Chanukah – War of independence

December 19, 2005
We are all familiar with the well known Jewish holiday joke: “How do the Jewish people celebrate their holidays? – “They tried to kill us – we won – so let’s eat!!!!”

This joke applies to the three holidays in the Jewish calendar which commemorate historical Jewish victories over foreign powers: –

Passover versus the Ancient Egyptians
Purim versus the Persians
Chanukah versus the Greek troops

But Chanukah is the only holiday that commemorates a historical military victory which took place in Israel. This is actually our first war of independence. We can learn many remarkable things from Chanukah. I would like to share some thoughts from an Israeli perspective and discuss the meaning of fighting for independence and sovereignty and the efforts for maintaining them.

Of the 3000 years of Jewish existence in Israel, three periods only were dominated by Jewish sovereignty and independence in the land of our forefathers. The early Kingdom of David and Solomon lasted some 420 years, the Hasmonean dynasty ruled independently for nearly 80 years, and currently we have our modern state of Israel, which celebrates 58 years of independence next May. History shows us that the Jewish people have succeeded three times in creating a Jewish independent entity in the land promised by G-D to our forefathers. However twice, to our great misfortune, the state was destroyed and our independence lost, the Temple burned, and the people slaughtered and exiled.

As an Israeli, I cannot help but look back at the brave Jewish warriors, the Maccabees, and admire their courage and determination in their fight against a superior entity, and their success in overcoming them.. We can only imagine the pain, the casualties and the suffering these people endured in order to regain their stolen freedom of worship. Luckily, The political situation that ensued when the war was over enabled our ancestors a precious Chanukah gift – Independence !!! For 80 years the Hasmonean dynasty did an excellent job of creating a Jewish state. They expanded the borders and secured them, enhanced the Temple and maintained a religious leadership together with statesmanship. The economy thrived and the small brave kingdom was respected and feared by its neighbors. They faced the familiar problem of local minorities of foreign origins living in the kingdom whose presence could become a possible threat to the young newly born Jewish kingdom. The common solution in those days was that the Hasmonean leadership forced these minority groups to convert to Judaism thus creating a homogeneous Jewish state in what was then known as Judea. (King Herod’s ancestors were one of the Edomite families who converted to Judaism via this process)

For five generations, the Hasmonean kings and queens managed to maintain a secure and stable state with Jerusalem as its capital. So what went wrong? How did this kingdom end, and why? The history books tell us of the two Hasmonean princes, Horkanos and Aristobulus, the sons of the successful Queen Shlomzion. The brothers were in dispute over power and were both eager to inherit the crown and the position of high priest. The younger, more competent brother, Aristobulus forced his way to the crown, but the elder brother had a wise and cunning advisor – Antipater (King Herod’s father). Antipater advised Horkanos to seek assistance from the Roman General, Pompey, who was leading a military campaign in Asia Minor. Pompey had no previous intentions of attacking the Hasmonite kingdom, but who can resist such an invitation? The end of the story is a sad one. In the summer of 63 BC, after accepting the invitation from the Hasmonean rivals, the Roman Legions led by Pompey invaded the kingdom of Judea, imposed a siege on Jerusalem which led to the end of the 80 year old sovereign Jewish state. In the Year 37 BC, The Romans nominated their loyal representative, King Herod as the King of Judea and one hundred years later in 70 AD, the great rebellion against the Romans failed, the second Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people went into exile.

2000 years later we were granted a third chance. Once again the Jews fought and earned their independence. The land is the same land, the Jews are the same Jews, and only the neighbors surrounding us have evolved from Egyptians to Assyrians to Persians to Greeks to Romans to Turks and now Arabs. The future existence of Israel depends on our actions only. Will we be strong and united or will we quarrel and invite the next invader?

This Chanukah, as you light your Chanukah candles and sing the blessings, please take a few moments to meditate and pray for the State of Israel. We are all very lucky to be living during this time in history when we, the Jewish people, have our own independent state. History shows us that this is not a permanent status. We should not take it for granted. Jewish sovereignty is a fragile situation that should be gently embraced.

It’s each and every Jewish person’s responsibility and obligation that this delicate young state will continue to exist and be the eternal home for all the coming generations. While looking at those Chanukah candles, think of the Maccabees, think of Jewish independence, think of Israel.