We Didn’t Reach Out to Antiochus. We Organized Against Him.

This Saturday night begins Hanukkah, our Jewish winter celebration. Later in the Gregorian year than normal, according to the lunar calendar Hanukkah falls the same time every year—a week that runs over the new moon closest to the solstice, the longest and darkest night of the year.

Hanukkah is our tradition’s contribution to these wintertime festivals, and the layers of meaning behind the holiday are many. As a nod to these long nights of darkness, Hanukkah is the time in which we light candles against the darkness, marking the turning of the seasons and with the celebration of the solstice, the return of the light and the lengthening days.

Hanukkah also celebrates the story of a miracle—how when the ancient Temple was restored after being desecrated by the Greek king Antiochus, only a small vial of sanctified oil was found to light the menorah, the lamp that was permanently lit within the Temple. Enough to last only one day as the story goes, the oil lasted for eight, which allowed time to produce more sanctified oil. The miracle is on the one hand the fact that a small resource lasted so long. On the other hand, the miracle is the act of faith and commitment that leads one to act even if one feels that their action will be for limited or minimal effect.

It’s this second understanding of the miracle that I have been thinking of recently, for it ties into the other layer of meaning for Hanukkah, the historical reason. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greek king Antiochus IV imposed oppressive rule on the Jewish community of Judea, banning Jewish worship and ritual practice and desecrating Jewish holy spaces.

The historical record is nuanced on what Antiochus was doing. While he did impose the oppressive regulations, he was in part responding to a Jewish civil struggle in which traditionalists and Hellenists were at odds with each other and fought among themselves for power within the autonomous Jewish community. He was therefore trying the strengthen his rule by intervening in an internal struggle, pitting factions against each other.

And while not part of the traditional Hanukkah story we tell, when he imposed the anti-Jewish measures the historical Antiochus was returning from a stinging defeat in Egypt. Perhaps his actions towards the Jews was a way of turning against a people already under his control, again as a means of asserting his power by bullying and picking on a power lesser than he.

But needless to say, his rule drew opposition, and that is the traditional story we tell. The priest Mattithias and his sons led a revolutionary band of mercenaries called the Maccabees, who revolted against the oppressive regime and successfully drove out Antiochus and the Greek army, thus establishing an independent Jewish political entity.

This is the miracle we celebrate.

Just like lighting the lights at the end of the story, the miracle of the Maccabees in the beginning of their story is that they took action even if they thought that their action may only have minimal and temporary effect. Did they know that their small rebellion would be enough to overthrow a larger army? We don’t know. But they took action anyway, and eventually were successful.

Therefore moreso than lights, and moreso than the military victory itself, the miracle of the Maccabees is the initial rejection of the conditions imposed on them. They could have been complacent, could have accepted their political reality. But rather than choose to try to understand Antiochus, or his supporters, or his motives, rather than reach out to bridge the divide, they saw a situation that was untenable and organized against it.

When we light the candles on the menorah, we do so with the knowledge that they will burn out. But we keep lighting them, night after night, more candles each night. And when we do so, we see that each small action has a greater and greater impact. The lights of the menorah remind us of the power we can and should wield to examine our conditions, reject those that we find oppressive and intolerable, and organize to change them.

The candles of the menorah remind us that through organizing and action, we can make miracles.


Trump and Haman and Ahasuerus..and Mordechai

Today was Purim, the annual celebration of the events of the biblical book of Esther.

The story goes like this:  the Persian King Ahasuerus dismisses his queen Vashti for not appearing at his summons. He invites all the women of the kingdom to appear to see who would become the new queen, and a Jewish woman named Esther is selected. Meanwhile, Ahasuerus appoints a minister Haman, who, angry with Esther’s cousin Mordechai for not bowing down to him, sets out a plot to exterminate the Jews. He convinces the king to issue a decree that on a particular day (chosen by lot) the Jews are to be killed. Learning of the plot, Mordechai persuades Esther to use her position to save the Jews, which she does. A counter decree is issued, Haman is executed and a new holiday is established to mark the occasion.

