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As the month of Kislev has begun our thoughts turn to the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah. If there was ever a holiday made for Hollywood it’s Hanukkah. The few against the many, the weak overcoming the strong and the fight for religious freedom resonate with so many of us on all different levels. And like so many other Hollywood stories, the tale told does not even come close to the truth!
The texts of Hanukkah tell a somewhat different story. Hanukkah started as a civil war between rival factions trying to control the office of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). There were the assimilationists versus the traditionalists. The assimilationists called for help from the Syrian-Greeks who came and stayed. What had started as a localized civil conflict became a full-fledged war.
The turning point in the conflict is found in the book of I Maccabees when Mattathias kills an apostate who is offering a sacrifice upon a pagan altar. He raises the banner of rebellion and the story continues from there.
Hanukkah is a holiday that personifies the mitzvah of Al Ta’amod (do not stand idly by). As the forces of Antiochus perpetrated atrocities and abomination upon Judaism – Mattathias and his son Judah kept the religious flame alive. While they and their descendants were seriously flawed and ended up more assimilated than those they originally fought, at the right time and in the right place their accomplishments are undiminished.
Hanukkah retains its theme of Do Not Stand Idly By in modern times too. I grew up in a small community. Hanukkah was a time when religious freedom was tested by those who would seek to display religious symbols on public property. When I was one of five rabbis who were imprisoned by the United States government for protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews, we were imprisoned on Hanukkah and were nicknamed, the “Maccabee Five.”
The following year I was sent to the former Soviet Union to visit Refuseniks during Hanukkah as well. I found that Hanukkah was a most important holiday. Religious freedom did not exist. They would make a Hanukkah menorah by cutting a potato in two, hollowing out a depression in one half and placing a single candle in it. That way, if the KGB or a neighbor called they could quickly dispose of the evidence.
There were no greater models for the Mitzvah of Al Ta’amod than the Refuseniks of the Soviet Union. They embody the teaching by Naomi Remen, that “Human beings are God’s menorah.”
Pronounced: KHAH-nuh-kah, also ha-new-KAH, an eight-day festival commemorating the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks and subsequent rededication of the temple. Falls in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which usually corresponds with December.
Pronounced: muh-NOHR-uh, Origin: Hebrew, a lamp or candelabra, often used to refer to the Hanukkah menorah, or Hanukkiah.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.