The Three Tales of Chanukah

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, December 15, 2017

Shabbat Shalom! It is great to see you. It feels like a long time since I was last here. I hadn’t expected to be away for so long, but life has a way of evolving in unexpected ways.

It is the 4th night of Hanukkah.  Hanukkah though it recalls events that happened thousands of years ago, feels incredible relevant to the issues with which we struggle today.  What does it mean to be a Jew today?  How do I act in the world?  How do I maintain a Jewish identity as I interact with the outside world?  Where are our boundaries? Our Torah portion, Miketz, and Chanukah have things to say about Jewish identity; about knowing who you are and sticking to your guns when this identity encounters the majority culture and the outside world.

As the story picks up, we find Joseph, Abraham’s great grandson, in jail in Egypt.  He has developed a reputation as a person who can interpret dreams, and when Pharaoh has dreams no one else can understand, he sends for Joseph, the Hebrew.  The Pharaoh asks Joseph “Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell it’s meaning.”   Joseph replies “Not I, (but) God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” i.e., It isn’t me Joseph telling you Pharaoh what will happen, but my god.   With all that has happened to Joseph to date, being thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers, spending years in jail, Joseph does not forget or renounce who he is and where he came from. He is a Hebrew and he believes in the god of Abraham.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and rewards Joseph by making him his 2nd in command.  Joseph becomes fully integrated into Egyptian culture, indeed he is unrecognizable even to his brother’s later in the story.  He is given an Egyptian name and he marries the daughter of Poti-phera, a priest of On.   This is about as Egyptian as one can get on the outside, and together they have two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.   Joseph’s sons grew up integrated and assimilated into the majority culture, but they were raised to know they were Jewish and to value that identity.  Today we when we bless our children on Shabbat evening, we bless them in the name of Ephraim and Manasseh, that our children too will remain faithful to Jewish ideas and values.

Turning to Hanukkah, depending on what it is emphasized in the telling of the story, different messages emerge.

Synopsis of the Story

Found in the Book of Maccabees, the story begins in 168 BCE when the ruler of the Syrian kingdom, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, stepped up his campaign to quash Judaism, so that all subjects in his vast empire — which included the Land of Israel — would share the same culture and worship the same gods.  He marched into Jerusalem, vandalized the Temple, erected an idol on the altar, and desecrated its holiness. Decreeing that studying Torah, observing the Sabbath, and circumcising Jewish boys were punishable by death, he sent Syrian overseers and soldiers to villages throughout Judea to enforce the edicts and force Jews to engage in idol worship.  When the Syrian soldiers reached Modin near Jerusalem, they demanded that the local leader, Mattathias the Kohein, the priest, be an example to his people by sacrificing a pig on a portable pagan altar. The elder refused and killed not only the Jew who stepped forward to do the Syrian’s bidding, but also the king’s representative.  With the rallying cry “Whoever is for God, follow me!” Mattathias and his five sons fled to the hills of the Judean wilderness.  Joined others like them the Maccabees, as they came to be known, fought a guerrilla war against the well-trained, well-equipped Syrian army. In three years, the Maccabees cleared the way back to the Temple Mount, which they reclaimed. They cleaned the Temple and three held a dedication (hanukkah) of the Temple with proper sacrifice, rekindling of the golden menorah, and eight days of celebration and praise to God.

Later, in the centuries following the destruction of the 2nd Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud recast the Hanukkah story to match the image of small group of zealous Jews, ready to martyr themselves. They emphasized God’s intervention on behalf of the Jews who’d been forced by the Greek Syrian King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, to publicly to violate Jewish law.

God as the Hero

The first version of the story is the Hallmark “Sunday school version.”   Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, in the city of Jerusalem, the bad Greeks controlled the Jewish Temple.  But after a miraculous victory, the good Jewish Maccabees took it back.  But when they went inside to relight the golden menorah, instead they found only enough oil for one night.  That the menorah stayed alit while new oil was brought a sure sign that the Shekinah/that God dwelled with the Jews.  Simple narrative, good over evil, by staying true to your Jewish identity, we are victorious, God is with us.   They tried to wipe us out, they failed, now let’s eat~!  There is nothing here that challenges us as Jews of modernity to consider how we are Jewish in the world.

Jewish Civil War

The second message to emerge from the story is that it really about a Jewish civil war.  When read with a focus on why the Maccabees revolted, it is a tale of more traditional Jews rebelling against the Greek aligned, highly acculturation Jews who were now in charge of the Temple. These Jews were not of the traditional priestly line and thus (as the Maccabees saw it) could not oversee proper sacrifices.  These Jews had acculturated into Greek society and were willing to compromise on religious issues as part of their acceptance into the majority culture.

Where do we as Jews of the 21st century fit into the story?

The third idea of Hanukkah is a question for you and me.  Where do we fit into this story?

Are we the zealous Maccabees fighting to protect Jewish law and traditional Temple life, or are we part of the Jewish population trying to balance involvement in the broader culture with Jewish tradition?

Struggles with Jewish identity are nothing new.  Am I a Jewish American or an American Jew?  How do we take the best of the majority culture and blend it with Jewish life while maintaining an authentic and meaningful Jewish identity?  Look at the bicycle menorah I brought tonight.  Today we have menorahs shaped like trees, like the wailing wall and yes, my kids even had a menorasaurus, shaped like a dinosaur.

As we think about the message of Hanukkah and where we fit within the spectrum of Jewish identity and practice; from zealousness to Hellenism, from rigidity to acculturation to assimilation, let us be inspired by Ephraim and Menasseh, the sons of Joseph, who knew who they were, even as they were raised in Egypt as part of the elite. May the lights of the Hanukkah menorah warm your homes and remind you of who you are, that we stand proud and strong as a people, and may these lights guide our way as we go forward beyond the boundaries of our Jewish community.