The story of Hanukkah is nothing new to those of us who grew up in Jewish households. The years of our youth are filled with the memories of playing dreidel, receiving gelt, and lighting Hanukkah candles. This is how I would describe the celebration of Hanukkah. The story of Hanukkah however is a different matter.
How does one begin to relate a story that captivates the mind in a most fascinating way? Well. the only way I know to do this, is to tell that story in a way that it has never been told. To present the story from a perspective that has never been seen. To parallel the old story with something new!
The holiday which occurs during the Christmas season, is considered a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. However, there is a new perspective that would suggest that Hanukkah is anything but a minor occurrence in Jewish history. On the contrary the story of Hanukkah is a saga that seems to jump right off the pages of the Book of Maccabees, right into the twenty first century and in the process makes itself surprisingly relevant to the Jewish society of today.
The common denominator between Jerusalem today and Jerusalem then is the struggle for survival! The Israel of today is a modern Jewry that is very diverse. There are black Jews, White Jews, religious Jews and secular Jews, there are even “Jews for Jesus”. On the other hand the Judea in the days of the Maccabees was also diverse. There were black Jews, religiously observant Jews and secular Jews known as “Hellenized” Jews.
Try to imagine if you will the story of Hanukkah as it unfolds against the backdrop of a uniquely diverse Jerusalem. Imagine Judea located in a geographical region of the world, that had been for quite some time considered a cultural melting pot. Imagine a world where people were identified by their culture and religion not by their “Race” or “color”. Now you’re looking at Hanukkah in a new perspective; one that says that Jews are not a race, but they are a people. A people who are in a desperate battle to preserve their way of life! The struggle was against the mighty Greek Empire and their appointed Governor to the region, Antiochus, King of Syria.
Adding fuel to the fire was none other than the Hellenized Jews who thought that assimilation was the way to go. It was those same pluralistic-minded Hellenized Jews that forwarded a plan to Antiochus, urging him to formulate a Greek constitution for Judea. The plan called for the full Hellenization of Israel and Jerusalem. During the implementation of the plan to fully Hellenize Israel, the High Priest was replaced by a Hellenized Priest who was not even a Jew!
Antiochus, boosted by the support of the Hellenized Jews went even further. He had his Enforcers go from town to town making people bow down to pagan idols. Statues were erected in the Temple. Pigs were sacrificed on the altar, and thousands of people died resisting the decrees of Antiochus. The people of Israel were desperate for deliverance as they demanded that something be done. The Tzadekim known as “the righteous ones of Judea” prayed for deliverance, and G-d heard their prayer!
Enter Mattityahu, a righteous Priest and his sons who formed a rebel force known as the Maccabees. Leading the fighting forces was none other than Judah Maccabee- also known as, “The Hammer”! Meanwhile, the brains of the operation was his brother Shimon, “The Wise”. It was his shrewd strategies that made the Maccabees a force to be reckoned with. The Maccabees were successful with early raids against the Syrian army gaining valuable supplies and much needed equipment. Antiochus, however was determined to shut down this rebel force. He moved expeditiously to dispatch his most elite fighting forces under the leadership of General Apollonius. The General looked for a quick and decisive victory over what he considered to be an inferior force. But remarkably and miraculously, the Maccabees decimated the General and his forces reducing them to a heap!
Now, Antiochus was furious, and he really meant business! This time, he sent out a fighting force of over forty thousand men under the leadership of TWO generals! As the report of this massive force approaching to undo the Maccabees reached the elderly Mattityahu, he knew he would not live to see the final battle. So he assembled his sons together to give them a blessing and final instructions. When Judah and his brothers rejoined the freedom fighters known as the Maccabees, Judah addressed the men with a passionate speech and at the end of the rally every man vowed to fight till the last man.
Shimon gave the final instructions, per his father Mattityahu. The battle array was set to assemble at Mitzpah -the place where Samuel the Prophet often prayed. It would be the place where Judah and his Maccabees were to make their final supplications to G-d before the anticipated eminent battle. The time had come, and the moment of truth was at hand. As the force of forty thousand men bore down on the Maccabees, G-d was with them. Miraculously once again, after a series of lightening quick strikes, the contingency of forty thousand men were reduced to a rag-tag band of several motley mobs tactically employing rear guard and retreating maneuvers.Judah had prevailed and his Maccabees were victorious! All that remained to be done was the re-dedication of the Temple. Idols and statues were removed, the remains of unclean animals were removed, and the Altar was consecrated. At the end of the day, all seemed right with the world once again. After all the hard work of cleaning everything and putting the Temple back in order. It was discovered that there was only enough oil to kindle the menorah for just one day. But not to worry, this is after all the season of miracles. Miraculously the oil burned for eight days, long enough for fresh oil to be made.
After the dedication, the whole community of Jews came together not as a “race” but as a people! This is how it was with something old. But let us make a parallel comparison and fast forward to something new. Unfortunately,today we see a Jewry that struggles to accept its Black Jewish brothers and sisters in America. The problem is, European Jews of the diaspora don’t have to convert in order to be accepted as Jews. But we the Black Jews of America do. With that being said, let it be known that I am an optimist, and I believe that through proper channels of communication a miracle can happen.
I wonder what the patriots of Hanukkah would say, if they were here today? Perhaps Mattityahu would instruct his sons to lead a peaceful protest where the slogans would be chanted. I could hear the Maccabees now saying………”Hands up! Don’t Shoot! our Black Brothers only want the same right to return to the motherland without being forced to convert!”. Then, I could see people from all walks of Judaism here in America joining in with chants of “I Can’t Breathe! Don’t smother our brothers just because their skin is a different color!” Just Imagine, one day, a miracle happening in the land of Israel with all the people joining together with one voice saying “Black Lives Do Matter in Judaism!” How wonderful would that be? It’s not impossible you know. All it takes is a little Dedication. All it takes is a little Hanukkah!
-Robert Azriel Devine.
Do you think Black lives will matter among Jewry?
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*this article was lightly edited for historical accuracy.