The first night of Chanukah marks the beginning of a holiday that for many of its celebrants has no identity, that celebrates 'celebration', with no thought to what it is celebrating. For many Americans, Chanukah appears to overlap with Christmas. But there is no similarity between the two other than the season. The more appropriate analogy is to the 4th of July overlaid with Thanksgiving, a celebration of divine aid in a military campaign against tyrannical oppression.
The overt militarism of the Chanukah story has often made it an uncomfortable fit for both religious and secular Jews. And both have found it easier to strip away its dangerous underlying message. The message that a time comes when you must choose between the destruction of your culture and a war you can't win. And then a war must be fought, if the soul of the nation is to survive. Because there are worse things than death and slavery, the fates waiting for the Maccabees and their allies had they failed. The fates that came anyway when the last of the Maccabees were betrayed and murdered by Caesar's Edomite minister, whose sons went on to rule over Israel as the dynasty of Herod.
Tonight that first candle, that first glimmer of flame over oil, marks the night that the Maccabee forces entered Jerusalem, driving out the enemy armies and their Jewish collaborators, and reclaimed their people's culture and religion. The light of the flame was a powerful message sent across time, that even in the darkest hour, hope was not lost. And divine providence would not abandon the people. Time passed the Maccabees fell, Jerusalem was occupied and ethnically cleansed over and over again, the menorah burned on. A covert message that still all hope was not lost. That Israel would rise again.
Israel had used signal fires and torches held up on mountain tops to pass along important news. The lighting of the menorah was a miniature signal fire, a perpetuation of the temple light, its eight-day light a reminder that even the smallest light can burn beyond expectation and light beyond belief. That those who trust in G-d and fight for the freedom to believe in him, should never abandon hope. That divine signal fire first lit in the deserts by freed slaves has been passed on for thousands of years. Today the menorah is on the seal of the State of Israel, the product of a modern day Chanukah. The mark of a Jerusalem liberated in a miracle of six days, not eight. Six as in the number of the original temple Menorah. And the one on the seal as well.
For those liberals who believe that Jewish identity should be limited to outings picking up garbage and donating to help Haiti, agitating for illegal aliens and learning about microfinance in Southeast Asia-- and the usual leavings of social justice-- Chanukah is a threatening holiday. And so they turned into the secular counterpart of a secularized Christmas. Dressed up with teddy bears and toys. Turned into a moldy drawer of cultural traditions with no reference point, dreidels, latkes and children's songs. A winter holiday with gift giving and cards. And that's fine, so long as no one asks the dangerous question, "why are we doing all this?"
Holidays aren't mere parties, they're messages. Knots of time that we tie around the fingers of our lives so that we remember what our ancestors meant us to never forget. That they lived and died for a reason. The party is a celebration, but if we forget what it celebrates, then it becomes a celebration of nothing but materialism. A hollow and soulless festival of the self. The Maccabees fought to resist having their culture and their religion, replaced with just that kind of empty hedonism and self-worship. They fought because they believed they had something worth fighting for. Not for their possessions, but for their traditions, their families and their G-d. The celebration of Chanukah is not just how we remember them, but how we remember that we are called upon to keep their watch. To take up their banner and carry their sword.
History is a wheel and as it turns, we see the old continents of time rising again, events revisiting themselves as the patterns of the past become new again. Ancient battles become new wars. And old struggles have to be refought again until we finally get them right.
Yesterday I met a man from Modiin, the former center of the Maccabee revolt. In the time of Chanukah, the people of Modiin were persecuted by their Seleucid conquerors and the armies of Antiochus. Today they are persecuted by Obama and the EU which denounces Modiin as an "illegal settlement" and demands a freeze to all building activity there. Left wing organizations such as Peace Now, funded by the EU, harass residents and file petitions prohibiting home building in the East Mattisyahu quarter, named after the father of the Maccabee clan. An "illegal settlement" to which Jews have no right, though it is within sight of the tombs of the Hasmoneans who lived and died there. Over two thousand years after Chanukah, Jews are still not allowed to live in peace in Modiin.
