Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Happy Fifth Night of Chanukkah!

"The purpose of the celebration of Hanukkah is to welcome the Messiah. Peace is the Messiah. We light candles of peace to renew our faith in the ultimate triumph of peace over war. And we rededicate ourselves and our efforts to bringing this about."
--Rabbi Yaakov Bar Nachman, The Hanukkah Haggadah,
(San Francisco: Barah Books, 1986), p. 17.
The events of Hanukkah took place during the 400-year period between the writing of the last book of Hebrew Scriptures and the first book of the New Testament.
The Jewish people were under Persian rule until Alexander defeated the Persians in 331 B.C. Ten years later Alexander died and his kingdom was divided among his generals. While all of them were Greek, they were far from harmonious. Syria was under the Seleucids and Egypt under the Ptolemies. Judea was caught in between.
The system of government for Jews changed under Greek rule. The Persians had been content to place a governor in Israel who primarily concerned himself with enforcing imperial civil laws and the payment of taxes. The Greek conquerors demanded compliance and conformity in religious practices as well. For the better part of the 3rd century B.C., the Jewish people were under the domination of the Greco-Egyptians. With the Persians, a foreign governor had been installed, but not so with the Ptolemies. Instead, the High Priest of Israel served as both political ruler and religious representative.
Along with this greater degree of self-rule came pressure to conform to Greek ways. This gave rise to political factions in Judea; some were more disposed to the Greco-Syrians, others to the Greco-Egyptians. Wars were frequent and eventually the Syrians conquered the Jewish land. The Seleucids were even more dedicated to inculcating Greek culture and customs on the people than the Egyptians. In order to conform, Jews adopted Greek names, wore Greek-style garments and adopted Greek ways.
Antiochus IV was the Syrian ruler. He called himself "Epiphanes" (the visible god). The now corrupted position of High Priest had been assumed by a Hellenized Jew, Jason, formerly called Joshua. Jason was considered a "moderate" Hellenist and so he was replaced by an even more Hellenistic Menelaus (formerly Menachem).
The Persians had only wanted tribute from the Jewish people. The Greek successors to Alexander, especially Antiochus IV, held to a belief in the superiority of the Greek way of life and wanted much more. Hellenism encouraged intellectual pursuits and a polite, highly civilized society, but it also involved idolatry and exalted the wisdom of mankind.
The Hellenists had nothing but disdain for the Jewish religion and the Jewish way of life, and they set about to "civilize" the people of Judea by forcing them into the Greek mold. Only those who would renounce the "old ways" and embrace the new, including the worship of Greek gods, could have a place in this idealized Greek society. "Whoever refuses should be put to death," it was decreed. And many were. This rejection of Hellenism infuriated the Syrian king and we read in I Maccabees of the persecution that ensued:
The Books of the Law which they (the Hellenists) found, they tore into pieces and burned. Wherever a book of the covenant was found in anyone's possession, or if anyone respected the Law, the decree of the king imposed the sentence of death upon him. Month after month, they dealt brutally with every Israelite who was found in the cities… In accordance with the decree, they put to death the women who had circumcised their children, hanging the newborn babies around their necks; and they also put to death their families as well as those who had circumcised them…
The Holy Temple was defiled. The golden altar, the candlesticks and all the gold and silver utensils were looted from the Temple and desecrated. And to show his utter contempt for Judaism, Antiochus offered a sow on the altar to honor the Greek god, Zeus.
During these dark times of devastation, it is said that Mattathias, an elderly priest from Modin, defied a Syrian soldier who ordered him to bow down to an idol. Instead he struck down the soldier and fled from the city to the hills of Judea. With his five sons and a few other faithful Jews, Mattathias formed a band of guerrilla fighters. They were faithful to the God of Israel and would not countenance Greek idolatry and, in zealous contempt, rejected Greek culture. They were called Hasmoneans, though no one seems to know how that name came about. Unlike the other Jewish resistance fighters, they believed that for self-defense purposes, it was permissible to fight on the Sabbath. Until this time, the Greeks could prevail by ordering their attack on the Sabbath.
This guerrilla company was valiantly successful in its skirmishes with the Syrian soldiers. The rebels grew in number and in the ability to fight, inflicting great damage on the Syrian forces with their "hit and run" tactics. According to the account in the extrabiblical writings, Mattathias died within a year of their formation and his son Judah took charge. He was called "Maccabee," "hammer," for it was said that he was God's hammer to smash the Syrians.
History and legend seem interwoven, but as best as we can piece it together, there were three years of fighting, surprise attacks, night raids and ambushes by these tough Jewish fighters.
Antiochus sent his ablest general, Lysias, to destroy the Hasmoneans. From their mountain camp, a war-worn group of 3,000 Jewish fighters watched as 47,000 Syrian soldiers marched across the plain to engage them in battle. As the story goes, the faithful band of Maccabees, with God on their side, vanquished the Syrians at Emmaus. Judah Maccabee marched into Jerusalem and set about to purify the Temple. Idols were torn down, and the altar which had been defiled with the sacrifice of pigs was dismantled and a new one built. New holy vessels were crafted. A date was set for the rededication of the Temple-the 25th of Kislev, the same day on which, three years earlier, Antiochus had issued his decree.
Tradition says that when Judah offered prayers of dedication in the Temple in 165 B.C., only one vessel of sanctified oil was found--enough for one day. Miraculously, it burned for eight days. This is remembered by the kindling of lights for eight days.

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