“From Haven to Home,” third panel, with thanks.

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