My eleven year-old son loves learning about history. The American Revolution and WW II have captured his attention for the moment. For the next eight days though, I hope his attention will be captured by a time in history that is mainly celebrated by Jews, but that we, a non-Jewish family, will commemorate as well.
Chanukah commemorates a military victory. That victory involved untrained Jewish farmers turning into soldiers, like minutemen, and battles against Greeks on elephants. You know, the kind of stuff an eleven year-old boy finds fascinating. And although I find underdogs and elephants fascinating too, the message of the Maccabees’ resistance resonates strongly with me for other reasons. I’m a mother who wants to raise her children to be brave, strong, and to be people who don’t always follow the crowd, especially when the crowd is heading in the wrong direction.
Unfortunately, that is what many Jews did centuries ago when the Greeks came to town. They followed the wrong crowd. During the Second Century BCE, the path of a Greek king of the Seleucid Empire named Antiochus crossed with Israel. Antiochus changed his name to Epiphanes, which means “visible God.” Yes, he had a few egocentric issues. He liked to think that he and the god Jupiter were identical. Because of little idiosyncrasies like that people called him “the Madman.” And unfortunately the madman took out his “issues” on the Jews in Israel.
Antiochus had his sights set on ruling Egypt. And the rode to Egypt went through Israel. Hence, he wanted to conquer the Jews. But he didn’t want to conquer them physically. The madman was actually quite brilliant on one level. He knew that the real way to conquer a Jew was to conquer him spiritually, for that is where the true power of a Jew resides - in his connection to God. Bottom-line, Antiochus wanted to Hellenize the Jews.
He implemented his goal of Hellenization by forbidding the keeping of the Sabbath and Rosh Chodesh (the observance of the New Moon, hence the observance of life according to “Jewish time”), circumcision (the sign of being in covenant with God), and the study of Torah. So, in essence, he banned the cornerstones of the Jews’ connection to God. He also had the audacity to put up a statue of Jupiter in the Holy Temple because it resembled him, and more importantly he thought he was God, so as madmen go, he thought he should be worshipped. And to add insult to injury, he slaughtered pigs on the altar of the Holy Temple too.
Unfortunately, many Jews went along with everything Antiochus did. They liked the Greeks modus operandi. Though seen as extremely intelligent, the Greeks way of thinking was actually much more simplistic than Judaism. A Greek mindset was often one-dimensional; a totally external approach to the world, emphasizing physical pleasure disconnected from anything deeper. Sound familiar? Hence, the Greeks elevated the physical to be of utmost importance. The Greek’s glorification of the physical left little to no room for spirituality. And this way of thinking made Judaism, or more aptly put, made Torah observance look rather foolish. A Torah/Biblical outlook in life imbued godliness and spirituality into everything. Greeks spurned that notion. And sadly, many Jews joined the Greek’s way of thinking and shrugged off the fact that the most important things in life can’t be seen with physical eyes. They traded in their spirituality for . . . drum roll please . . . cultural normalcy.
And that, my friends, is why my family and I will light candles for eight nights. Because we are right smack in the middle of that same kind of battle. We are living in a culture that is anything but normal. Yet everyday our culture would love for you and I to believe that being a person who includes spiritual insight in our day-to-day lives is not only abnormal, but also absurd. We are in the midst of a battle of continuing to elevate the spiritual aspects of life while living in culture of materialism, self-gratification, and the glorification of “if it feels good, do it.” We live in a one-dimensional culture where the belief in, much less the implementation of spiritual values is often considered foolish. And though it might seem unimportant, menial, or silly to some, lighting candles during Chanukah is a way of reminding ourselves to be light in a culture of darkness.
The Maccabees represented Jews who did not fall prey to the Greek mindset. They stood up to the cultural normalcy that the Greeks tried to implement and said, “No!” They stood up for their beliefs, because their beliefs represented the fact that there is a God in this world, and if they didn’t include Him in their world, their world would be nothing.
So no, my family won’t be celebrating Chanukah like our Jewish friends do. I don’t know how to cook latkes or kugel. But I do have a candleholder that has places for eight candles. Eight for the number of days the great menorah in the Temple burned with the little oil that was found when the Temple was finally taken back from the Greeks. Yet, what I will think about this year when I light the candles is not so much about the miracle of oil. But the fact that in a culture that tried to suck the heart and soul out of spiritual people, there was still a group of people, though they be few in numbers, who remained spiritual. And I will think of all the “miraculous” people I am privileged to know today. Those who in the midst of darkness still shine God’s light. Who in a one-dimensional culture, see beyond the material world. And who are as abnormal as they come, in a cultural of "normalcy."