Guest Columnist: Hanukka for adults

Guest Columnist Hanukka

Standing in front of the hanukkia with its festive lights exuding hope and joy, one is beset with a mélange of conflicting moods. It would be so easy to focus cheerfully - and, as the Talmud does, exclusively - on the miracle of the cruse of oil that lasted for eight days when there seemed to be barely enough for one. But we're not children. We know too much about other, more complex aspects of the Hanukka story. Or, we could review - with adolescent bravado - the great Maccabean victories over the superior forces of our enemies. We are fortunate to have the historic accounts of Josephus and the material recorded in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees. These victories certainly put us "on the map." (Forgive the adolescent allusion to a more recent "historic" victory of a Maccabean namesake over the Soviet adversary on the basketball court.) But we're not adolescents. We know that the Hasmoneans also suffered defeats and that their military and political achievements were too often neutralized by intrigue, double-dealing and the urgent necessity of surviving and maneuvering in a world of foxes. As adults we know too much. By now serious scholarship has taught us that the Maccabean victories owed as much to a confluence of realpolitik circumstances outside Judea as to Jewish courage and military ingenuity. Regarding the role of providence in lending extra strength - as traditional liturgy would have it - to "the weak against the strong, the few against the many," one is reminded of the ever relevant war song "Praise the Lord but Pass the Ammunition." The Seleucid-Syrian enemy was fortuitously riven with internal discord following the death of Antiochus Epiphanes; Ptolemaic Egypt as a perennial adversary of the Seleucids sided with the Maccabees; and Rome promulgated a treaty with the Jews which it renewed several times during the reign of the Maccabean brothers - and which must have been of significant encouragement to the Jewish freedom-fighters. That the later Hasmoneans fell prey to Hellenistic excesses is also well-known, culminating in the ignominious civil strife between the brothers Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. This in turn brought on the Roman invasion of Judea and the catastrophic end to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel that would last 2,000 years. KNOWING ALL this cannot but lend to our observance of Hanukka a cloudy aura hovering over the brightly lit candles that we celebrate. This is not to undermine our children's enjoyment of the festive gifts, games, family get-togethers and public events catered to Israeli society's legitimate need to make merry on our national holidays. Nor should adult Israelis deny themselves the adolescent thrill of recalling national triumphs - whether they be perceived as religious, cultural, or military. Yet, as adult Israelis living through a contemporary Hanukka drama as critical to Jewish survival as the ancient Hasmonean wars, we dare not surrender even for an instant the necessary sobriety, hard-nosed keenness of thought and courage of conviction called for in this our own contemporary Maccabean struggle. Sobriety even in the midst of holiday joyfulness should remind us that the establishment and defense of our modern State of Israel has always been conditioned partly, and at times extensively, by factors beyond our control. For better and for worse, we recall: the 1917 British Balfour Declaration for better, the 1939 British White Paper for worse; the Soviet Union's support for the Jewish state in 1947 for better, the Soviet Union's hostility to the Jewish state following Israel's aligning itself with the US for worse; the US and its perpetual competing interests in Israel and the Arab world, for better and for worse. We may praise the God of Israel and His redemptive power in inspiring the Maccabees to victory then and now. At the same time we dare not forget that beyond Israel's borders there are competing national interests beyond our control affecting Israel's well-being - for better and for worse. This is the price the Jewish people with its Zionist agenda has been paying for having returned to the unpredictable and treacherous arena of world history. Hard-nosed keenness of thought must undergird our political leaders' techniques for wheeling and dealing in a world of foxes. This is certainly true for the way we maneuver with nations who are our adversaries, not to mention our enemies. It is true as well unfortunately for the way we negotiate with nations whose interests appear to coincide with ours. In an international arena where socio-ethical principles are universally manipulated with Machiavellian cunning, it is prudent for Israel to remember one of King David's tributes to the God of Israel: "With the pure You act in purity; and with the perverse You are wily" (II Samuel 22:27). With enemies - and at times even with "friends" - strategic and tactical maneuvers may be grounded in pure motives but must be executed with creative - at times serpentine - subtlety. Anchoring our Hanukka-inspired sobriety and hard-nosed keenness of thought must be a collective courage of conviction. We are taught that it was such a collective courage of conviction that ignited the Hasmonean zeal to fight for the religious, cultural and political freedom that their people had seen frozen by the oppressor. Their passion would mobilize their people to join in the campaign that would build the foundation for the second Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel. Our contemporary Hanukka story has our people uniquely blessed in having the opportunity after so long to build the third Jewish commonwealth in our land. Today's world is no less plagued with foxes, testing our convictions, calling out to us and to our leaders to manifest courage in the face of threats from enemies and tempting but misleading inducements from "friends." The core adult message for our Hanukka is the same as it was for the Maccabees - a sovereign Jewish people living securely in our Land of Israel. It's a message that even a child can understand. The writer is rabbi emeritus of Moreshet Yisrael, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem, and author of Torah Through a Zionist Vision (two volumes) published by Gefen.