With its universal themes of heroism, faith and determination, Hanukka has become one of the most well-known and familiar of Jewish holidays.
Or has it? Year in and out, Jews gather for eight nights to light candles, sing songs and celebrate the miracles performed for our ancestors more than two millennia ago. We fry potato latkes, exchange presents and perhaps take a vacation from our daily routines.
This, in a nutshell, is the common conception of the festival: the Hellenists tried to destroy Judaism, we won, now pass me a jelly doughnut.
But the sad truth is that Hanukka, like so many things nowadays, has been “dumbed down,” stripped of its deeper meaning and ripped from its original context. As a result, there are three central themes of the Hanukka story that have been largely swept aside, even though they speak directly to the period in which we now live. Specifically, these are: battling assimilation, struggling to liberate Judea and Samaria, and longing for a rebuilt Temple.
Consider the following: The genesis of the Hanukka story, according to the First Book of Maccabees, was an incident that occurred in 167 BCE, after the Seleucid ruler Antiochus imposed harsh decrees on the Jewish people, such as banning circumcision and Sabbath observance. The king appointed officials to ensure that Jews did not practice their faith, and each community in Judea was ordered to offer pagan sacrifices.
“Many of the Jews were ready to forsake the Law and to obey these officials,” the Book of Maccabees relates.
But Matityahu, a priest who lived in Modi’in, refused to do so, even after being told that, “If you do, you and your sons will be honored with the title of Friends of the King, and you will be rewarded with silver and gold and many gifts.”
In simple yet uncompromising terms, Matityahu told Antiochus’ representatives, “I don’t care if every Gentile in this empire has obeyed the king and yielded to the command to abandon the religion of his ancestors. My children, my relatives and I will continue to keep the covenant that God made with our ancestors.”
Notice that when faced with the challenge of assimilation, Matityahu did not undertake any type of belabored philosophical contemplation. He didn’t convene annual conferences, issue a call for academic papers, or hold a Jewish organizational dinner in Manhattan.
Instead, he drew a line in the sand, rolled up his sleeves and prepared to do everything in his power to preserve Judaism and pass it down to the next generation. If that meant revolting against what was popular and defying societal trends, then so be it. With a clear sense of purpose, Matityahu was able to successfully turn back the assimilationist wave that threatened to overwhelm the Jewish people.
But the battle was not only for spiritual victory, it was also for Jewish sovereignty, including over all of Judea and Samaria.
Ironically, many of the most important battles of the Maccabean revolt took place in the territories that the world now accuses us of “occupying” and “colonizing.” At Ma’aleh Levona near Shechem (Nablus) in Samaria, Judah the Maccabee delivered a crushing defeat to Apollonius, the Seleucid commander of the region.
In Beit Zecharia, in what is now Gush Etzion, Judah’s brother Elazar was killed when confronting elephants deployed by Antiochus against the Jewish rebels. And of course it was in the hills around Beit El that many of the Maccabees found refuge from the Seleucid tyrant’s forces of oppression.
The list goes on, and it underlines the indisputable fact that the Maccabees fought to expel foreign invaders from Judea and Samaria and reclaim this central part of our ancestral patrimony.
All this took place some 800 years before Islam was founded, and more than two millennia prior to the establishment of the United Nations, giving the lie to claims that Israel has no right to these areas. Indeed, the Hasmoneans would be scratching their heads in wonderment at the very suggestion that a foreign entity, such as a Palestinian state, should be allowed to arise in the territories they battled so tenaciously to liberate.
Another development that would certainly arouse their ire is Israel’s disgraceful treatment of the Temple Mount, which was such a key part of the Hanukka story. The Maccabees may have fought to free the Temple Mount from foreign control, but Israel now allows the Muslim Wakf and Jordan to dictate what happens there.
At the start of the Hasmonean revolt, Matityahu highlighted the fate of our people’s holiest site, lamenting, “Why was I born to see these terrible things, the ruin of my people and of the holy city? Must I sit here helpless while the city is surrendered to enemies and the Temple falls into the hands of foreigners?” And yet nowadays, Jews ascending the Mount are barred by a Jewish government from bringing a prayer book or a Bible, or even uttering a few words of prayer. When you recite the first stanza of the “Maoz Tzur” hymn after lighting the candles, just consider the irony of the words when we say, “Restore my House of Prayer and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering... then with a song of hymn I shall finish the dedication of the Altar.”
The Temple, and the Mount on which it stood, is fundamental to the festival itself! Like it or not, it is a historical fact that Hanukka is primarily about the Maccabees’ unbending commitment to Judaism, Jewish sovereignty over Judea and Samaria and the liberation of the Temple Mount.
To suggest otherwise is nothing less than ignorance masquerading as knowledge.
So when you light the candles each night and watch the flames dance gently as they reach upwards toward Heaven, take a moment to remember this.
After all, the battles of yesteryear are still very much with us, consuming our time and energies and befuddling many of our leaders. But the Maccabees laid down a clear path, one that blazed a trail of light which pierced through the darkness. And each year, they call down to us from across the generations, urging us to follow in their footsteps, stand firm and refuse to yield.
Therein lies the key to the future of Israel and the Jewish people.