Today Jerusalem and Modiin are threatened by a new Antiochus. And our culture, our traditions and our faith are under siege by his collaborators. We are called on to forget. To turn our children into bricks in order to construct the utopia of their new world order. Bend to the wheel and wear the chain, and cast our own offspring into the sea in the name of the common good. A common good that demands we give up our nation, our land, our faith and our future to toil in the shadow of the pyramids of socialism. The social justice diktat that commands us to forget our history and go down to labor in Egypt once more. In South America and Haitian slums, in barrios and villages, in ghettos and madinas. To give up who we are in order to serve others. And accept the slavery of social justice as our only faith and moral order.
It takes courage to resist the threat of force. But it takes a far greater courage to resist an imposed moral order that commands you to obey in in accordance with its own principles. It is easy to resist a mugger, but hard to resist the taxman. When a man breaks into your house, you know you have the right to stand up to him. But when he wears the cloak of authority, then regardless of how wrong his behavior might be, defying him requires overcoming an instinctive obedience to authority as right and proper. The Maccabees had to resist not only physical oppression and armed force, but the moral oppression of a system that regarded their monotheism, their nationalism, their traditions and rituals as barbaric. A system that much of their own fellow Jews had already accepted as right and proper.
The Maccabees did not merely rise up against physical oppression. Israel had and would face that over and over again. They rose up against a program aimed at subverting and eradicating their religious, cultural and historical identity. And the attempt to transform Chanukah into a secular ahistorical winter holiday is the resumption of that same program. Some of it is unintentional. Capitalism runs amok into mindless consumerism, turning holidays into sale events, and religious traditions into merchandising opportunities. Everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator for a public taught to search for comfort and meaning in a self-destructive materialism. But some of it is entirely intentional.
Talk of an eco-chanukah is a calculated attempt to reframe an ancient celebration of faith and freedom, into rationing anorexia. The Cult of Green is the other face of consumerism, an anorexic obsession with materialism to atone for consumer guilt by prosperous liberals. The miracle of the oil was not ecological, it was spiritual. It did not occur because the Maccabees wanted a sustainable ecosystem, but to demonstrate that G-d can make even the smallest drop of oil burn like a great flame. Eco-chanukah replaces religion with materialism, and freedom with obedience to rationing laws. It is about as perverse a subversion as a pig on a priestly altar.
But it is only one example of many. The modern day assault on Jewish history and culture transforms Chanukah into the usual grab bag of social justice issues under the union label of "Tikkun Olam". And each claim that Chanukah is about environmentalism, economic justice, World AIDS Day, letter writing campaigns, volunteerism and feeding the homeless-- is another pig brought up on the altar. It is the perpetuation of that very oppression, that ruthless assault on Jewish history and tradition that the Maccabees rose up against. A program determined to replace their values, with those of a foreign ideology. They could still have their altars, so long as they were willing to bring pigs up on them. That perversion comes full circle, when liberal activists insist that the Jewish values of Chanukah call on us to pressure Israel into surrendering Jerusalem to Islamic terrorists. But Chanukah marks the culmination of the Maccabee campaign for the liberation of Jerusalem. It is the time when we remember the men and women who refused to submit to the perversion of their values and the theft of their land.
To light the menorah on Chanukah is to raise a banner high, to pass on a signal that has been kept lit for thousands of years. From the first holiday of Passover, after which the freed slaves kindled the first Menorah, to the final holiday of Chanukah, that light burns on. The historical cycle of Jewish holidays begins with Moshe confronting Pharaoh and demanding the freedom of the Jewish people. It ends with the Maccabees standing up to the tyranny of Antiochus and fighting for the right of the Jewish people to live in their land, under their own rule and on their own terms. The miracle of the Exodus and of Chanukah did not happen until the Jewish people showed that they were willing to go forward, whether it was into the splitting sea or against a tyrant's armies. Once they went forward, then G-d showed them that the impossible could be made possible when people are willing to risk their lives for it.
Chanukah is a reminder, that no matter what the imposed moral order of the day might say, our culture and our religion are worth fighting for.