Tuesday night is the first night of Chanukkah, the festival of lights. Many, in the US especially, celebrate this holiday like a Jewish Christmas, with white and blue tinsel instead of red and green and holiday bushes. Chanukkah is treated as a Jewish rival to Christmas and they are often fused together into 'Chrismukkah'. Irony of ironies as Chanukkah is a holiday celebrating the victory of Judaism over assimilation and secularism.
In the 2nd century before the Common Era, the Graeco-Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes ('divine manifestation'- the Jews called him Epimanes, meaning 'madman') sought to unify his kingdom under the Hellenistic culture and forbade the practice of Judaism in Judea. He banned under pain of death the study of the Torah, observance of kashrut, shabbat and circumcision. Antiochus defiled the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, established an altar to Zeus and sacrificed pigs on it. A small and radical minority, impressed with Hellenistic culture, decided 'let's forget about this old stuff- it's too primitive and barbaric so let's get modern', so they took on Greek names and culture. These Hellenizers, as they were known, went to the gymnasiums and even went through extremely painful surgeries to reverse their circumcisions. A rich Hellenizer by the name of Jason even bought the position of High Priest from the king!
Opposed to them were a committed band of Jews known as the Hassidim who zealously observed G-d's Torah. These were the first religious martyrs in history. One such example was the martyrdom of Chana and her 7 sons. Chana and her 7 sons were summoned to the court of Antiochus. One by one, Antiochus demanded that they bow down to a Greek idol and oone by one they refused. The first son, the eldest, refused to worship a god other than HaShem and for his refusal he was slowly tortured before his mother's eyes and dismembered. Slowly, 6 of Chana's sons were brutally butchered until it came time for the youngest, a little boy. Antiochus, in his "mercy", threw his ring before the idol and asked for the youngest to pick it up. The youngest refused as it would appear as if he were bowing before an idol. Before Antiochus took the youngest away, Chana said to him "My son, listen carefully to my words: I carried you for nine months, nursed you for two years and have fed and cared for you up to this very day. To the best of my ability I have taught you about God and the Torah. Do not exchange your commitment and loyalty to Judaism for the fleeting offerings of a king who will soon perish himself..." She told her son that when he arrives in heaven, to tell Avraham Avinu not to boast as he only bound his son while she sacrificed all 7 of hers. Full of despair, she flung herself off a rooftop. Many thousands of Jews died this way, al kiddush HaShem, sanctifying G-d's name.
Greek soldiers enforced Antiochus' wicked decrees in every city and hamlet in Judea. In the town of Modi'in, outside of Jerusalem, an altar to Zeus was erected and a Hellenized Jew offered to sacrifice a pig to it, infront of the entire town. An elderly priest by the name of Mattityahu, incensed at this brazen profanation of G-d's name, rushed towards the apostate and killed him. He cried out 'Mi Le'HaShem Elay!', 'Whoever is for G-d, to me!', in the manner of Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our Teacher. Mattityahu led the entire town to destroy the Greek garisson in the city. Mattityahu died shorty after the beginning of the revolt but his five sons, Shimon, Yochanan, Yehudah (Judah), Elazar and Yonatan continued the rebellion. The rebels took the title Maccabbee which is an acronym for the Torah verse "Who is compared to You among the mighty, oh Lord" (Exodus 15:11).
The few Jewish rebels, none of them soldiers by profession, were met by thousands of crack Greek troops, armed with phalanxes and elephants yet the Jews, who were familiar with the hills and plains of Judea, were victorious. We recite the special Al HaNissim, 'On the Miracles, prayer which mentions this amazing victory. "...You gave the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few, and the defiled into the hands of the pure, and the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the malicious into the hands of those who engage in Your Torah..." Led by Yehuda HaMaccabi, the Maccabbees drove the Greeks out of Judea and reconquered Jerusalem. When they ascended the Temple Mount, they found the Holy Temple in disrepair, defiled, with a statue of Zeus at its center. The Al HaNissim continues "And You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your universe; and to Your nation, Israel, did You grant a great salvation and liberation, as on this day. And subsequently Your children came to Your holy abode, and they cleared out Your Palace, and they purified Your Temple, and they kindled lights in the courtyards of Your holy place. And they established these eight days of Chanukah in order to give thanks and praise to Your great name." After cleaning and cleansing the Temple, they wanted to relight the holy lights of the Menorah, the 7 branched candelabra but all of the olive oil was defiled. After a lengthy search, the Jews found a small jar of olive oil with the seal of the High Priest in a corner of Temple. Even though there was only enough oil to last for 1 day, the Jews filled the Menorah and miraculously, the oil lasted for 8 days until new oil could be prepared. In memory of this amazing miracle, we light the 8 branched Channukiyah.
So what is Chanukah? It is the victory of light over darkness; of holiness and absolute truth over profanity and hedonism. It is a clash of civilization where Judaism triumphed over secularism. It is the the defeat of assimilation and self-hatred and the victory of Jewish pride and dedication. In these days of moral relativity, materialism and atheism, let us remember the brave Maccabbees who rose up in defense of the truth of the Torah, of the faith of their ancestors and proudly demonstrated to the tyrants and oppressors that the Jewish people are prepared to fight to preserve our way of life.
'Baruch ata Hashem, Elokeinu, melech haolam, sheassa nissim l'avoteinu, bayamim hahem, ba'zman haze'
Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, Who performed miracles for our forefathers, in those days, in this season.
Cross-posted to Goat's Barnyard