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How Chanukah Speaks to us Today

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub
Chanukah 5777, December 2016

Many of us learned, at an early age, that Chanukah is about the successful revolt of Judah Maccabee and his courageous band of Jewish fighters to liberate the Temple and Jerusalem from their occupation and defilement by the Seleucid Greek King Antiochus (c.165 BCE).

This is true. Before Antiochus, Greek rulers beginning with Alexander in the Fourth Century BCE tolerated the practice of Judaism and other particular religions in their Empire. Antiochus tried to overturn this, pillaging the Temple, attacking Jerusalem and taking Jews away as captives. The Maccabees insisted on religious freedom. They restored the observance of the Torah’s sacred laws, and brought strength and comfort to the traditionalist Jews of Judea.

The Maccabean revolt, however, was also part of a civil, inter-Jewish struggle, and this more complex aspect is — with some justification — ignored in our early Jewish education. The Maccabees also opposed other Jews, who the Second Book of Maccabees calls “Hellenizers”. Hellenizers wanted to dispense with Jewish laws and traditions, and they became influential among priests and civil Jewish leaders, especially in urban centers like Jerusalem. Some scholars believe that it was this internecine Jewish struggle which encouraged Antiochus to intervene and impose draconian laws.

The Maccabees finally prevailed, driving out Greek forces from Jerusalem, removing pagan symbols from the Temple and re-establishing Jewish worship there. Antiochus died around this time, and a Seleucid-Jewish accord restored religious freedom in Judea. The descendants of Judah Maccabee established the Hasmonean kingdom. Sadly, over the next century, furious policy disagreements wracked that kingdom, with some leaders deposed by force and even assassinated.

What I learn from all of this is that even our sacred institutions are human artifacts. They are only as strong as the integrity of their rulers and the knowledge and values of their adherents. No human institution, from the ancient priesthood and Greek monarchy to the American Rabbinate or US Congress today, is immune from laziness or corruption.

This is not an argument to abolish these institutions, which also preserve our social ideals and keep us secure. But the history of Chanukah shows how evil can intrude on the good. In fact, our tradition recognized this 1000 years before the Maccabees, with the great Avodah service of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16, re-enacted symbolically every year in the Synagogue). Then, the High Priest would cast lots on two goats. The first was “for G-d…to make atonement for the Sanctuary” and the second was “for Azazel…for all (the Israelites’) transgressions”. Before we atoned for our sins, we had to atone for the ways in which our selfishness or short-sightedness defiled even sacred institutions.

So, even our venerated institutions and exalted leaders are vulnerable to corruption. Shall we then despair? Only if we imagine that our goal is perfection. But we are not obliged to be perfect, as individuals or as a society. We are enjoined to rise again and again, to realize the values of Torah day to day in our world.

When we want to restore public institutions, the process begins, as in all Teshuva (repentance) with contrition, a sense of shame. We feel in our kishkes how distant we have become from our founding ideals and hopes. Then, we remember that we have a path of restoration. As Jews, we believe that a time will come when innocent suffering will end, fear will end, and war will end. In the meantime, we pave the way for that era one Mitzvah at a time. Redemption is a process that goes on all the time, in our individual lives and in society.

So, Judaism endorses a life of political and spiritual activism. Like Judah Maccabee and his followers, we train our bodies and energies in concrete Mitzvot, and so begin to set aside questions and despair. Mitzvah gorreret Mitzvah. One Mitzvah occasions another. Each act builds intention and faith. We become involved. We accept responsibility. Especially, we share in the agony of society’s most vulnerable, and in their cries for justice. Compassion becomes power.

From an initial, inchoate sense of hopelessness or revulsion, we can move to vision and mobilization. Guided by Jewish and American values, we can join with peoples of all faiths, or no faith, and return our country to its highest ideals, human equality, tolerance, appreciation of learning, and magnanimity of heart.

Chag Urim Samei’ach May you and your families enjoy a joyous and inspiring Chanukah

Rabbi Weintraub

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