The Jews throughout history have had a way of getting in the way of great empires. The Egyptians, the Philistines, the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians had all tried to enslave and destroy the Jewish people. A few thousand years ago after an Egyptian Pharaoh had first gotten the bright idea to clap chains on the Jewish refugees who had been serving as his faithful shepherds and send them off to build the pyramids, and some 2000 plus years before the present day, Antiochus IV, like so many kings before whose sense of power had overwhelmed both their sense of reason and morals, decided that ruling over his empire would be simpler and easier without the Jews in it.
Where Pharaoh had embarked on that process by throwing male Jewish babies into the Nile, to please one of his many gods while carrying out a genocide that was meant to destroy the Jewish people and integrate what was left into Egypt-- Antiochus IV focused not on physical extermination, but cultural annihilation. The fundamental books of Jewish life, the scriptures that gave the Jewish people meaning and identity were destroyed.and banned. Hellenic ways and mores became law. Jewish ones became an offense punishable by death.
Some accepted the decree out of fear or even with enthusiasm. Others however rose up and resisted. And war came between the handfuls of Jewish Maccabee partisans and the armies of Antiochus IV’s Selecuid empire. A war that had its echoes in the past and would have it again in the future as lightly armed and untrained armies of Jewish soldiers would go on to fight in that same land and those same hills and valleys against the Romans and eventually the armies of six Arab nations. The Syrian Greek armies were among the best of their day. The Maccabees were the sons of the priesthood living in the backwaters of Israel, members of a nation that had not been independently ruled since the Babylonian hordes had flooded across the land, destroying everything in their path. Since then a shifting mass of nations and rulers had sat on their thrones while the Jews had bowed their heads.
Yet in the wilderness of Judea a band of brothers vowed that they would bow to no man and let no foreigners rule over their land. That no alien ruler would hold sway over the earth and water of their homeland, and none would be permitted to take away the legacy of their fathers, the customs of their sages and the books of their God. And while empires may and do laugh at such oaths, that band of brothers went on to destroy and wreak havoc against the might of an entire empire.
Apollonius brought his Samaritan forces against the brothers, and Judah, first among the Macabees, killed him, took his sword and wore it for his own. Seron, General of the army of Coele-Syria, brought together soldiers and renegade Jewish mercenaries and was broken at Beit Haran. In his place Antiochus IV commanded the Governor of Syria who dispatched two generals, Nicanor, and Gorgias, with forty thousand soldiers and seven thousand horsemen and orders to conquer Judea, enslave its inhabitants, utterly destroy Jerusalem and abolish the whole Jewish nation forever. So certain were they of victory that they brought with them merchant caravans to fill with the Hebrew slaves of a destroyed nation.
In those few words was the heart and soul of the Jewish nation fighting to be reborn, and that for which they fought, for their God, the freedom of their faith and country, and to stand as men of honor in defiance of a tyrannical empire. And though the Macabees were but three thousand, starving and dressed in bare rags, the God for whom they fought and their native wits and courage, gave them victory over thousands and tens of thousands.
Worn from battle, bloodied and standing among heaps of the enemy dead, the Macabees did not flee back into their Judean wilderness, instead they proceed to the heart of Israel, to its capital of Jerusalem and its Temple, to reclaim their land and their God. But through the armies of the Seleucid Empire may have fled, and their traitorous Jewish collaborators along with them, the Temple and the capital stood in ruins. And the brave rebels who had bested an empire entered the holy city only to confront the devastation and disgrace that their enemies had imposed on it. Some wept and others hung their heads in despair.
And so once again they bent their backs to the task, this time not of war but of peace, reclaiming the Temple, cleansing its precincts and sanctifying it again. But though they could raise up walls and clean away the blood and filth from stone and metal, some things they simply could not do. The great golden candelabra of the Menorah stood empty, for of the sacred oil, made of only the first squeezed drop of the olive, kept in purity and sealed with the High Priest’s seal, only one flask remained.
The Macabees had fought courageously for the freedom to worship God once again as their fathers had, but courage alone could not make the Menorah burn and thus renew the Temple service again. Yet it had not been mere berserker’s courage that had brought them this far. Like their ancestors before them who had leaped into furnaces and the raging sea, they had dared the impossible on faith. Faith in a God who watched over his nation and intervened in the affairs of men. And so on faith they poured the oil of that single flask in the Menorah, oil that could only last for a single day. And then having done all they could, the priests and sons of priests who had fought through entire battalions to reach this place, accepted that they had done all they could and left the remainder in the hands of the Almighty.
Those are the eight days we remember every Chanukah. Not the long wars that came before or after. For life is struggle and few lives are lived at peace and without difficulty. But it is those eight days, the days in which we see that we are not alone in our struggles, and whether we are lost in the wilderness of Judea or the cities and towns of any land, there is a light above us waiting to light our way. The windows behind which the Menorah stood were narrow on the inside and wide on the outside. For it is not the Menorah or the Temple that needs the world, but the world that needs the light of the Menorah. And so above the eight oil lamps or candles that we light throughout Chanukah is a single light. The Shamash, the one who guards and watches above us all. The light with which all the other lights of the Menorah are lit. The light above.