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Grading Hanukkah

Here we are back to the joy of Hannukah. We all, clearly, love Hannukah. The combination of flames, gifts and calories is irresistible. But there’s a nagging voice in our brains asking all these questions. Why 8 days? Who exactly were we fighting? And, the most disturbing of all, were the Chashmona’im, ultimately, good guys? After all they spawned a kingdom that killed a lot of rabbis, under Alexander Yanai and Herod. 

To begin this inquiry, I’d like to refer to the Haftorah for Shabbat Hannukah. We read this vision of Zecharia (2:14-4:17), which is, to say the least complicated. This vision preceded the building of the Second Beit HaMikdash. It contains scenes of Satan attacking the Cohen Gadol. Then we have a vision of a MENORA (the Temple kind, with seven branches), being fed by two olive trees. Finally, we have the inspiring declaration: Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts. 

Cool! But what does it all mean? This Haftorah is read on Hannukah (and BTW Baha’aloticha) because of the Menorah connection. This central image envisions the renewed Temple service which will be centered on this symbol of enlightenment and clarity. That’s what we desire, clarity emerging from the chaos and tragedy of that exile in Bavel, during the time of Zecharia, and the terrible war against Hellenized Syrians and Jews, during the age of the Matityahu, scion of the Chashmona’im. 

The Ramban is very critical of that family for usurping the throne which rightly belonged only to descendants of Yehuda, through David Hamelech. On the verse, ‘The scepter shall never depart from Yehuda’ (Breishit 49:10), the Ramban wrote: This explains the punishment of the Chashmona’im, who reigned at the time of the second Beit HaMikdash. For even though they were tremendously pious, and had it not been for them the Jews would have forgotten the Torah and the mitzvot, they were nevertheless dealt a severe punishment. For this sin, they were entirely wiped out. 

But is that the Political Science lesson from the Hannukah story? I think not. First of all, the verses from Zecharia are clear that there should be an explicit separation of power between the spiritual leadership of the Cohen Gadol, Yehoshua, and the political leadership of the king, Zerubavel. I hope that our incoming Israeli government understands that principle. It was emphasized by Zecharia, but it comes from Parshat Shoftim in Devarim.  

So, eventually, the Chashmona’im messed up, as the Ramban taught. Does that mean that we should denigrate all of their accomplishments? Clearly, not! God granted them a miracle, and our Sages instituted a holiday in their merit. So, what should we be learning from the Hannukah experience that saved the nation, but eventually didn’t establish the desired kind of Torah state, with separate Cohanim, kings and an independent judiciary under our Sages, later called the Sanhedrin? 

Therefore, we can conclude what?  Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein explained:

The Maccabees were forced to be satisfied with a partial achievement and see in the re-dedication of the Temple and its purification its primary achievement for later generations. However, just as the achievement of the returnees from Babylonia was significant despite its incompleteness, so too the achievement of the Maccabees has stood for all generations even though it too was incomplete and they did not merit remaining for long on the monarchal throne. 

Not only all of that, but we also got a marvelous holiday, full of joy, light and calories (Boy, those calories! A Dunkin’ Donuts jelly donut has 270 calories, and leaves you hungry for more!). Actually, Rav Mosheh’s father, Reb Aharon Lichtenstein OB”M, also observed that we really need community/national leaders and pure spiritual guides. Then he added:

Some people are connected to and involved with the Temple, yet are disconnected from, and uninvolved with, the nation. Those who focus on “strictly pure olive oil” sometimes forget about the rest of the nation. Others have the opposite problem: they are disconnected from the Temple and its “strictly pure olive oil.” The Temple cannot exist without a nation; conversely, the nation of Israel cannot exist without identification with the Temple and its related codes. 

In reality the accomplishments of the Chashmona’im were remarkable. The Rambam noted: They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple (Laws of Purim and Hannukah 3:1). These achievements are not to be sneered at or ignored. I would add that the attainments of Medinat Yisrael should likewise be respected by all and sundry. After all who are we to disagree with Rambam. 

By establishing the holiday of Hanukkah, our Sages taught us very clearly the value of even limited success, and reinforced a lesson taught by Rebbe Tarfon: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it (Pirkei Avot 2:16). I would add, please, don’t scoff or denigrate the accomplishments of others just because they don’t meet your high expectations. Rejoice in what was achieved, and have a wonderful and joyous Hanukkah!! 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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