Chanukah is a festival of lights, filled with yummy (fattening!) food but it is also one of the most exciting stories about the fight to maintain identity and religious freedom, the battle for sovereignty, victory against all odds and an unwavering faith.
THE FIGHT FOR JEWISH FREEDOM
175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the son of Antiochus III, invaded Judea. Part of the Jewish population had assimilated into the Hellenistic customs and culture of the time however others had not. In an attempt to erase Jewish culture and ensure the dominance of the Greek culture, Antiochus erected a statue to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem and demanded the sacrifice of pigs on the altar.
The previous Seleucid King had taken control of the land but had allowed Jews to retain their religious autonomy. Antiochus’s attack on Jewish identity was unbearable and led to the Maccabean revolt.
Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, set the tone in his insistence that Jews must not submit to the pagan religion. His five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah (Yehudah HaMaccabee) led the rebellion. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful.
THE OIL THAT BURNED FOR 8 NIGHTS –
After winning the war, the Maccabees discovered that Antiochus’s soldiers had ransacked the Temple in Jerusalem, defiling everything inside. In order to rededicate the Temple, it was necessary to have oil for the menorah which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. Only one small vessel was found, undefiled, with enough oil to burn for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of pure oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.
THE VICTORY OF THE FEW OVER THE MANY AND RETURN TO JEWISH SOVEREIGNTY -
How did the small band of rag-tag soldiers defeat what was then the most powerful army in the world? Many of us focus on the miracle of the oil rather than the miracle of this stunning military victory but from the writings of the historian Josephus Flavius we learn that in the first few years Chanukah was not celebrated with lighting the Chanukah lights, an indication that the celebration was more about the return to Jewish sovereignty and freedom than the miracle of light.
Could one victory exist without the other? Would it really be possible to attain the victory of the Maccabees without their faith and dedication to Jewish values, Jewish nationhood, Jewish rights, and freedoms?
CONNECTION TO THE LAND
The Chanukah story originates in Judea. The Maccabees lived and died there. You can visit their graves today. The Chanukah story culminates in the Temple on the Temple Mount in the heart of Jerusalem.
Today there are those who declare that Jews have no connection to the Temple Mount, that there was never a Jewish Temple and that Judea is the West Bank, land that "belongs to Palestinians". The Chanukah story reminds us of three foundational truths:
1. Jews are from Judea. The Maccabees were and so are we!
2. The Temple Mount is named after the ancient Jewish Temple which the Maccabees freed!
3. We, the Nation of Israel, are the descendants of warriors who, by keeping the flames of faith alive for centuries, have returned to our indigenous homeland.