Of all the special days and seasons of the Jewish calendar, Chanukah holds the most compelling message of resilience. And, while moderns make much of the connection between religious freedom and the story behind the Festival of Lights - evidence of how the holiday’s reframing has evolved over the centuries (more on this to follow) - a more honest read of the historical accounts testifies to the success of the Maccabees in outlasting their rivals and upholding a more puristic expression of Judaism.
For all of the glory assigned to the sons of Mattathias, popularized through his most famous child, Judah Maccabee (aka “The Hebrew Hammer”), you and I would need to stretch quite a bit to acquiesce to their thresholds of tolerance. After all, they were not called warriors for nothing.
“My guess is that most liberal Jews today wouldn’t necessarily get along with the Maccabees if they showed up again,” quipped Rabbi Jill Jacobs in an interview for an article ten years ago: “‘Even those of us who are regularly active in Jewish life may find it hard to identify with Matityahu, the leader of the Jewish revolt, whom the first Book of Maccabees depicts as killing a Jew who sacrifices to a pagan god,’ she wrote in an essay about the meaning of Chanukah.” (Shefler, 2009).
While we celebrate the Maccabees as fighters for the true expression of Judaism, it is worth noting that Judah, upon his own death in battle, bequeathed the fight to his brothers - a conflict that wore on for nearly two years and, upon their victory the Hasmonean throne that emerged was characterized by leaders who were equal to the penchant for power-seeking and corruption to that of the original adversaries of the rebels, according to Prof. Jeffrey Rubenstein (Shefler, 2009).
But the Maccabees remain, to this day, a steadfast, heroic presence in the minds of storytellers for one clear and unmistakable reason: they stood up to the threat and cobbled together their resources, however crude and unconventional.
This flashpoint would forever change the destiny of the Jewish people - most dramatically in the last three centuries with the bold determination of Herzl and his Zionist heirs to reclaim a Jewish homeland amidst the opposition of those Jews who had assumed comfortable identities in the Diaspora, not to mention the courageous efforts of the Israel Defense Forces to fulfill the dream of sovereignty and security despite the unfavorable odds of their foes. Resilience has become embedded into our cultural DNA.
Sherri Mandell, an Israeli who has worn the cloak of grief and then rebuilding in the aftermath of her son, Koby’s, murder at the hands of terrorists, asserts that resilience is “about becoming, not overcoming. When you face a trauma you are in danger of breaking apart; you may even fear that you will lose your mind. Yet that same sense of vulnerability and fracture can lead you toward connecting to something greater than yourself, connecting to others and to the divine. Resilience is not a personal quality that a few lucky ones possess. Instead each of us can build resilience.” (Mandell, 2015)
Indeed, everyone is wired for resilience. The task is to find the internal switch with ourselves, and to flip it on, not only in times of crisis, but rather for all of the seasons of our lives, in order to filter out the toxic emotions and habits that can prove to be harmful to our beings. For instance, our celebrations of Chanukah (and even New Years Eve, which comes on the heels of Chanukah this year) compel us to put things into our bodies that, without moderation, can leave us vulnerable to health issues. It is vitally important that we not excuse ourselves from vigilance not to overindulge.
Finally, the inspiration of the Maccabees offers the chance for each of us to validate our own inherent worth. Their utter revulsion toward those who would accept accommodation to the Hellenistic invasion of their lives stemmed from the principle that the Jews were put into this world for an express, sustainable purpose.
Rabbi David Silverberg puncutates aptly this point when citing the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 2:4) about one of the oppressive measures that was imposed by the Greeks upon the Jews, namely requiring them to engrave upon the horns of their oxen the pronouncement that “you have no share in the God of Israel.” One interpretation brought in the name of the Slonimer Rebbe offers that by doing this the Greeks sought to make the Jews see their world as “dark,” bereft of spiritual meaning and value, to feel incapable of infusing their lives with spiritual significance. … The luster of Chanukah, played out through the lighting of the candles each night, manifests our subscription to the idea that life is never completely “dark.” No matter how often we find ourselves struggling to meet our physical and material needs, no matter how saturated and challenged we might feel we’ve become, we can always access the cruse of oil within, with which we can overcome the darkness and fill our lives with validity and meaning.
This post is based upon a presentation at Congregation BMH-BJ (Denver, CO) on December 14, 2019.
Mandell, S., The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press, 2016)
Shefler, G. “Heroes or rabble-rousers? The real story of the Maccabees,” (JTA, 11 December, 2009) https://www.jta.org/2009/12/11/lifestyle/heroes-or-rabble-rousers-the-real-story-of-the-maccabees
Silverberg, D.. S.A.L.T (Surf a Little Torah) Mikketz 5779, https://www.etzion.org.il/en/salt-parashat-miketz-1