Hanukkah menorah 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Hanukka is Judaism’s most universal holiday with deep resonance for all
Americans. Our great country was founded by refugees who escaped religious
persecution in Europe and were prepared to cross an ocean in order to found a
colony where they could worship as they chose. Indeed, freedom of religion
applied as a principle of colonial government goes back to the Maryland
Toleration Act of 1649 which provided that “No person or persons...shall
from henceforth be any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in
respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.” By 1777 Thomas
Jefferson himself had drafted The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of
only three achievements Jefferson instructed be put on his tombstone.
Jews, however, practicing our religion has never been as straightforward.
Throughout history we have had to fight and die simply to observe our
Hanukka represents a triumphant moment in the second century BCE
when that struggle was victorious.
After Alexander the Great conquered
the Middle East, he allowed the lands under his control to continue observing
their own religions.
A century later, however, one of his successors,
Antiochus IV, massacred the Jews, banned the practice of Judaism, and desecrated
the holy Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. The priestly
family of Matityahu the Hasmonean, led his courageous son Judah Maccabee,
revolted and miraculously defeated one of the world’s greatest military powers.
They purified the Temple and relit its candelabra, the menorah.
miracle occurred when the special oil necessary, of which there was only enough
for a day, lasted eight. Ever since, the menorah has been lit in homes and
public squares as a universally regarded symbol of religious freedom.
AMERICA continues to fight wars abroad there is an even deeper resonance with
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The ancient world glorified men at arms. Heroes were those
who could pulverize their enemies on the battlefield. Their names – Agamemnon,
Achilles, Hannibal and Caesar – remain legend, both in myth and history. Walk
through the streets of Rome and you will be electrified by the site of ancient
monuments to generals and battles, from the Arch of Titus, celebrating the
slaughter of the Jews in the years 66-70, to the Arch of Constantine to Trajan’s
Nor does the glory of war end there. Modern European kings and
princes continuing to even marry in military uniform, as did Prince William in
his nuptials with Kate Middleton. Great men are those who perform heroic feats
of military daring and win grandeur by vanquishing their foes.
however, with its vision of men one day beating swords into plowshares and its
promise of a future of eternal peace, sees war as savagery in every case but
self-defense. The men of Arthur’s round table may be born for adventure. But the
Biblical knight of faith is born for service.
ON HANUKKA the Jews – the
people of the book, not the sword – are forced to take up arms to defend their
right to worship God according to their conscience.
They score a stunning
military victory against the successor armies to the world’s greatest conqueror.
And how do they celebrate? Not by erecting a single victory arch, staging a
parade, or slaughtering their captured foes in public, a favorite among the
jeering Roman masses. Rather, they rededicate God’s temple and light the candles
of the menorah to demonstrate the human capacity to bring light to a world made
dark with violence and bigotry, a tradition carried forth till the present day
in Jewish homes and public squares everywhere.
Today Israel is falsely
accused of being a militaristic state that tramples on the rights of others. But
walk the length and breadth of the Jewish state and you will find holy sites and
ancient ruins, memorials to dead soldiers and commemorations for victims of
terror. The one thing you will never find is a single celebratory arch – either
ancient or modern – commemorating a military victory. Even when, in 1967, Israel
pulled off one of the most spectacular military victories of modern times,
defeating three Arab nations hell-bent on its destruction with ten times the
number of soldiers, Israel never celebrated the victory. Hanukka sums up the
Jewish attitude toward war: you fight only when you have to, never when you want
to, and whatever the result, you never rejoice but mostly cry. War is a
necessary evil. Only in peace is there glory to be won.
King David was
Judaism’s greatest warrior. Today he is remembered, however, for the beautiful
Psalms he sang to God with harp and lyre. His wish was to build God a Temple in
Jerusalem, but the Almighty refused; he had shed blood in battle, even though it
is was to protect his people from slaughter.
The lesson for America? We
fight because we have an obligation to stop the bad guys from slaughtering the
innocent. But we never revel in the fight. Rather, we pray for our brave men and
women in uniform – living torches of freedom – to come home and brighten our
lives with their luminous and warm hearts.The writer has just published
Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself (Wiley), and
Follow him on his website www.shmuley.com and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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