"For all the eight days of Hanukkah, we set these lights apart; we do not use them to illuminate our work, but we gaze at them to remember the miracles and the wonders, the deliverances and the great battles you fought through our fathers and mothers in those days at this season . . ."
We recite the words above, each night as we light one more candle, increasing the light within, even as the darkness outside grows greater as the moon wanes from last quarter to new, and as the earth turns us toward the dark of the winter solstice.
What memories, then do those little, flickering lights evoke? They bring back to us a time when the mighty power of the Syrian Greek Empire under Antiochus attempted to erase an exceptional people from the earth, blurring our unique identity, and forcing us to conform to the sameness required of all the people in the remnants of the Empire created by Alexander the great.
They bring us back to a time when the priests and leaders of our people in Jerusalem were willing, for momentary gain and power, to let go of our exceptionalism, and were only too eager to aid and abet the Empire in its purpose of rendering the whole world as they knew it to sameness and conformity, the better to rule us all, to make us slaves to some higher purpose outside our own.
Who then, would stand up to the tyrants and say, "Thus far shall you go and no further . . ."?
It was also a priest, but not one who stood too close to the dark brightness of the power of Antiochus, who called himself a god. It was Mattiyahu, a priest of the village of Modi'in and his sons. And it did not happen at the beginning of the tyranny. For first they said, you must pay your tax to the Emperor. And then they said, you must be like all of the others in the Empire, and go to gymnasium on the Sabbath. And then they said, no longer will we permit you to study Torah. And then they said, and now you must sacrifice a pig upon the altar of the temple, and swear allegience to Antiochus Epiphanes (a god made manifest). You may not circumcise your sons, or in any way set yourselves apart. This that those Jews at that time could not make themselves holy, for separateness is the meaning of holiness.
And with each step by which the unique identity of the Jews in those days was removed, the High Priest and his sons, and his courtiers in Jerusalem told the people that each step toward total subjugation and the loss of identity was a small sacrifice to make in the name of peace and unity in the Empire. And so the people, lulled by their leaders, almost allowed the light within, the flickering flames of their unique identity, to be extinguished in the name of a unity for which there were no shared values and principles. In the cities, they participated not in high Greek culture, but the debased culture of the eastern edges of one of the three empires left over from Alexander.
But the moment came, when in the small town of Modi'in, when one man, a priest, found the line he would not cross, and developed the spine to stand up as a man for the sake of his identity and his exceptional inheritance. That man was Mattiyahu, and when he was required to sacrifice a pig to Antiochus Epiphanes, he drew his sword and refused to sacrifice anything to Antiochus Epimanes (the fool), for he know it was foolish indeed for a man, a tyrant to present himself as something that he is not, and in the name of that lie, to force him and his sons to give up their identities.
In the face of the Syrian Greeks, Mattiyahu and his five sons and their followers fled to the forests, the deserts and the swamps, and fought a desperate guerrilla-style war against the armies of Antiochus' empire. They were hopelessly outnumbered, and out-classed with respect to fighting skill and weaponry, but they had something else: a belief, a conviction that the unique flame that burned within them could not be allowed to go out, and that they would fight to last breath to defend their right to be Jews. Their rallying cry was: "Not by might and not by power, but by G-d's spirit, shall we prevail." (This echoes the verse from Zechariah that was read this morning as the Haftarah for the Shabbat in Hanukkah).
For three long years, the war between an Empire and some guerrilla upstarts went on. In the course of those years, Mattiyahu and some of his sons were killed. But the banner was picked up by the youngest son,Judah the Maccabbee. And following the end of the war, Judah went up to the Temple in Jerusalem and cleaned and purified it for the unique purposes of the Jewish people, and having missed the eight-day festival of Sukkot in the fall, instituted a festival of rededication that we now celebrate as Hanukkah. And in the dark of the sun and the dark of the moon, we light our lights and remember the miracle of our unique identity that shines forth from the flames.
And we are here to remember because one man, a hero and a sage, took up the challenge to protect who he was, in order to pass that exceptional identity down to his children and his children's children, and finally to us, living in the United States now, during the beginning of the 21st century. And so we celebrate Hanukkah, our rededication to our right to be who we are.
The story of Hanukkah, always compelling, is even more so at this time to us as Americans. For we live in a time when there are those who wish to erase American exceptionalism, the unique identity we have, a nation founded on the idea of individual rights. There are those in the world who see our uniqueness as a barrier to a world government to which they desire to enslave all of us to work to fulfill their purposes. They tell us that it is a small sacrifice to make in order to foster peace and unity for all the world. And they conveniently forget to remind us that a sacrifce is always destroying a great value for the sake of something lesser. And we have our leaders and trend-setters isolated in Washington D.C.--that great city--who are only to eager to sell the flame of liberty out for the sake of the idol of peace and unity.
Like the Hasmoneans of Modi'in, we are being asked to give up our rights, our Constitution, and our very identity as a free people, small infringement by small infringement. And like Mattiyahu and his sons, Eleazer, Shimon, Yochanan, Yonaton, and Judah, it seems that we are reaching a point where going along to get along will no longer be an option should we want to retain our unique identity and calling in the world.
Once again, we need a hero and a sage, to cause us to look deep within and see that the same fires burn in our own selves; we need to decide where our lines are, and where our resistance begins. For as our own American hero and sage Thomas Jefferson said:
"Resistance to tyrants is obedience to G-d."
He knew what Judah the Maccabee knew. He knew what we must know: that deep within each of us burns a flame, that flickers in the wind, but that is as mighty and powerful as a star. That flame is the the flame of liberty. And our unique identity is that of a free people who once formed a government not based on power, not based on blood and soil; rather ours is based on the Rule of Law, and the principle of individual rights. Can you see it now?
Keep that flame alive.