Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Time For Miracles

The Greek Empire, led by Alexander of Macedon, ruled the land of Judea beginning in the fourth century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era).  After Alexander's death, Judea became a part of the Seleucid Empire, ruled by the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus Ephiphanes.  Unlike the rulers before him, who were content to collect tributes and leave the people to their beliefs, Antiochus wanted his empire to be completely Hellenized, and all the people to follow Greek religion and culture.  Jewish law and customs, such as observing the Sabbath, dietary laws, and circumcision, were outlawed, and the sacrifice (and eating) of pigs, and bowing down to Greek idols were forced upon the people.  In the town of Modi'in, an elderly priest named Mattathias and his sons, called the Maccabees, stood up to the king's soldiers, and began a revolt that lasted three years.  At the end of that time, the Seleucids had been defeated and forced to leave Judea and the Maccabees and their descendents (called the Hasmoneans)  ruled Judea for over 100 years.  The Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by pagan sacrifices and idols, was re-dedicated, and the celebration of this military victory was called Chanukah, the Hebrew word for dedication.  The victory of the Maccabees over the Greek armies was the miracle that was celebrated.

Centuries later, in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), we find a different account of the miracle of Chanukah.  It is told that the Jews cleaning up the Temple found only one undefiled cruse of oil for the Eternal Light, which would ordinarily only last one day, but that this little cruse of oil burned for eight days and nights.
There are reasons for focusing on one explanation or the other.  Long after the victory, when the Hasmoneans were ancient history, and most of the people no longer lived in the Holy Land, perhaps it became more relevant to focus on a spiritual miracle, rather than one  of a military victory that may no longer have been meaningful.  As Michael Strassfeld writes in The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, comparing the two versions to the flickering flames of a menorah: "The flame never looks the same from one instant to the next, but at its core it remains unchanged".

So then, what is the message of Chanukah?  That it is worth fighting to hold on to your own beliefs and values when others are trying to make you change them.  That a small band of volunteers can triumph over a trained army because they are fighting for what they care about.  And that sometimes, an impossibility can become a reality.  If you don't believe it, look at your own life.  What have you accomplished that you thought you could never do?  What have you received that is a gift from God, simply because you needed it?  And celebrate that, along with the miracles of the Maccabees and the lights, on this festival of Chanukah.

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