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Chanukah: The Book of the Maccabees Uncovered
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Think about it rationally. You have to answer no. There was basically a zero chance of success to begin with and there's the same zero chance of success now. If Saul looks at the situation with a clear head he actually loses nothing by waiting for Samuel. But look what he gains. The symbolic act of waiting, it would have been very powerful indeed, and that's what Samuel had been telling Saul. Way back, all the way at his coronation, when he said there would come a time when you're going to have to wait for seven days for me, now was the time, the war of the Philistines. It was a desperate moment that war, and in desperate moments like that Samuel was saying, don't make the fatal error of thinking that you control the path to victory. Your actions are close to irrelevant. In times like these your focus needs to be on one immutable fact, an Israelite king is just a vessel, he is king, but G-d is King of Kings.
As the Philistines mass their overwhelming army Saul's job was to wait, to watch his men fade away and to understand that their desertions were all irrelevant. His job at that moment was a spiritual job, he needed to express faith in the King of Kings. And just wait with peace and equanimity for Samuel, and when he arrived the two of them would offer offerings - Olah offerings and Shlamim offerings. The type of offerings, I think, are not coincidental. An Olah offering, as we talked about in our Vayikra video this past year, is an offering that expresses giving yourself over in an ultimate way to G-d. And Shlamim means peace. Those two things were exactly what was called for here; just give yourself totally over to G-d, and feel a feeling of peace with that. It's all going to be okay.
In Samuel's eyes, Saul's inability to wait, his desperation at the desertion of his useless troops, was a failure, but intriguingly though, there is someone involved in the battle that day, who did carry out Samuel's vision to the fullest; it wasn't Saul, it was his son Jonathan. As the Philistine forces are massing, Jonathan slips away from his father's camp with his armor bearer and situates himself just below the hill upon which the enemy is encamped. This is where Jonathan speaks the words that are later quoted by the author of First Maccabees. He tells his armor bearer, let's go over, just you and me together to the camp of these Philistines, maybe G-d will act on our behalf, for there is nothing holding back G-d's ability to save, whether with many or with few.
Jonathan is taking the idea that we were talking about above to its logical endpoint. Vanishingly small odds are vanishingly small odds, period. This is a war that will be won or lost purely on the basis of G-d's involvement, and once that's true, well for G-d there really is no difference between many or few. So Jonathan and his armor bearer attack, it seems insane and the Philistines taunt Jonathan and his armor bearer, but as the two of them get close to the camp, confusion breaks out among the Philistines. The Philistines, trying to attack Jonathan, unintentionally direct their fire at one another, those on the receiving end counterattack, once more bringing destruction on their own troops. Before you know it the Philistine camp is at war with itself.
And at that very point the text of the Book of Samuel gives us a telling phrase, it says; Vayosha Hashem ba'yom hahu et Yisrael - and G-d saved Israel that day. Now those words in Hebrew they might be familiar to you, because that phrase, Vayosha Hashem ba'yom hahu, it appears only one other time in all of Tanach. The only other time it appears is at Israel's triumphant crossing of the Red Sea after G-d brought down walls of water on Pharaoh and his troops. By re-using that expression now, the Book of Samuel seems to be saying sure, Jonathan and his armor bearer attacked, but where did the victory really come from? It came from G-d. It was just like the salvation from Egypt at the Red Sea.
The destruction of Pharaoh's army at the sea was the greatest, most overt example of G-d's involvement in human affairs. The war against the Philistines, by contrast, contained no overt miracle at all, it was just a case of friendly fire that got out of control. But in using these words to describe the victory, Vayosha Hashem ba'yom hahu et Yisrael, the text of the Book of Samuel is making very clear the way it wants you to see the victory. Jonathan's victory was no less a product of the Divine hand than the victory at the Red Sea. Jonathan was right, this truly was G-d's war.
So let's go back to the Biblical account. Off in the distance, Saul looks out at the Philistine army and he doesn't know why but somehow the enemy appears to be disintegrating before his eyes. [Saul 5:51] demands a count of his men to see if any might have left to attack somehow but word comes back that everyone is there, except for two people, his son Jonathan and his armor bearer. So Saul and his men begin to pursue the panicked remnants of the Philistine army, but along the way King Saul says something strange. He says; Cursed be the man who eats any bread until the evening, until I have finished avenging myself against my enemies.
