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Did the Maccabees Win?

Friday, 20 December, 2019 - 7:24 am

Did the Maccabees win? Would we have rooted for them? 

Were they fighting the bad guys? They were fighting the Greeks: Athens! The best of Western culture has its roots in Greece. Form graceful columns to Homer to Hippocrates,

sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later. Think of something more pleasant than a sound mind and body. I defy you.

Even the the Maccabees have morphed into a warped Athenian tribute. Maccabiah, the sports competition that draws Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek.

The Maccabean revolt began – in large measure – when a gymnasium went up in Jerusalem. Irony of ironies, perhaps. Overlooked, no doubt; but facts are stubborn things.

We identify with sound-mind-sound-body. We long for it.  Then why are we celebrating Chanukah? Why do Jews who insist they are “secular”, who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews sacrifice in their Temple, why do such Jews celebrate Chanukah?  Why then, in homes no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown, is the menorah lit?

I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December. But centuries before retail found December, the Good Books told of how Chanukah -- alone among the holidays – would never be forgotten.

Chanukah makes no sense. The Talmud concedes that the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days, according to the letter of the law. But the Jews then were not being legalistic; they weren’t looking for loopholes. 

They were in a fight for Jewish identity itself. They recognized the threat of malicious Greeks, they recognized the threat of theoretically benign Hellenists. Their devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai. 

Sound-body-sound-mind connects body and mind.

It offers no ladder to the soul. 

The Macabees knew that without a conscience to bug you,

the body and mind are at peace. Like animals in pasture.

But if G-d wanted us to be nothing more than content,

He wouldn’t need anything more than cows.

Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies? Not at all. 

Not then; while the menorah shone for eight days, battles waged within earshot of the Temple Mount. Not now, Greece still lives well thank you, even in Jerusalem. Is there a Jew alive today that is not intrigued or entranced by the theater or gymnasium? However they react to its allure: acceptance, resistance or repugnance they are all dialectically related to it. No, the Greeks are not vanquished.

 

But the Maccabees were not either. And that  is a miracle. That in the shadows of gas chambers, in the cockpits of spacecraft and on the foremost boulevards of the greatest cities, the candle still burns. 

 

That in heimish neighborhoods of lakes, dreidels and Chanukah oy Chanukah, and also in homes that wouldn’t have a Chagall or a little wooden camel from Israel because it’s ‘too Jewish’, in these homes too, Chanukah has not been forgotten. There is that pure flame that shines, unconquered and unwavering, and that is a miracle that is a victory. 

 

There is a future, foreseeable or not, when the glitz of Greece will not diminish the flame -- only add luster to it. 

Then Moshiach himself will be lighting the candle. A flame.

 A witness of a people who – at the end of the very long day – did not waiver.

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