The Post-Chanukah Sermon
December 10, 2010
While Chanukah may be gone, it is not forgotten. We lit the eighth candle on the Chanukiah Wednesday night and yesterday observed the last day of our annual celebration. This year Chanukah seemed to be ubiquitous. It was hard to turn on the television or radio without seeing or hearing something about Chanukah. Jon Stewart did a hilarious gig about Chanukah on his television show. Serius XM radio devoted an entire channel, 76, to playing Chanukah music 24 hours a day for eight days. This year, to my dismay, Chabad put up a huge Chanukiah in the Inner Harbor on public property. While this might seem to be a violation of the First Amendment’s separation of religion and state, the Federal courts have determined that a Chanukiah may not stand alone on public property because then it is a religious symbol. If it stands next to a Christmas tree, it loses it sacred status because the courts have determined that the Christmas tree is a secular symbol. Chabad’s self serving efforts here and around the country are doing nothing but undermining the Chanukiah as a holy symbol of Judaism. I, for one, do not want the Chanukiah to become the Jewish equivalent of the Christmas tree.
While Chanukah is a minor holiday because of its non-Torah status, its meaning is still profound. It marks the victory of the weak over the mighty and the tiny against the many. It celebrates the concept of religious and ethnic pluralism in a time of religious and cultural homogeneity. It commemorates the ability of the minority to live freely among the majority. Without the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucids, the Jewish people would have ceased to exist. Judaism would have become just another variety of Greek religion and our ancestors would have grown up worshipping Greek gods. The historical “what ifs?” are fascinating and the subject of a plethora of novels.
The victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucids was a military one. As described in the Book of First Maccabees, the army of the Jews, led by Judah, the son of Mattatias, fought a series of battles against Seleucid armies over a three year period, from 167-164 BCE. The Maccabees re-conquered the Temple and purified it before restoring the worship of the One God of Israel. Sacrifices to God were resumed and the observance of an eight day festival to commemorate these events was declared for all time. The Temple, of course, was at the center of Jewish life. Judaism and the Temple were inseparable. It was unimaginable to our ancestors that they could live as Jews without sacrificial worship in that sacred space. That is why the rabbis chose last week’s Haftarah to be read on the Shabbat of Chanukah.
Last week’s Haftarah is from the Book of Zechariah. Zechariah is a prophet who lived in the fifth century BCE while Jerusalem was under Persian rule. A hundred years earlier, in 586 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and exiled our people to the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Fifty years after that, the Persians (modern day Iranians) conquered the Babylonians (ancient Iraqis) and King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to the Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. The prophet Zechariah encouraged our ancestors to restore the Temple to its ancient glory and begin, once again, the pure worship of God. Central to the Haftarah’s message are the well known words “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of hosts.” Zechariah is telling us that the Temple has been restored because of God’s spirit, not by the power or might of man. This message during Chanukah is quite a curious one, seemingly at odds with the crucial message of the holiday. After all, did not the Maccabees fight for the Temple Mount and defeat the Seleucids? Was not Jewish blood shed for the ability to restore sacrificial worship? Why did the rabbis, who chose these readings from the books of prophets to complement the Torah readings in the second through fifth centuries, choose a reading that seems to be pacifistic, when Chanukah commemorates a military victory? I think the rabbis are sharing a very important message with us.
They are balancing the military message of Chanukah with a caveat. There are times, they are saying, to fight, and then there are times when it is wisest to submit to overwhelming force. Sometimes, one should not fight but be patient until the day of liberation should arrive. The rabbis who determined the Haftarah portions lived in a third to fifth century Palestine which was ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire, the descendents of the Romans who destroyed the Temple in the year 70 and who put down another great Jewish revolt in the years 132-135. Thousands upon thousands of our people were killed and more were taken into slavery during these uprisings against Roman rule. We were exiled to the margins of history as our power base in Israel was destroyed. Two to three centuries later, the rabbis were still oppressed by the anti-Jewish Byzantines. They knew, however, that nothing positive would be accomplished by revolting against the Roman oppressor. The only result would be more Jewish dead. So the rabbis honed their survival strategies and learned how to exist as a minority in a Christian land. This was, indeed, a wise strategy Jews as joined with Muslim Arabs who spewed forth from the Arabian Peninsula to overthrow Christian rule in 636 CE. Life under the Muslims was generally freer than that under Christians.
This lesson is applicable to us as individuals as well as to nations. Is there a time when we have no choice but to fight? Can we learn to co-exist with those who oppress us? Does Israel launch a pre-emptive attack against Iranian nuclear facilities knowing that the Iranian counter-attack will be devastating? When must one engage in an existential struggle to survive and when does one wait for a better time? The rabbis said that their time was not an auspicious one for a revolt against the Romans. It is up to us to ask, and answer, this question in the future. The only thing that is certain is that we will only know the right answer in retrospect.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom