So first of all, happy Hanukkah. I hope the holiday, and the beauty of the lights, has brought a smile to everyone’s face, and that the latkes (whether you eat them with apple sauce, sour cream, or hot pepper jelly), fill your bellies.
I have one colleague in Israel who teases us every year with his gourmet reviews of all the sufganiot he can sample. As someone who can’t find a decent jelly doughnut, I do get jealous. I have another colleague who has done a virtual Hanukkah “show and tell” with her families, showing off what they’ve been doing and receiving during the eight days.
The way we celebrate Hanukkah is light and fun. We sing. We eat. We exchange gifts (although we know that’s not really part of the holiday tradition). We get the kids excited about being Jewish. And that’s a great thing. A really great thing. We stuff a lot of information in the kids’ heads about Judaism. But doing Jewish, giving Jewish, celebrating Jewish – that’s what stays with them their whole lives.
But Hanukkah isn’t just a kids’ holiday. It isn’t even meant to be a kids’ holiday. Hanukkah carries a lot of lessons for adults. We just have to be willing to take a peek at the darker side of a festival we usually revere for bringing light to our homes and our communities.
As we discussed in our Jewish mysticism class last night, we are all familiar with the classic story we’ve been taught. That the Maccabees – Mattathias and his sons, who lived in southern Israel in the second century BCE — were leading a battle for religious freedom.
That this small band of righteous Jews, galvanized by faith, took on and defeated the powerful Syrian Greeks who had defiled the Temple in Jerusalem with their idols. That the Maccabees purged the Temple and rededicated it to the Israelite God. And when they found only one little bottle of olive oil – enough to light the ner tamid, the Eternal Lamp, over the altar for one night only, a great miracle took place and God made sure the oil lasted for eight days.
In our homes – and in our worship service tonight — we celebrate the victory of the few over the many, of the oppressed over the oppressor. We use the miracle of the light as a reminder of God’s power, and as a symbol of the resilience of the Jewish people through centuries of similar oppression.
But that’s only part of the tale.
Michelle Boorstein, writing in the Washington Post this week, explains that history records a deeper and darker story.
The Maccabees were heroes to some Jews, but villains to others, she reminds us. She calls them “religious zealots” who, in her words,
“were fighting back not only against the religious oppression of the Greeks, but also against fellow Jews who adopted Greek ways, such as idol worship.” The Maccabees themselves killed not only Greeks Syrians but also Hellenized Jews who saw a better future for themselves if they became part of the larger Greek culture.
But even that is just part of the Maccabean story.
Judah Maccabee himself was not just a religious idealogue. As historian Shaye Cohen writes:
“At some point during the struggle the goals of Judah and his party changed. He was no longer fighting for religious liberty but for political independence. He and his brothers after him sought to make Judea free and independent, under the rule of a new dynasty: that of the Maccabees themselves.”
This new dynasty controlled Judea for nearly a hundred years, through five generations. The Maccabees accrued wealth and power. They took on Greek names: Alexander Janneus, Antigonus. They reveled in the decadent and increasingly corrupt wealth of a court with all the trappings of Hellenism. They became exactly what Mattithias had fought against in the first place – which raised fear and loathing among other Jews, especially in Jerusalem, where they had essentially dislodged and replace the old aristocracy.
“Some Jews . . .” writes Cohen, “were prepared to fight against their rulers for the sake of religious freedom, but they were not prepared to support the dynastic pretentions of the Maccabees.”
So when Alexander Janneus’ sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, found themselves fighting each other as proxies in a battle that had engulfed Rome itself, they had few supporters for either claim. In the end, the two brothers gave up and essentially ceded control of Judea to the Romans.
The Maccabean dynasty ended in ignominious fashion. The young Turks, now old, corrupt and incompetent, were overtaken by a new generation beholden to the Romans, and by their young leader. The great-great-great-great granddaughter of Mattithas the Maccabee married this man, who we know as King Herod the Great. And he ruled Judea under the direct control of Rome for more than forty years.
That’s when the battle of Jew against Jew instigated by the Maccabees resumed with a vengeance. The revolt against Rome was compromised from the start by bloody infighting among Jewish sects: Pharisees and Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. The rabbis would say that the Second Temple was destroyed, not because of the Romans, but because of sinchat chinam — senseless hatred of one Jew for another.
This, then, was the final legacy of the Maccabees: the undermining of Jewish sovereignty from without – but also the undermining of Jewish society, community, faith and purpose from within.
And so it’s not surprising really, that the rabbis of the Talmud wanted to change the focus, and the meaning, of Hanukkah. This was not to be remembered as a military victory of men, but of the triumph of faith in God, rewarded by the miracle of the lamp.
But I’d suggest that we might even be misunderstanding this rabbinic story.
The real miracle is not the cruse of oil. The real miracle of the story is that there were rabbis around to create it. The real miracle of the story is that, all these generations later, we are still retelling it, as we light our menorahs each of the eight nights.
We have a phrase we use in Hebrew: “af al pi chen” – which translates to “nevertheless.”
Despite the damage done by generations of Jewish infighting – af al pi chein, nevertheless, the Jews persisted. We survived our own self-immolation. Our faith in God, and a renewed trust in each other, finally had an impact. We recognized that the divisions that tore our nation apart and sent us into exile were not worth it. They are never worth it.
For sure, we still have our internal disagreements. Af al pi chein – nevertheless — we are still, and always, K’lal Yisrael, the worldwide people Israel. We who light the hanukkiah by the windows of our homes, so that the world can see what “Hanukah” – dedication – really looks like.
Rabbi Hillel taught us to begin on the first night by lighting one candle, and increase each night to eight, because we always rise up in holiness. And we always use a shamash, a helper candle, to light the others. In the Jewish mystical tradition that we talked about in class last night, each candle represents the soul of a human being, infused by a spark of divine light that is buried deep inside each of us.
Af al pi chein – nevertheless – despite our differences, we recognize, honor and inspire the lights that dwell in each other. It is a great mitzvah – one that has a healing impact on our world.
You know, at the White House Menorah Lighting on Thursday night, there was a lot of talk about light dispelling darkness, and bring hope into dark places. What caught my attention was when Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff said “Jewish values are American values.”
I thought: What if we turned that around? What if we said: “American values are, at their heart, Jewish values”? In a nation now torn by sinat chinam, maybe we could remind everyone what those values really are.
Here’s what we’ve learned over two thousand years about what makes a nation great:
It is the recognition that we must rely on each other; that we need to live in community and in harmony with each other; and that we have to look out for each other — regardless of our differences.
It is the acknowledgement that nobody makes it in life alone. That self-sufficiency often isn’t possible. And that individual rights – as important as they are — must sometimes yield to communal needs.
Surely, it’s something that our fellow Americans would understand after two years of COVID-induced darkness. Surely, we now understand a little bit better how kindness and care can light a great and powerful spark in another human being.
The candles of the Hanukkah menorah are a physical reminder of that obligation. We cannot do it alone – and we need not do it all. Af al pi chein – nevertheless, if each of us can be a shamash to ignite even one other person’s hidden potential, we help to heal the world.
Kein yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.
©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabbees to the Mishnah, ed. Wayne A. Meeks (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1987), p. 30.