The story of Hanukkah is a story of zealotry.
The Maccabees took up arms against the mighty Syrian-Greek army. They eventually defeat them and rededicate the Temple. Hanukkah means dedication. The Maccabees also battled against their coreligionists who were enamored of Greek culture. In fact the Maccabees first killed a fellow Jew who was attempting to offer a sacrifice to the king.
For the Maccabees there was no room for those who did not think like them. Either you were with them or against them. Either you were fighting with them or against them and if against them, then subject to their wrath. While such extreme devotion provided them with the passion to fight against seemingly insurmountable odds, it also divided the world into two distinct categories, us and them. Eventually everyone called they becomes the enemy.
And eventually, such passion becomes all consuming.
250 years later the descendants of the Maccabees committed mass suicide on Masada. After the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, these zealots ran to the desert and there on Masada’s hilltop fortress held off the mighty Roman army for several years. Rather than be taken prisoner by the Romans, the zealots decided it was better to take their own lives.
Zealotry consumes itself. This is the lesson of history.
It is for the peacemakers to tell their heroic tales. Meditate on this fact. We are not the descendants of the zealots. We are not the descendants of the Maccabees. We are instead the descendants of the rabbis whose leader brokered a compromise with the Roman authorities that if discovered by the zealots would have been declared a traitor and killed. The rabbis were by the way also persecuted by the Maccabees. They were viewed as weak. They compromised too much. They made accommodations in order to keep on teaching. Hanukkah also means education.
Contemplate another historical fact. The Essenes, who were contemporaries of the zealots and rabbis, established a desert commune in Qumran where they taught their revolutionary (and I would add, overly zealous) spiritual practices. They practiced denial. Scholars suggest that Jesus was from this community given the similarity between some early Christian teachings and those of the Essenes. One of their practices was celibacy. Guess what. Do I have to spell this out? Celibacy is not good for producing descendants.
There are no more Essenes. We are likewise not their descendants. Again, zealotry consumes itself. It might take hundreds of years but eventually zealots disappear from history.
There is instead a direct line between the rabbis, the peacemakers, the compromisers, and us.
It is the peacemakers who survive history. It is the peacemakers who tell the heroic stories of others. No one of course writes books about their exploits. Compromise makes for little drama. No one ordains a holiday about them. And yet it is the rabbis who fashion the holidays and tell the stories.
It is compromise that enabled the Jewish people to survive for millennia. It is making peace that has ensured our survival.
Zealots might win the day. Peacemakers, however, make history. Eventually!