A Hanukka story, the good and bad

The heroes of Jewish lore are examples of morality in spite of their flaws.

Lighting the menora (photo credit: Yehoshua Halevi)
Lighting the menora
(photo credit: Yehoshua Halevi)
The legendary story of Hanukka is a blend of fact and fable that leaves Jews enriched and prideful. A band of brothers, undaunted by unfavorable odds, resisted and overcame the tyranny of ethnic cleansing. We have celebrated this miraculous victory for millennia. We spin dreidels. Eat latkes. Distribute gelt. Sing songs. Recite prayers. Light candles. It is a joyous festival and yet there is a disturbing narrative unknown to most.
Judah and the Maccabees, to us, were heroic personalities and, yet, they were reviled by most of their Jewish contemporaries despite their bravado. After expelling the enemy from the Holy Land, they imposed a resented dynasty on Judea. Their nobility was short lived. They usurped the monarchy and enraged the Jews. Their occupation of the throne as Levites prevented the possibility of a messianic age. The messiah was to be a descendant of the Tribe of Judah. In a bloody display of intolerant ego, they slaughtered dissenters who opposed their reign. When Hanukka was declared a holiday the populous was infuriated. Only God in the Bible could establish sacred days, not arrogant mortals.
Finally, the Maccabees, who were champions of Jewish values, succumbed themselves to the seduction of Hellenism. They were appropriately tarred as hypocrites. Their publicists did a credible job in portraying the Maccabees as world class saviors, but, in fact, after the glory days, they sank into a place of shame.
Despite the notoriety, there is something instructive about this saga that provides insight into the Jewish view of history and heroes. The Maccabees, though deeply flawed, emerge, with the passage of time, as gallant warriors and intrepid leaders of the Jewish people. Jewish history cares little for moral consistency and unassailable perfection.
If we review Biblical personalities, great patriarchs and matriarchs are treated in much the same way. Abraham, who nearly murders his son, is a hero. Rebecca, who betrays a husband and a son, is a heroine. Jacob, who trivializes the rape of his daughter, is a hero. Moses, who abandons his family, is a hero. David, who puts a hit out on an innocent man so he can consort with the widow, is a hero. The list is endless and begs the question, why?
With exquisite understanding, Judaism recognizes that imperfection immortalizes and instructs while perfection is mythical and a meaningless standard. The evidence is abundant. Our defective champions have served as eternal exemplars to generations of struggling human beings. We relate to their frustrations, their missteps, their trespasses. We learn from their blunders, are inspired by their triumphs and understand their defective humanity. They are authentic and real and serve as timeless touchstones, even if we are distant in years and in miles. Despite fractured values and faulty behavior we admire and venerate Judah, Abraham, Rebecca and all the rest. Because they are damaged, we can heal. Because they are broken, we have hope. Because they stumble, we may soar.
Thank God for tainted heroes.