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Another week of war

Another week of war

Yet another week of emotional whiplash from the events in Israel. The seesaw of emotions – from some measure of relief at seeing hostages released (although forever scarred and many coming home to f their immediate family members were murdered) to the horror of the continuing Hamas terror activities (once again wantonly murdering civilians in Israel proper) – is exhausting. Sadly, the pain and suffering that are the inevitable outcomes of war are not foreign to the national psyche of the Jewish people.

The good news is that, although throughout several millennia of history, the Jewish nation has seen more than its fair share of wars, the Jewish nation has not only survived but thrived. It can even be argued that it has contributed – perhaps more than any other people – to the development and progress of humanity over the last three thousand years.

Today's Israel Defense Forces (IDF), a recognized superior military power, has its roots in history as well. This week we celebrate the holiday of Hanukah, which commemorates the victory of the ancient Maccabees and Jewish values over the Hellenistic culture of the Greek Empire. To give you a brief taste of the instability in the region here is a “CliffsNotes” version of that history.

After the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in 586 BCE, they were defeated by the Persians and Israel became a vassal state for two centuries to Persia. During this time the Persians allowed the Jewish people to rebuild the Holy Temple and life resumed some semblance of normalcy.

Then along came Alexander the Great and his quest for world domination. Alexander the Great conquered Persia and in doing so most of the world. At that time Persia controlled most of the world and in the blink of an eye it all fell to the Greeks. Israel suddenly found itself the vassal state of Macedonia, a Greek state.

This “great” Greek empire lasted no longer than Alexander’s brief life; after his death, in-fighting between his generals led to the division of his empire among three generals. One general, Antigonus and then later Ptolemy, inherited Egypt; another, Seleucus, inherited the Middle East and Mesopotamia.

After two centuries of peace under the Persians, the Hebrew state found itself once again caught in the middle of a power struggle between two great empires: the Seleucid state, with its capital in Syria to the north, and the Ptolemaic state, with its capital in Egypt to the south. Israel would be conquered first by one, and then by the other, as it shifted from being a Seleucid vassal state to a Ptolemaic vassal state. Between 319 and 302 BCE, Jerusalem changed hands seven times.

Like most others in the region, the Jews bitterly resented the Greeks. They were more foreign than any group they had ever seen. In a state founded on maintaining the purity of the Jewish religion and Torah values, the gods of the Greeks were wildly offensive. In a modest society that was rigidly opposed to the exposure of the body, the Greek practices of wrestling in the nude and dressing skimpily were quite appalling. The culture clash between authentic Judaism and Greek Hellenism made them incompatible.

In 167 BCE, the Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus decided it was time to destroy Judaism and incorporate the Land of Israel and its inhabitants into his empire. His soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.

However, the evil Antiochus knew that a mere physical attack on the Jews would not accomplish his goal. Instead, he decided to focus on destroying the structure of Judaism. He knew that the secret to the survival and longevity of the Jewish people lay in the highly structured personal and communal lifestyle dictated by the Torah. Antiochus was no fool – he knew that the only way to destroy Judaism was to disassemble that structure.

First, he prohibited studying and teaching the Torah. Next, he issued a ban prohibiting the practice of three mitzvot (commandments):

1) Shabbat observance

2) sanctifying of the new month (establishing the first day of the month by testimony of witnesses who saw the new moon)

3) brit mila (entering the Covenant of Abraham through Torah-ordained circumcision).

Why these three mitzvot? Shabbat observance signifies that God is the creator and sustainer of the universe and that His Torah is the blueprint of creation – imbuing the world with meaning and values.

Sanctifying the new moon determines the monthly calendar and the exact dates of the Jewish holidays. Without a functioning calendar there would be communal chaos.

Brit mila (circumcision) is a sign of our eternal covenant with the Almighty and articulates our inclusion into the covenant that God established with our forefather Abraham when He gave him the mitzvah of circumcision and established him as the first Jew.

Thus, these three mitzvot form a foundation for the structure of Judaism. Antiochus knew that without them our cultural integrity would quickly deteriorate, and we would slowly submit to the Greek culture.

A family of Jewish priests – Matityahu and his five sons, known as the Maccabees – would not have it. They started a revolt and three years later succeeded in evicting the oppressors. The victory was a true miracle – on the scale of present-day Israel defeating the combined forces of all of today’s super-powers.

Once the Jewish people regained control of the Temple in Jerusalem, they wanted to rededicate it immediately. In order to do so, they needed ritually pure olive oil to re-light the menorah in the Temple, which was a part of the Temple’s nightly service. However, only a single cruse of oil was found, just enough to burn for one day though they needed oil for eight days – the time it would take for new ritually pure olive oil to be produced. A miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days. Thus, the Temple was rededicated; in fact, Hanukah means “to dedicate” in Hebrew!

This year, Hanukah begins on Thursday night, December 7th and continues for eight nights with the last night of lighting being on Thursday, December 14th (for some reason the Jewish calendar put out by Publix supermarkets has Hanukah mistakenly beginning on Friday night. This is important to note because Publix has almost 1400 stores throughout the Southeastern United States and their Jewish calendars are ubiquitous throughout the region).

To commemorate the miracle, we light Hanukah candles (or better yet, lamps with olive oil) for eight days. One light the first day, two the second, and so forth. The first candle is placed to the far right of the menorah with each additional night’s candle being placed to the immediate left. One says three blessings the first night (only two blessings each subsequent night) and then lights the candles, starting with the furthermost candle to the left, the newest candle.

In honor of Hanukah, here are some little-known facts about this special holiday.

  1. While the holiday of Hanukah celebrates the victory following the three-year war between the Maccabees and the Seleucid Greek Empire, it took another two decades for the Maccabees to evict the Seleucids from the entirety of ancient Israel.

  2. The Hanukah celebration, which began with the rededication of the Temple, took place on the 25th of the Jewish month known as Kislev. The 25th of Kislev was already very significant in ancient Jewish history. The temporary Temple that the Jewish people constructed under the direction of Moses during their 40 years of wandering the Sinai desert was completed on the 25th of Kislev. Additionally, the foundation stone for the Second Temple (515 BC) was laid on the 24th of Kislev and the celebration took place that evening (the 25th of Kislev).

  3. The 25th word in the Torah is “ohr – light.” This is most fitting for the holiday known as the “Festival of Lights.”

  4. The 25th place that the Jewish people camped during their 40 years of wandering in the desert is called “Hashmonah” (Numbers 33:29). This is uncannily similar to the name “Hasmonean,” which is the name of the Judaic dynasty that ruled as a result of miraculous defeat of the Seleucids.

  5. The menorah on the emblem of the State of Israel is actually taken from the image of the menorah found on the Arch of Titus in Rome. That menorah, which depicts the menorah that was taken to Rome at the destruction of the Second Temple, is different from the one we use on Hanukah. The one used in the Temple had seven branches, while the menorah that is used on Hanukah has eight branches (representing the miracle of eight days of Hanukah) plus an elevated ninth place for the candle known as the shamash, which is used to light the others.

  6. Maimonides writes that the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukah candles is greatly beloved and one must make every effort to fulfill this mitzvah. He ends with the following beautiful sentiment, “Light in the home promotes shalom (peace) and the Torah was given in order to promote peace in the world.”

So this year, as you’re lighting your Hanukah candles, think of the lights you’re kindling as bringing peace into this world and pray for the return of the hostages and an end to Hamas reign of terror. I wish you all a Happy Hanukah.



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