Pay attention carefully to those words, look at how personal they are. Avenging myself, my enemies. Vengeance is when violence gets very personal. Saul sees this is as his war, which brings us to the restriction he places on his troops; no one can eat until the evening, because our single-minded priority is my vengeance against my enemies. The restriction may seem strange and difficult to understand, but it's like it's an expression of control; if you can't control the big things you want to control like the progress of the war, sometimes you make up little things you can control. It's almost as if Saul is reaching for something he knows he can't or shouldn't have, ownership over this victory.
Meanwhile, let's cut away to Jonathan. Jonathan is separated from Saul out there in the field, he has met up with an Israelite battalion and together they're all pursuing the retreating Philistines. All of a sudden the people come across a substance that seems like honey spread out over the length of the field that they're advancing across. None of them touch the honey out of fear, they know about Saul's oath forbidding anyone to eat, but Jonathan does not know about that oath and he innocently tastes some of the honey and suddenly the nourishment lights up his eyes. It almost seems as if there's something Divine about this honey on the face of the field, it has these magical qualities, you eat it and your eyes light up. And what was honey doing on the face of the field in the first place? It's not like an everyday occurrence.
And here too, the careful reader notices a resonance, I think, with the redemption from Egypt. For indeed, after the salvation at the sea, after the people had run out of bread, they were fed by G-d with something that covered the face of the field, it was Manah, and the Manah had tasted, of all things - the text tells us - just like honey. Here too, centuries later the people had experienced a victory that reminds us of the victory at the sea; Vayosha Hashem ba'yom hahu. Here too, the people had run out of bread, Saul had told them, no one is allowed to bread, so it's as if G-d stepped in to provide sustenance. The same kind of sustenance as He did the last time. It's like He provided Manah with this honey.
The sense we get, if I'm right about these resonances, is that Jonathan did not do anything wrong in eating that honey, he was in fact eating the food that G-d had provided. Indeed, G-d had chosen to provide food because manmade food, bread, was now impossible to eat due to Saul's oath. It's as if the true owner of the war, G-d, is stepping in to make sure His troops are properly nourished.
At the very end of the story, Jonathan's eating of this honey creates a conflict between him and his father. Jonathan nearly loses his life over the infraction, and, looking back at the whole story, one wonders maybe whether that's what Samuel had meant all along. When Samuel had told Saul way back earlier that his kingship was not going to last, maybe that was less of a decree than it was a clear-sighted statement of how things would go naturally. Jonathan is Saul's son, his heir to the throne; if Saul's kingship is to last and become a dynasty it has to continue through Jonathan. But Saul - Saul thinks of this war as his war, and because of that needlessly sets himself up a rival to Jonathan, and Jonathan - Jonathan didn't see it that way, it was G-d's war. That change in vision between them somehow it's the beginning of separation between these two people, father and son. It's the beginning of the dissolution of Saul's kingdom. Had Saul understood that this was G-d's war, rivalry would never have occurred between father and son, they would have been completely on the same page; the kingdom would last. But alas, that was not to be.
In the end the author of the Book of the Maccabees leads us, his reader, to associate the triumph of Matityahu and his sons with two prior events; the redemption of Israel from Egypt, and the victory of Jonathan over the Philistines in this crucial battle in which Saul's chance at an undying dynasty was ultimately dashed. Why do this? Because these three victories; Israel over Egypt, Saul and Jonathan over the Philistines, and the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks, they form a kind of historical chain.
In other words, to explain; on the one hand the author of First Maccabees seems to be saying the victory of the Maccabees has to be viewed as akin to the victory of the Israelites over Egypt. Overt miracles and covert miracles are both made out of the same stuff; they're both manifestations of the Divine in this world. When a tiny band of stragglers wins over the greatest military machine of its time, there is only one address at which to lay that victory, and that address is G-d. One ignores that truth at their own peril.