The observance of Purim has a decidedly non-solemn tone: we sing and dance, dress in costume, share jokes and parody, eat and celebrate and make a lot of noise. We do so because of the happiness which comes from a disaster averted and evil foiled. We are happy because we survived, because we won, because a miracle occurred on our behalf.

As part of the celebration we read the megillah (scroll) which contains the book of Esther. A simple story, yet complex at the same time. Like many texts of scripture, the story of Esther can be understood in many different ways. It is a human drama, a story of redemption and at times even a farce.

This year, however, it is hard to not read the book of Esther as a political drama, complete with jockeying for position, manipulation and power plays.

Haman is the main villain of the story. He is hungry for power and influence, he manipulates the king and hatches and implements the plan to exterminate the Jews. And he does so because he is angered by one Jew, Mordechai. Thus he does not hesitate to stir up hatred and blame and punish an entire people for the supposed slight of one person. And he, along with his own Lady Macbeth Zeresh, seeks to kill Mordechai personally.

Ahasuerus the king is also a villain. He is a tyrant, who holds a beauty pageant (read: sexual contest) to find a new queen, is ready to carry out a plan for genocide. He unwilling to rescind his extermination decree in order to save face, and instead issues another decree permitting killing and looting. While he is the one who issued the decree, he blames Haman and executes him. He is easily manipulated because he is eager to please and hold onto power.

And Mordechai, one of the traditional heroes of the story, also is a political manipulator. He positions Esther to gain power, telling her to hide her Jewish background. He informed on two eunuchs who were angry at the king and got them killed. He then uses Esther’s position to not only save the Jews (which is, of course, a good thing) but for political gain–at the end of the story, he winds up with a plum political appointment, second only to the king.

It is hard not to think of the political overtones in this story as we read it during this Presidential election season. For as the primaries and caucuses continue, we will continue to write the narrative with its heroes and villains.

Donald Trump at AIPAC. Photo from Tablet Magazine.
While each contest has its heated moments , the emergent “villain” during this election has been Donald Trump. Popular among voters, but disdained by his own party, Trump has also consistently raised the ire of opponents and pundits alike. His anti-Muslim comments, negativity toward immigrants and ad hominem attacks on his opponents have cast Trump as “the one to stop.”  His appearance at AIPAC last week even brought protests and walk outs.

At the same time, he is developing a great following. At AIPAC, while some protested and walked out on Trump, many, many more stood and cheered when he spoke, willing to either tacitly accept or outright ignore his problematic stances in exchange for his support of Israel. And he is the Republican frontrunner for the simple reason that he is winning the most elections and the most delegates. If he eventually loses, we will still have his followers who will potentially be a political force to contend with.

In reading the Purim story in light of the election, it would be easy to cast Trump as Haman, the demagogue who cast aspersions on his enemies, condemning whole peoples for the sake of political gain. But Trump is also King Ahasuerus, who is desirous of power and therefore seeks to please all.

And, Trump is also Mordechai, who elevates his own self-interest above all, making decisions based on personal gain at the expense of others.

And Trump is us. We got him to where he is now.

As we move through the primary season, it is not my place to endorse a particular candidate. I simply share that I believe Trump’s rhetoric to be dangerous and hurtful. I have serious concerns about the lasting effects of what he says, and what impact it will have on our civil society.

And while the Book of Esther can be read as a reflection of the political manipulations we see at work today, there is another angle to the story. One of the reasons we dress up on Purim is to enact the idea that things aren’t always what they seem. A theme of the Purim story is that what was planned could fail to materialize, that what was once thought inevitable was not to be. Things are turned around, events unfold in a way that was not intended.

Here too, perhaps things will turn out differently than they seem. Perhaps the hateful speech and the demagoguery will fail to have staying power. It will if we drown it out like we do Haman’s name on Purim. And when harmful rhetoric gives way to words of love and compassion, that, too, will be worthy of celebration.