Today (Shabbat) was the last day of my first Jewish holiday in Israel. Chanukah was never one of my favorite holidays and, to tell you the truth, because of its proximity to Christmas, I celebrated it with much more fanfare in the States. It’s not that I didn’t like Chanukah. On the contrary, the magical but simplistic way in which the light from the menorah grows each day as a new candle is added and lit always got me, here, you know. Also, I will never turn down the opportunity to eat latkes and yogurt, latkes and applesauce, latkes and butter, etc. Plus, the dreidel game was always a treat (although I didn’t find anyone who would play with me – maybe they are afraid I would beat them? They’re right. They should be afraid). Okay, so I do like Chanukah, just not as much as Purim, Sukkot or Passover (my personal favorite). And now I have another reason to like Chanukah; it was my first Jewish holiday as an Israeli. As a Jew and as an Israeli I definitely read the story of the Maccabees in a different, more personal light, and (forgetting for one moment my tendency to criticize religious interpretation that disregards historical fact) take hope from a message that is both ancient and contemporary: the mighty are not always victorious. Sometimes, at the critical moment, the weak, outnumbered and outgunned, triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds.
Although this is a general message for all peoples, individuals as well as nations, this is also a message specifically for the Jewish people at this very moment. A raging madman is again declaring publicly and unabashedly his intentions to destroy the Jewish people. Is the world listening? Some, including Benjamin Netanyahu, are comparing this time to the late 1930s, and Ahmedinejad to Hitler. Here’s the difference: this madman could very shortly have nuclear weapons in his possession. What would stop him from blowing up Tel Aviv if given the chance? In the blink of an eye, a good chunk of Israel’s population, Jew and Arab alike, would be incinerated. Is anybody paying attention? As isolated threats, the words of this madman do not scare me. However, combined with his insistence on possessing nukes, his threats to annihilate the Jewish people are terrifying. I’ll spare you the political analysis today and move on a different track.
What about Chanukah? In the traditional story of Chanukah, an evil madman sought to destroy the Jewish people, not by slaughtering them (we’ll get to that when Purim comes), but by forbidding them to practice their religion. He forbade them to circumcise their sons, persecuted them for keeping the Sabbath and only eating kosher food, and forbade them from studying Torah, practices that have united our people and ensured our survival for centuries. Worse, some Hellenized Jews encouraged their fellow Jews to cast off their ancient traditions and embrace the marvels of the modern world. (Sound familiar assimilationists?) This was not an extermination campaign with weapons or arms, at least not in the beginning, but an extermination-by-culture campaign. According to tradition, a small group of courageous, pious and nationalistic Jews, the Maccabees, took back their country and ensured the survival of the Jewish people by preserving an atmosphere that would allow them to practice their religion and traditions freely and pass them on to the next generation. Against all odds, this small band of freedom fighters defeated the mighty Seleucid/Greek army. They were outnumbered and outgunned, and every military and practical assessment would have shown the odds to be against them, but with courage, hope, and innovative never-before-seen guerrilla warfare operations, they were victorious.
The conclusion I draw from this is a feeling of hope and empowerment. We are the Jewish people. We are Israel. They have tried over and over again to destroy us, to annihilate us and to wipe out our memory from the face of the earth, and they have failed. Where are the Pharoahs? Where are the Assyrians and the Babylonians? Where are the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire and the Crusaders? Where are the Inquisitioners and the Fascists? Where is Hitler? Perhaps the Iranian madman doesn’t know his history (he did, after all organize a conference to deny something every intelligent human being, including the Germans who did it, agree happened), or perhaps he thinks he is different. Perhaps he believes he will succeed where Haman, Antiochus, Haj amin al-Husseini and Hitler failed. This is my response: Mr. Madman, the odds are against you. We are not going anywhere. Five hundred years from now your name will be less than a memory, and the Jewish people will still be what they are: a strangely resilient, courageous and peace-loving people.
“But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot out your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel; for they shall soon come home. See now, I am for you; I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown; and I will multiply your population, the whole house of Israel, all of it; the towns shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt; and I will multiply human beings and animals upon you. They shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you shall know that I am Hashem (the LORD). I will lead people upon you – my people Israel – and they shall possess you; and you shall be their inheritance”. –Ezekiel 36.8-12