But immediately after taking us back with language parallels to the events of Egypt, the author of First Maccabees brings us forward a few centuries to the story of Jonathan. It's a story that illustrates vividly the choice before the Maccabees and their descendants the Hasmonean Kings. The Maccabees have won against astounding odds but the real question is how will they and their descendants view their victory, that's the question. And it's a question that had faced Saul and had faced Jonathan, the very same question. That indeed is why the author of the Book of Samuel had embedded all those references when talking about the war of the Philistines to take us all the way back to Egypt - the references to the sea, the references to Manah. The author of the Book of Samuel was saying the right way to see that victory was Jonathan's way, it was G-d's war, it was not man's war. There was another Egypt happening but without all the fireworks.
But there is, of course, another choice when you win in this kind of war, and it's a choice the author of the Book of the Maccabees warns us about. The author of First Maccabees was living at the time in which a new dynasty of kings had come to reign over Israel; Malchut Chashmonai - the Hasmonean Dynasty. In many ways the era in which he lived was very much like the era of Saul; there was a new king, the question is, would the dynasty last? The author of First Maccabees knows that this question, how permanent will this new, triumphant Hasmonean dynasty be, will find its ultimate answer in how the kings of his time choose to see their own triumph. Will they recognize it for what it is? Yes, G-d helped them beat the Greeks, but the hard, cold truth is that you can be a king who G-d is helping, a king who G-d smiles upon, a king who is the beneficiary of G-d's miraculous military assistance, and if you fail to see it, if you insist on seeing your triumph as your own triumph, this will have devastating consequences for the endurance of your kingship. A king of Israel is not an ultimate power and power devolves to him only as long as he doesn't lose sight over that truth.
All this expresses itself, I think, in how we choose to celebrate Chanukah. What do you do when another Egypt happens? After the splitting of the sea the Israelites broke into a song of thanksgiving to G-d. And how do we celebrate Chanukah? We celebrate it with nothing but song - Hallel, thankfulness to the author of the war - for all eight days. We celebrate it but kindling something as fragile as a light and thereby remembering a light that burned and burned and refused to go out. We remember that all fires are not created equal, some fires are fuelled by oil and wicks, and some are not. When there's only one day's worth of oil and the fire continues to burn and burn and burn, it means the oil wasn't the fuel for the fire, the fire was coming from somewhere else. The source for the light of Chanukah isn't terrestrial oil, it's transcendent, G-d.
The author of First Maccabees knew that to be true. When we pick up his book and read it, when we open the fragile pages of that yellowed newspaper written almost 2,500 years ago, we can see even then when the fate of Malchut Chashmonai was up in the air, when the course of Jewish history and the fate of the Second Temple was as yet undecided, we can see even then what was on the mind of the author of that newspaper, so to speak, the book of First Maccabees. He understood that it was a time of great hope but also of great peril; would the kings of his era look at the victory of their immediate forbearers and see it clearly for what it was? See that it wasn't about them and their might. Would they resist the impulse to lionize the Maccabees as independent heroes who won by their own might alone? Or would these rulers give into the timeless temptations of power and themselves join the dust heap of history as failed kings?
In the end the Hasmonean Kingdom was a bright moment, a bright flare in the darkness of the late Second Temple era, but it was only a flare. The Hasmonean Dynasty was noble in the beginning but over time it would be plagued by in-fighting, rivalries between brothers, rivalries between parents and children. Ultimately, it would be replaced by Herod, it would be extinguished, and the great Roman destruction of Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. But the questions the author of First Maccabees raises remain as fresh today as they were when he first asked them.
We too, have seen the rise of Israel as an independent state in our own day, a state that sometimes faces overwhelming odds, but somehow manages to prevail - crazily - anyway. It happened in 1948, it happened in 1967 and, with Iran arming itself newly enriched with 150 billion dollars who knows whether it will happen again in our lifetimes? We live in a time of miracles, covert ones, our existence as a sovereign people in Israel owes itself to a highly improbably chain of events. So let's learn from Chanukah how to sing about that. Dynasties of Israel can thrive or fail based upon whether they can recognize transcendence when it's staring at them in the face. Let's have the strength to make that recognition, to understand the meaning of the fragile flame that will not go out. For in our time, the need to do so is every bit as urgent as it was in the days of old.
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