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Chanukkah in a Time of War-2023

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

As the holiday of Chanukkah draws to a close, I am struck by the fact that this is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates a military victory.  The victory of the few against the many when it had seemed improbable,  the struggle for the right to be different, to live freely as Jews.  I find it terribly ironic that these themes are as relevant now as they were at the time of the Maccabees, over 2,000 years ago.

Where did the Maccabees find the courage, not only to fight, but to rededicate the Temple and light the menorah, not knowing where they would find enough oil to last until they could be resupplied?  Sometimes the miracle is our strength to move forward even when we feel overwhelmed- discouraged and afraid.

The holiday of Hanukkah invites reflection on themes of war and peace.  Changes in the nature of warfare can be quantitative and/or qualitative.   There is no neat evolution from primitive hand-to-hand combat, culminating in star wars.  The wars of the Maccabees were fought against combatants on elephants- the tanks of their day.  From elephants to tanks does not represent a new strategy, just an alternate means of accomplishing a similar end.

I had the honor of traveling to Afghanistan twice to bring the light of Chanukkah to deployed service members thousands of miles from home.  The Soldiers were beyond appreciative of the opportunity to connect with their tradition and enjoy a moment of fun and joy.  I’ll never forget the card I received from a young woman who was stationed at Kandahar Air Base- "Dear Rabbi Koppell, I just wanted to thank you for coming here in KAF to spend Hanukah with the soldiers!  It means the world to us and it most certainly made my whole week!  Have a Happy Hanukah, filled with joy, songs and laughter!"  Then she wrote "Chanukkah Sameakh" in Hebrew.

Our own Religious School students sent cards which I had the honor of distributing each night to those who came to celebrate.  This one was especially memorable.  Dear People in the Army/Make every day happy/Keep up the good fighting/Thank you for sacrificing your life.  Out of the mouths of babes.  And how sad that, again and again, the Jewish people are called on to “keep up the good fighting.” 

Chanukkah in the Army is a unique experience- an opportunity to let down our guard and enjoy a few relaxing moments.  However, I recall talking to one of the regulars at a Chanukkah program, a woman who is an MP, and she expressed concern about advertising our services- “This is where all the Jews are going to be gathered,” was the way she put it.  She commented that once we are all in the room and have begun, her ears are highly attuned if the door opens. Here we are in 2023, living in freedom in a democratic society, and yet we connect with the concern of that MP in Afghanistan.

Victories in small skirmishes led to the capture of weapons and an increased willingness of volunteers to support the Maccabean insurrection.  It is important to note that the Maccabees did not target civilians:  the distinction between combatants and non-combatants was an accepted standard “bayamim ha-hem/in those days.”

As the Jewish fighters gained confidence and skill, Antiochus realized that victory was not forthcoming, his treasury was being rapidly depleted, and a negotiated resolution was preferable to an endless and expensive campaign.  B.D. Liddell Hart, in his classic work on strategy, refers to this as “self-exhaustion”.  We pray that the enemies of Israel today, ba-zman ha-zeh, come speedily to the same conclusion.

Hart reminds us that “a good cause is a sword as well as armour.”  The Maccabees were sustained by their devotion to a good cause- their right to freedom of religious expression.  They were fighting for their own spiritual survival, and, were it not for their bravery, Judaism could easily have disappeared.  The people of Israel today embody the spirit of the Maccabees long ago.

The survival of the Jewish people is surely a miracle!  Out-resourced and out-numbered, the few triumphed against the many, light overcame darkness, faith and hope defeated fear.  The rabbis were uncomfortable with the military focus of the holiday, and they expressed that in the Haftarah selected for Shabbat Chanukkah, which includes the words- “Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit, says God.”

Although we view Chanukkah as a minor holiday, had it not been for the victory of the Maccabees, Judaism very well may have disappeared from the earth.  While the Rabbis were clearly uncomfortable with the military aspect of the holiday, we must all acknowledge that until the Messianic age arrives, war is a necessary evil.  Our tradition teaches us, “Lo la-amod al-ha-nes”, not to rely on miracles.  We are not to wear armaments on the Sabbath; they are not adornments.  Yet, if we are attacked on the Sabbath, we have the right and the responsibility to rise up in self-defense. T

The text from Zechariah expresses our deepest hopes and dreams for our world.  But it must be juxtaposed with the reality we find in Psalms, “God will give strength to the people, God will bless the people with peace.”  Until that longed for age of peace arrives, we had better make sure that we have the strength to fight when necessary.





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