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Chanukah: Why Light Candles and Ignore the War?
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I want to suggest to you that there may actually be a text that sheds a surprising kind of light upon Chanukah. It’s sort of a hidden text, it’s not one that we usually associate with Chanukah, and it’s there right in front of our eyes, and I want to get to that with you. But first, a couple other questions to set the stage here.
In one of the Chanukah videos that we released last year, I talked about the miracle of the lights and the miracle of the war, and suggested that there was a kind of commonality between them, and the commonality is being able to see a transcendent God in our own mundane world. The challenge is this, if it is really true, that of the two miracles of Chanukah, they sort of boil down to the same thing, then how come the kind of way in which we commemorate Chanukah is solely through the miracle of the lights? We kind of ignore the war. If I was on the ritual committee that is coming up with ways that we should celebrate Chanukah, I would say look they both have more or less the same theological meaning. Which miracle was more significant? Well the war was hugely significant; it changed the face of Jewish history. Lights weren’t that significant. They didn’t have enough pure oil. They only had enough for one night, and it was going to take them eight days to produce more. So they lit the menorah, and miraculously the light continued to burn until they were able to produce more pure oil. Okay, and if the light didn’t continue to burn? Okay. So they would have been out of oil, and they would have lit it again eight days later. They did the best they could, they got rid of the swine on the altar, they purified the temple; what more do you wand from them? It would have just been a footnote in Jewish history if the Menorah had gone dark for a few more days.
So, if we are celebrating one miracle, wasn’t the war the more significant miracle? If you were on the ritual committee to make up the observance of Chanukah back then, wouldn’t say, “Well, let’s create these Paper Mache Greek elephants as we beat the piñata , we should have these little scraps of papers that come flying out of the elephant that say God on them or God is here, it was God that made it all happen and we should understand that there was this great transcendent miracle, that the war was won because of God, that was the miracle that really matter; let’s celebrate that miracle.” Why the oil? Why the light? Why do we celebrate the unnecessary miracle?
And finally, here is one last question to consider. What is the great historical event that we are celebrating here in Chanukah? We all know the answer to that; we are celebrating the great victory of the Maccabees over the great, evil forces of Antiochus. That’s the kind of narrative that we grow up with as kids. It’s all very shiny and wonderful; almost as shiny and wonderful as the presents that we unwrap and the lights that glow in our homes. But the actual history was not so shiny and wonderful.
First of all, while it was convenient to point to Antiochus as the villain, in reality, the villain wasn’t only him but members of our own country men, who were Hellenists, who had assimilated Greek ideals, bought the Greek line on life, hook line on sinker; they were as much a part of the problem as Antiochus was. The victory was as much against them as against anyone else. Moreover, even the victory against Antiochus, while it was a brief bright shining spot in Jewish history, became much more clouded and the ensuing generations of the descendants of the Maccabee.
First of all, after that victory, it’s not like the Jews enjoyed complete and total independence from those around them. Even in the very next generation of the Hasmonean dynasty, the rulers from the Chashmonaic family, have to wheel and deal with Antiochus’s sons, submit to taxation from them, have to make bargains with the Roman empire, bargains that eventually collapsed after time with Rome coming in and making Judah a client state. Eventually, they installed Herod who made it his business to completely wipe out all remnants of the Chashmonaic dynasty, tries to destroy all male heirs to the throne; so it’s not so glorious what happens next, and the moral characters from these rulers, from the Chashmonaic dynasty, Mattathias, Yochanan – the leaders of the revolt against Antiochus, they were noble and wonderful men. But later generations, even the very next generation - Shimon, one of the brothers of Judah the Maccabee, takes over. Shimon gets murdered by his son-in-law, his kids are assassinated too. Luckily, one of his son, Yochanan, he wasn’t at the banquet where the murders took place, and he takes over leadership; he became both the high priest, the kohen gadol, and the political leader of the people. But theperushim, the Pharisees, weren’t so crazy about him having both of these offices. So when he died, he decided to split them between his wife, who would take over political leadership and his son, Aristobulus, who would take over the high priesthood, except Aristobulus didn’t like that idea. But he threw his mother in prison where she starved to death, then he imprisoned three of his rival brothers, and he takes over political leadership too. These are very dark time.
Yes, it’s true. Judea wins its independence nominally with the victory of the Maccabees. Yes, it’s true, the temple is purified. This is a temporary bright spot in the history of the Jewish people, but for a very short flicker of time. And I think this may come back to the question of celebrating the war and celebrating the oil. In other words, the legacy of the war as history would determine it, is very next of how much independence do we really get. What were the long term effects? But the miracle of the oil, something happens there that the sages who instituted Chanukah wanted us to focus on. That little unnecessary miracle, maybe its seeming triviality is what the Sages wants us to commemorate so joyously. I want to take another closer look at this with you, and to do that, I want to take a look at that hidden text that I talked to you about earlier. Let’s come back and explore that in our next video.
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