My Son the Jewish Hero
Stop any Jewish child and ask them what Chanuka represents. The chances are that they will tell you that Chanuka is all about heroism. It’s about the Maccabees going to war against an enormous, well-oiled and powerful army and winning against all the odds.
That is something to be proud of. A bunch of wimpy Jews besting the Ancient Greeks at what they do the best – warring. The Maccabees were a small band of Priests who knew nothing whatsoever about warfare or military tactics. Yet they had no fear and led their tiny group of like-minded followers in a guerrilla insurgency which, to everyone’s amazement, led to driving the Greeks out of Jerusalemand re-dedicating the HolyTemple. What an incredible feat!
Many times over the years around Chanuka I have heard comments like, “You know, we Jews, when our backs are to the walls, we can fight as well as anyone else!” I have even seen Menorahs built of figurines of Maccabees who seem to share a striking similarity to the Greeks that they were fighting against – tall, muscular, well-armed!
But that is really not what Chanuka is about at all. The battles and the wars are a “small, side-issue”. What is often overlooked is the reason that the Priests chose to go to war against the Greek Empire. After all, the Greeks had no interest in annihilating the Jews in Israelat the time. Quite the opposite – their interests were that the Jews would stay put and live in their land. But with one caveat – they had to live as Hellenists. They had to embrace Greek culture, to let go of their “old fashioned” ways. Yes, to retain their Jewish “flavor” but their first responsibility had to be to the Greek Empire and not to Judaism.
In order to implement their plan the Greeks outlawed many basic Jewish rites such as circumcision and keeping Shabbat. And, most dastardly of all, they forbade the learning of Torah because they knew that Jewish identity comes, first and foremost, through the Holy Torah. They understood that if they could disconnect the Jews from their Torah they would ultimately be able to disconnect them from everything.
And they almost succeeded.
If it weren’t for a band of non-violent Priests who had never witnessed warfare up close before. When it became clear what the Greeks were attempting to do the Priests raised up the banner of service to God and for the first time in Jewish history went to war to be able to continue the study of the Holy Torah. They didn’t go out to battle to stay alive physically as had always been the reason for going to war up until now. Rather, they fought in order to allow themselves and all the future generations to learn God’s Torah and lead lives that grant us the spiritual blessings that God promised us.
It transpires that real heroism in Judaism is not quite the same as in the outside world. Our heroes are those who, like the Maccabees of old, are prepared to sacrifice everything in this physical world in order to retain their spiritual identities.
During the days of Chanuka, Rabbi Yisrael Spira – known as the Rebbe of Bluzhev (the place where he served as Rabbi until the Holocaust) – lit candles in the Bergen-Belsenconcentration camp. “Candles” was perhaps, a rather grandiose term for what they had. They had managed to secrete a few smears of boot polish for the fuel of their “candles” and their “wicks” were strands of cloth taken from their own threadbare uniforms. Once, when he recited the blessings, a Jew asked him a question: “Rabbi, even if you stubbornly lit the Chanuka candles and recited the blessings of Lehadlik Ner Shel Chanuka and She’asa Nissim Le’avoteinu, what justification do you have in reciting the third blessing, Shehecheyanu Vekiyemanu Vehigiyanu Lazman Hazeh – Who has kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this time? During a time in which thousands of Jews are dying terrible deaths, why would you say Shehecheyanu?”
“I too asked myself this question,” the Rabbi replied. “I had no idea when I stood in the barracks and started to recite the blessings how I was going to say Shehecheyanu until I looked behind me and I saw that a large crowd had gathered – risking their own lives in so doing – to watch the lighting of the candles. By the very fact that God has such loyal children – prepared to give their lives for the lighting of the candles – by that very fact alone we may recite Shehecheyanu!”
Much has been written post-Holocaust about the way that the Jews went to their deaths in the camps. Some of it has been terribly derogatory but none of it is true. The Jews went to their deaths in as heroic a way as is possible. They died knowing that they were being murdered simply because they were Jewish. On Chanuka – when we commemorate the heroism of the Maccabees – it is imperative that we understand clearly that their heroism was of a spiritual nature. Not physical. Their motivation was based solely on the fact that without the Torah we have no future, and, if we have no future, then we have no present either.
This year, as we recite the blessings for the very first time and we say those immortal words – Shehecheyanu Vekiyemanu Vehigiyanu Lazman Hazeh, perhaps it would be correct to pause for a moment and to contemplate how much we truly have to thank the One “Who has kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this time” and to offer up a prayer of thanks to all our Jewish heroes throughout history. They have all given us our future, but, by doing so they have given us our present as well – and for that we must be truly grateful.