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“You stood by them in their time of trouble”** — Chanukah Reflections on Power and Faith

December 12, 2019

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A Chanukah Message from Rabbi Sam Weintraub

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the courageous Maccabees against the oppressive, imperialistic Greeks. Interestingly, we have more historical records about this origins of this Holiday than of any other Jewish festival. The First and Second Book of Maccabees, (Second Century BCE) as well as the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus (First Century CE), record the history of the Jews in Palestine in the Second Century BCE while under the control of the Greek Seleucid dynasty. In the year 167BCE, King Antiochus Epiphanes issued a decree forcing all the people in his realm to Hellenize. He outlawed Jewish rituals such as the Shabbat and circumcision, and worship of Greek gods and sacrifice of pigs replaced Jewish worship in the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

Some Jews Hellenized but others were enraged by all of this. One group, led by Mattatias, an elderly priest, formed a guerilla band which retreated to the mountains and fought the Greeks and their Jewish allies. Through extraordinary bravery, and military savvy, the Maccabees defeated the Seleucid forces, liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the Temple from pagan defilement.

The Rabbis who composed theTalmud a few centuries later knew this history. Yet, in their Talmudic discussion of Chanukah, they mostly ignore the military victory, and focus instead on a miracle which is not described in the historical books. According to the Rabbinic narrative, when Jewish forces entered the Temple, they found a cruse with enough oil to light the Temple Menorah for only one day. Miraculously, the oil therein lasted for eight days, the full duration of the new Chanukah holiday.

Why ignore the history and focus on this miracle?

Scholars have offered several reasons. First, following the Maccabean military victory, Jewish independence was re-gained in Judea under the Hasmonean dynasty. But descendants of this dynasty became corrupt and later opposed and even persecuted the Rabbis.

Also, by the time of the Talmudic discussion (3rd to 5th Centuries CE), independent Jewish rule in Palestine was long over and Jews were subject to Rome. The Rabbis, with little political power, did not wish to antagonize Rome by glorifying a story about a Jewish revolt against the ruling Middle Eastern Empire.

Still, the Rabbis’ decision to celebrate the miracle reflects much more than political calculation. There is also profound spiritual insight. We express our humanity most fully, and we encounter G?d most immediately, not when we are girded for battle or flush with victory, but when our own strengths and resources are inadequate. We find G?d when we come face to face with “insufficient oil”, our limitations. I realize this every Shabbat morning in the Sanctuary as we offer special prayers for the sick, and for the American and Israeli armed forces. There is no more sophisticated medical care than that available in New York City, and the American and Israeli military are some of the worlds’ strongest and most technologically advanced. But we also understand that the wellbeing of that which is most precious to us —our loved ones, our health, our security—are not finally within our control. And so we turn to Hashem, a Power Who is greater than us, Who restores our hope, and Who inspires us to believe that despite our limitations we can continue confronting the challenges of life.

How does faith do that?

The Al HaNisim (“For the miracles”) prayer, added by the Rabbis to the Chanukah service, praises dramatically the triumph of the weak over the strong and the few over the many. When you feel afflicted, outnumbered, under attack, whether by illness or social discrimination, it is common to feel isolated, to see yourself as uniquely suffering in a world of otherwise normal, contented people. The key to fighting adversity is understanding that it need not separate us from other people. In fact, it should inspire us to empathize with them. Then, humility and compassion can overcome the self- preoccupation which is the natural, first reaction of anyone in pain. So, from Moses and Miryam to Judah Maccabee to Theodore Herzl to Golda Meir, the greatest biographies are of those who felt the oppression of others, and then transformed a community of sufferers into a community of redeemers.

Chag Urim Samie’ach, A Happy Chanukah.
May we gather around the candles with family and friends and reflect on the great miracle that it is often in times of hardship and bewilderment that human beings rediscover their G?d-given greatness.

Rabbi Weintraub


Title from the Al HaNisim, “For the Miracles,” prayer included in Chanukah services.

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