The Torah of the Maccabees: the Light of Faith

As we approach the season of Hanukkah, the miracles that this ancient holiday seeks to convey are especially powerful this year. We remember: the little bit of oil that was barely enough for one day, but that lasted for eight days… the small but determined army of Maccabees who managed to fight for justice and overthrow their oppressors… 

The word “Maccabee” has many roots, but has been attributed by our rabbis to be a reference to the words preserved in the book of Exodus: “Mi Chamocha Ba’Elim Adonai” which means: “Who is like Adonai from all the gods”. The rabbis teach that the Children of Israel were running from Ancient Egyptian slavery and entered into the waters with a faith so deep that even when the waters began to almost drown them, they kept moving forward… they did not give up hope… and it was that faith that led to the great miracle of the waters parting.

In a sense, this is the real miracle of Hanukkah: the courage of the few to persevere… the faith of those who refuse to let fear imprison them… the willingness to wade into uncertain waters and keep hoping and trusting. What kind of courageous faith does it take to kindle the menorah with a little bit of oil that we know is not enough… Do we have this same courage in our own day?

When we make brave decisions that honor our values and ethics rather than letting fear guide us… when we have the courage to depart from what everyone says we should do… when we fight for what is right even if we are just a brave and determined minority, trusting that doing the right thing will be Light enough… These are the ways we kindle faith.

It takes courage to follow one’s heart and conscience- especially when everyone says that what we are doing is wrong or when we may pay a price for doing so. As a historically oppressed and marginalized group, that has become the target for increased hatred and violence in recent years, we may find ourselves seeking to try to appease those in power… thinking that this might help us. Fear can lead us to side with the oppressor… this is part of what the story of Hanukkah came to teach us… it is not unique to us. All minority groups are tempted to internalized the messages of those who oppress, colonize or otherwise seek to harm us. We then sometimes weaponize these messages- we become the gate keepers and judges.

Hanukkah reminds us that it takes deep spiritual courage to venture forth into the waters that risk drowning us… to fight for what is right at all costs. And even if it seems like it is not logical, we kindle the lights that become flames that last for as long as we need them to burn. The rabbis further teach that this is the real meaning of the word: “Maccabee” the letters of which have the numerical value of 72 (מ=40, כ=20, ב=2, י=10), alluding to the 72-letter Divine Name of the Holy One of Blessing which all of humankind seek to understand and honor… this same Name which was used by Moses to help split the waters… this Name which speaks to the miraculous healing power of Unity.

The Kabbalists have much to teach about the number 72, which includes the 70 nations of the world along with the Holy One and Israel to become the closest expression of unity that we can imagine. There is deep wisdom in all of these complex and beautiful teachings, but at their core, we can summarize this Torah, while standing on one foot:

Be courageous enough to be true to what you understand is right. Do not let fear guide you. Learn from others and work toward unity, justice and healing. Even if it seems impossible, be willing to keep moving forward to do what you believe you have been called to do.

These teachings have certainly played a powerful role in my own life, and is part of my hope in creating a new community of faith that advocates for these principles loudly in a world that seems set on encouraging us to silence our inner voice. So many of the people who have reached out to me during this process are brave and courageous… finding their faith and asserting their values despite all odds. These are my people.

I choose to reinterpret ethnocentric phrases in Jewish tradition that talk about “our people Israel”- not as the biological descendants of the tribe of Judah (known as Jews), but rather as those who “YSR-EL” also called YisraEl, which literally means those who wrestle with G!d. Not the ACTUAL G!d, but rather the ideas we have about G!d… the ways that religion is used as a weapon… the ways human beings insert into the mouth of G!d their own beliefs or preferences, fears and limitations. The ways human beings choose to translate G!d’s Truths into truths that can be weaponized and used for political gains.

From the time of the Maccabees to colonization and the Doctrine of Discovery to this very day as religion is being weaponized by the alt-right, this battle is fundamental: the Maccabees sought to liberate faith from fanaticism… from the colonization of their time… from the hatred that masquerades as G!d’s Will… To be of the people of Israel is to battle against this co-opting of religion for political gain, conquering land and people, fighting to do exactly the opposite of what I understand to be true in the Torah: Love G!d and Love your neighbor as yourself. This is it. All the rest is commentary.

When we make the commentary of THAT era (the explication of the application of these Eternal truths) applicable in our OWN day, then I believe we engage in idolatry. Idolatry is a whole topic unto itself, but fundamentally, it refers to a reductionist approach to G!d that focuses upon material/physical reality at the expense of Spirit, and that distracts us from focusing upon what really matters. Whenever religion becomes weaponized, I believe that it becomes an idol. At its core, the story of Hanukkah is the story of fighting against idolatry- a fight that is more vital than ever.

When Hanukkah gets weaponized, or when Christmas gets weaponized… which often happens in interfaith families and political spaces, we miss the point. It is not about the gifts, or the lights, or even the menorah candles and the oily treats of latkes and donuts (although they ARE yummy!!!). It is about recommitting to fighting idolatry in our own life and in our world.

And idolatry has many shapes… it could be an addiction that keeps us from being present with loved ones (be it drugs, alcohol or even work or working out)… it could be a defense mechanism (fear, anger, pride, or…?) that keeps us from reaching out to loved ones or doing what we know is right. It is about choosing faith over fear and hopelessness. The miracle of the Maccabees reclaiming their sacred space and trying to kindle the Eternal Light and not having enough oil and it somehow miraculously lasting long enough to make new oil… this is the miracle of persevering against all odds. This is the triumph of Will and determination over the temptation of giving up.

Now more than ever, our world needs this. The world is broken. Many of us can barely make it from one day to the next. We need the courage of the Maccabees, and the wisdom of the Hanukkah blessings that reminds us that- as miracles were possible way back then… they are also in our own day. We have to kindle Light wherever there is darkness. We have to be willing to speak up when it is easier to stay quiet. We have to face the unknown and keep moving forward, despite all odds.

We have to keep kindling lights in this dark and scary world. As Hanukkah approaches, let us commit to engaging in at least eight acts of illumination- tzedakah- justice and healing… let us reach out to someone who is alone… speak out against prejudice… write an elected leader and tell them what you believe… write a letter to a loved one you have been to busy to call… the possibilities are endless…

We may feel like we are too small to make a difference. But the holiday of Hanukkah reminds us that a little spark can radiate the darkness and become a bright and shining Light… and this truly is a miracle worth celebrating! In a world where all of us may sometimes feel like our voices can be drowned out by those voices that proclaim values that feel wrong or unethical, it can be especially powerful to come together with others to assert our belief that religion should not divide us, but rather inspire us to keep moving forward into the unknown… kindling light where we find darkness and bravely speaking our truth, even when we think we are the only ones who going to do so.

In this way, let us prepare for the miracle of Hanukkah, that asserts that what we have to offer and who we are IS enough. The brave few can make a difference and the drops of oil can burn brightly long after we feared was possible. May this be the year when begin to believe in the miracles that are possible when we come together.