Hanukkah arrives this evening and with it the thought of miracles. A great miracle happened there, we proclaim. Nes gadol haya sham.
A miracle? “When Mattathias had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modiin, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.” (I Maccabees 2:23-26) The war was not only against Antiochus Epiphanies but the Jews who supported him. The first battle was in fact Jew against Jew.
How is it that a story of the Maccabees fighting against the Syrian-Greeks, and against the Jews who welcomed their culture, became a story of miracles? It is because the rabbis, living centuries after the Maccabees and the corruption to which their rule gave rise, and following the disastrous revolt against Rome in their own day, reimagined the Hanukkah struggle. It was no longer a story about war, and most especially the civil war that it in fact was, but instead a tale about God’s power and majesty. In the rabbinic imagination Hanukkah becomes not the victorious war story, filled with the battle scarred heroism of Mattathias and his sons, but instead a tale about God’s miracles. Nes gadol haya sham. God’s light brightens a darkened story.
It was the birth of Zionism and the State of Israel that upended the rabbis’ retelling and their philosophy. We must zealously defend Jewish lives, we now believe. Until modern days, rabbis nearly unanimously counseled, we must be weary of such temporal power. We are to rely instead on heavenly might. But who would argue for such complete faith and utter dependence on God today? How do we balance leaving everything in God’s hands and never taking matters into our own hands with the bloodthirsty and power hungry example the Maccabees quickly became? What is the balance that contemporary times require?
We cannot only rely on God’s miracles. I reject those ultra Orthodox Jews, such as Neturei Karta, who believe that Zionism is a sin, who believe that Jews should only gain sovereignty over the land of Israel and over their own lives when God brings this about with the coming of the messiah. Until then we pray for miracles, they counsel. We only focus inward. Their passivity in the face of history’s grindstone threatens all. On the other hand, we must not always take matters into our own hands. I renounce as well those Jewish radicals who recently lit fire to a Jerusalem school where Jews and Arabs study together, who scrawled the hate filled graffiti “Death to Arabs” on its walls. Israeli authorities soon captured these young radicals. Newspapers featured a photograph of the three, held in custody and smiling. Their smirks cast a pall over our people and heritage. Both extremes should be relegated to the past.
A great miracle happened there?
How quickly activism becomes zeal. When there is transformed into here we lose our perspective; when then becomes now we take leave of reality. The here and now becomes tinged with messianic expectations. Righteous anger begins to delude us. How soon indignation becomes zealotry.
We cannot wait for God to save. We must defend Jewish lives. The 20th century, and now the 21st, have most certainly taught us this. And yet we must also continue to pray for God’s help and concern. We pray for miracles. We thank God for the miracles of past generations.
We must stop short of attempting to bring miracles about with our hands. We take to heart the cautionary notes of the Hanukkah tale.
Nes gadol haya sham!