The Festival of Lights, Some Two Thousand Years later
Over two thousand years have elapsed from the time the Maccabees entered the Jerusalem Temple to purify it from the profanation of the Syrian-Greeks, who erected a statue of the god Zeus within it. The persecution of the Jews by the Syrian-Greek king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, lasted from 175-164 BCE. Once Jewish sovereignty of the Temple was established, Simon– who was now the leader of the Hasmonean family, having succeeded his brother Judah who died in battle–began a campaign to consolidate his leadership as king and high priest of the Jews. Thus for the first time, political and religious power were merged and both were now vested in the Temple. The Hasmoneans ( the family name of the Maccabees), having gained their rulership with the help of Rome, began a dynasty that years later culminated in a Roman takeover of Judea, when during a family feud between two Hasmonean descendants, the Romans were invited to mediate and once in Judea, they never left. In the course of time, the Jews rebelled against Rome with the consequent destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and finally the complete loss of Jewish sovereignty in the aftermath of the last Jewish rebellion by Bar Kochbah, which lasted from 132-136 CE.
When viewed through the lens of history as I have briefly outlined it, Hanukkah takes on an unusual place in our history, and in terms of its sanctity, it is a minor holiday only. The Maccabean Wars, as they are sometimes called, culminated in a military victory, which is not recorded in the Tanach—the Hebrew Bible. The story was excluded and the Maccabees are nowhere mentioned in our bible. What we do know about the Maccabees is recorded in Book of Maccabees I & II, preserved in the Apocrypha that is included in the Christian canon. The question raised by that the exclusion of the story of the Maccabees from the Hebrew bible is, why? And perhaps the clue comes to us in the form of a legend of a miracle recorded by the rabbis centuries after the Maccabean victory over the Syrian-Greeks. That is, the legend of the oil that lasted for eight days: when the Maccabees entered the Temple to purify it and make fit for Jewish worship, they needed sacramental olive oil that was preserved with the High Priest’s seal to re-light the eternal lamp; but they only found a cruse of oil sufficient for one day’s lighting, which miraculously lasted eight days until new pure oil could be made. This is the legend of the Hanukkah miracle: God granted victory to a “few” who were pious, religious Jews, over the “many” who were pagan desecrators of the God’s holy temple. The sign of God’s intervention on behalf of the Maccabees is the oil that lasted for eight days, around which the celebration of the Festival of Lights revolves. It is significant that the legend is told by the rabbis at a time after the Jews have lost two wars against the Rome, devastating wars that left perhaps more than half-a-million Jews dead. Thus the message of the legend: you cannot fight a war without God’s assent, without being sufficiently pious as were the Maccabees centuries ago: here and now we have suffered devastation—God is not with us! The legend is told as a way of discouraging any further rebellions and as a means of asserting in times to come that the Jews are not in need of generals and fighters and, especially, provocateurs. And as it turns out, it was scholars and pious Jews who preserved the Jewish people for almost two thousand years of history; and only with the rebirth of Israel in the twentieth century was the need for Jewish generals and fighters to come to the fore to preserve us, the Jewish People.
So we celebrate the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah which means re-dedication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, a symbol, indeed, not only of the rebirth of our people in our ancient land, but also our resolve to take into our own hands the fight for our freedom from oppression, even as the messiah tarries, the messiah who may not come at all.
May we light our candles in joy and celebration, with song and the spinning of Dreidles, telling the story of the Maccabees, the story of re-dedication.
Rabbi Ron Herstik