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March 23, 2006

Shabbat Chanukah

By Michael Rothbaum

In memory of Naomi Goodman, z”l, past president of the Jewish Peace Fellowship

About 2,200 years ago, as many of us know, a ragtag group of
insurgents known as the Maccabees defeated what was then one of the
strongest military forces in the known world, the Syrian Greek Empire.

A few centuries later, in deciding how to tell this story, the
rabbis did a funny thing. They changed it. The story of the Maccabees?
It’s found nowhere in Jewish scripture. All that war business? They it
took out. In the Talmud, the rabbis include a brief narrative’not about
war, but about a jar of oil.

The rabbis, one might argue, had learned the lessons of history. By
the time of the Talmud, the Maccabees are long gone. The Romans have
conquered Jerusalem. Some Jews’particularly young Jewish men and
boys’won’t stand for it. They carry out guerilla attacks against the
Romans. Sometimes, these young people die. And sometimes, like the
Maccabees, they attack other Jews who are not patriotic enough for

The rabbis say, ‘ENOUGH! The Jewish people have lost enough young
men! And picking up a weapon is not the only way to be a patriot.’

Refusing to describe the miracle in military terms, the rabbis instead name the holiday Chanukah,
a Hebrew word meaning ‘dedication.’ They focus their attention on the
day the Maccabees rededicated the Temple the Greeks had despoiled.
Finding their home a physical and spiritual wreck, the rebels needed
oil to light the ner tamid‘God’s eternal flame.

We are not the first generation, it seems, to face an oil shortage.
The Maccabees find only a little jar. But as the rabbis tell the story,
they discover that, if they focus on the needs of the entire community,
there is indeed enough oil for everyone to celebrate. And so a
celebration of war is transformed into a celebration of God.

And so the rabbis also make us read the prophet Zechariah on
Chanukah: ”Not by might, not by power,” the prophet tells us, ”but
by My Spirit,’ says God.’

It is understandable that an oppressed minority would trust
weaponry. Under Antiochus, the Jews were ordered, in essence, to go
away. A tiny minority resisted, refused to be extinguished. Jews are
like that. We’re inconvenient. It’s annoying to some people. Even
today, a lot of folks would just as soon not have Jews around.

But it is so tragic when Jews replace faith in God with faith in arms.

If possible, our Chanukiot, our Chanukah menorahs, are
supposed to be displayed in a window. So people can see them. So people
can see us. Our light is a public-service announcement. We are still
here. Miracles happen. No matter how small, we survive. No matter how
many times Yosef, the hero of our Torah portion, Miketz, is
sent underground’in the blindness of a pit, in a forlorn Egyptian
dungeon’still, he rises. The continued existence of Jews, against
absurd odds, is remarkable.

But existence itself is not enough, has never been enough. Our
continued survival is not for us alone. Rather, it implies a Force more
powerful than weapons and money and things.

Our lives, when we get it right, are a witness to that Force. And
so, on Chanukah, each night we add another light. Why? Rabbi Hillel
tells us why in the Talmud’that set of books they tried to take from
us, to erase, to burn. (They always try, one way or another, to burn
the books.) Hillel says we must add another candle each night. For ‘in
matters of holiness we do not decrease. We increase!’

Yosef, suffering brutal injustice instigated by his brothers, could
have chosen to remain in darkness. He could have held a lifetime
grudge, or used his newfound power to humiliate or permanently
subjugate his brothers. He could have become a rabid warmonger. But he
didn’t. At all times, he remains principled and strikingly discreet.
And he leaves the door open for reconciliation. Having escaped the
physical dungeon, he also refuses to lock the door to his spirit,
leaving space for God’s holiness and light to emerge.

The Maccabees, too, testified to the holiness of God. But they did
not take into account the painful legacy their violence would leave
behind. And so the rabbis dared to rewrite Jewish history, turning a
story of ferocious militarism into a blessing of Divine light. Rather
than the fire of bombs and the glow of burning villages, the rabbis
gave us the blessed glow of Chanukah flames’the fire of peace’lighting
the way to the love of God. Each night. Another light.

If you look closely, you can still see the miracles hovering over
our Chanukah menorah. The trembling flames demand: will we too force
our grandchildren to rewrite our history, or will we ourselves live a
history we can be proud of? Can we harness the courage of the Maccabees
and the optimism of Yosef in leading a Jewish charge for safety and
security for all peoples? Can we’you and I’join together, share our
flames, and light the way to peace?