Rabbi’s Essays

A Hanukah Bedtime Story

It all began with Alexander the Great.

He conquered most of the civilized world, and then died. The Empire was divided among his generals. Ptolomy, in particular, took Egypt and Seleuccus acquired Syria. For the next 150 years, their descendents battled over the border between their kingdoms. More often than not, that border involved the Jewish state of Judea (modern Israel).

So it was that on a bright afternoon roughly 2,200 years ago, official representatives of Antiochus V, King of the Seleucid Empire, showed up at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem with a gift. Antiochus had just reestablished control over Judea, and his delegates were following a traditional Greek ritual of bringing a sacrifice to the local shrine, as a sign of respect to local custom. On this day, the officials brought the usual animal employed for this practice-a pig!

You can guess what ensued. The priests objected. The delegates were embarrassed and chagrin. Antiochus ordered harsh retribution, including a takeover of the Temple. The Jews were oppressed and persecuted. A band of brothers, who took the name ‘Maccabee,’ then organized a revolt. Against extraordinary odds, the Maccabees prevailed. The desecrated Temple was cleaned up, purified and rededicated as the site of service to the God of Israel. The holiday of Hanukah was begun.

This is not the story told in Jewish religious schools, nor can I be certain that it is historically accurate. It is known that Greeks-the Syrians were culturally Greek then-did bring sacrifices of pigs to local altars whenever they conquered a city. Thus this version is plausible. Most history books, however, rely on the accounts found in the Apocryphal Books of the Maccabees. Here, the cruelty of Antiochus and the righteous bravery of the Maccabees are emphasized. To this day, the holiday of Hanukah is celebrated as a feast of light and joy, dedicated to religious and spiritual freedom.

The intent of those Syrian delegates seems to be benign. Upon reflection, however, we realize that it was lazy and arrogant. They came to pay respect to local custom, but they did not care about local custom or sensitivities at all. Instead, they assumed that everyone acted pretty much as they did. When the Jews objected, their reaction was harsh and oppressive: How dare this people uphold a ritual practice that is so at odds with our own!

The rest is history.

But Jews do not just celebrate the past. Moreover, the lessons of Hanukah reach beyond the Jewish community. At its heart, the holiday of Hanukah is a meditation on tolerance: religious, cultural and national.

We live in one of the most pluralistic and ethnically diverse nations in the world. Yet, we are also acutely aware that some time in November-it appears to be getting earlier and earlier, often now reaching into October-the country is bathed in Christmas lights, songs, trees and promotions. All at once this secular democratic land becomes Christian. It is crass and commercial, to be sure, but unmistakably Christian. Certain segments of Christian community-usually referred to as the Religious Right-filled with the benign intentions of combating the materialistic excesses of the season, then press for even greater public religious observance. And the minority religions of the country are left to their devices, enduring the six weeks at the end of the year on the sidelines.

The problems of religious tolerance in North America are relatively mild. In Indonesia and the Ivory Coast, Christian and Muslim communities, undoubtedly pressed by the despairing economic conditions, have begun torching each other’s houses of worship. Hindu and Moslem tensions in the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, have the potential to produce a nuclear conflict. We are all quite aware of the violent passions that lead to bloodshed in the Middle East.

But the intolerance is not on behalf of values at all. Rather it is the same arrogance displayed by the ancient Syrian delegates. They too probably characterized their problems with the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem as simply a clash of values.

The enduring brilliance of the celebration of Hanukah is that at this, the coldest and darkest time of the year, we take a lit candle, and with it, light other candles. We refuse to take refuge by huddling in our homes and cursing the forces of cold and darkness about us. We rather turn toward the world-in all its bewildering diversity of values and practices-and attempt to bathe it in warmth and light.