Sermon: Lessons from the Maccabees for 2021

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 12 December 2020

In 164 BCE, after three years of rebellion against Seleucid forces, the Maccabees retook the Temple in Jerusalem, and rededicated it for their ritual and worship.

According to the second book of Maccabees, the eight-day celebration that they instituted was deliberately modelled on Sukkot – “for they remembered how, a little while before, they had spent the feast of Sukkot living in caves in the mountains.”  “Carrying garlanded rods, green branches and palms”, the book tells us, “They sang psalms of grateful praise to the One who had brought about the purification of the Place”.

This commemoration would become the foundation onto which the festival of Chanukah that we celebrate was built.
It’s the moment that we focus on when we retell the story; that we reference, for example, in Al HaNisim which we include in our Amidah:  “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak,” it states, “Acharei chein ba’u vanecha li’d’vir beitecha – afterwards Your children entered the inner sanctuary of Your house”.

In essence what we commemorate at Chanukah is a celebration of return – of reclaiming that which had been lost, of restoring life to how it should be.

Now, I don’t wish to overplay the analogy with our situation.  I’m very uncomfortable with the use of military language to describe what we are currently living through.  Unlike our ancestors, we are not fighting an external persecutor; and though we’ve had a pretty tough nine months, the very nature of our religious and cultural life has not been at stake.

However, there are some parallels.
We, too, have been unable to celebrate our Jewish life in the ways that we are used to.  While we, and other communities across the denominations, have done amazing, innovative things to ensure that our Jewish and communal life can continue in new ways, the regular forms of our religious life have been put on hold.  It is only a few months since we spent the Yamim Noraim, Sukkot and Simchat Torah – metaphorically – “living in caves in the mountains”.  Or, at least, unable to all come together in the way that we would have wished.  The memory of Pesach, in particular, and our inability to be together with our families or friends is still especially raw in the mind.

So, we look forward to reclaiming our freedom as our ancestors once did, to re-entering our house – we pine for our time of celebration, of rededication, to singing our psalms of grateful praise.

But there’s more of the Chanukah story that we don’t normally tell.
It wasn’t quite so straightforward.
That ‘Afterwards’, that ‘Acharei chein’ in Al Hanisim is not quite accurate.
Despite the rapid success of the revolt, military conflict was to continue for at least the next 4 years, with many more deaths in battle.  These included sons of Mattathias – including his fourth son, Eleazar.  It was he who died, according to the story, crushed under an elephant into which he had thrust a knife from underneath – an event that took place two years after the liberation of the Temple.  Judah Maccabee himself would die in battle a year after that in 161 BCE.  Conflict did not end quickly.  Indeed, a Seleucid garrison remained in Jerusalem, in the Acra citadel, for another 20 years, until 141 BCE.

And again there are parallels.  While we can begin to look forward to resuming our normal religious lives, this next phase in our story is also not going to be so straightforward, whatever version we might come to tell in the future.  For us, even more so, the ‘battle’ that we are engaged in is not one that will have a clear-cut ending.  Our return far from easy to complete.

Much to my sadness, it looks very unlikely that there will be a single moment when we can throw open our doors again, hundreds of us coming together to celebrate.  Rather, it is going to be a slow process of reopening, of risk assessments, of detailed event plans, of steps forwards and back.  No quick return to full shuls, singing together, Kiddush.  And through it, we are going to need to keep looking out for, and looking after, each other – not least because for us too there will be further loss of life and pain.

Next year will involve lots of difficult decisions, and continuing challenge.  Because, like the Maccabees, we will remain in struggle with an enemy that, will be circulating among us for a long time to come.  We will continue to have an Acra citadel in our midst.

There is another part of the Chanukah story that has echoes for us today, another aspect which is not often told.  In Al HaNisim we read that “the Kingdom of Antiochus rose up against Your people Israel”

But again this is only part of the story.  Underlying the events of 167-160 BCE was deep disagreement and division within the Jewish people about what life ought to look like.  The Maccabees were not only freedom fighters against an outside enemy, but they were also zealous oppressors of dissent, in violent opposition to new practices among the Jewish people, under Hellenistic influence.  This was also a fight about what Judaism would look like afterwards.

Judaism has always been a tradition of multiple voices, of argument about the future, of change in the face of crisis.  And we will also face some interesting decisions about what our Judaism will look like after the pandemic has concluded.

What will be the continuing role for technology which has made our Judaism, our communal life so rich during the last year; which has allowed us to access prayer, and learning, and community despite being separate?  Will it be possible to create Jewish life that can be experienced beautifully both in person and online?  What changes will we need, or choose, to make to enable this to take place?

Are there aspects of our religious life which will be better lived (or will be better attended) if they remain online?  I think back to Shavuot, with hundreds of people studying into the night from home.

I am also acutely aware that over 4000 computers joined Alyth for some part of Yom Kippur including many from around the world.  Just yesterday for Erev Shabbat we were joined from the Ukraine, from the Netherlands, the United States.  And they could see us, and we could see them.  Will we enable this to continue and how?

There will be zealots among us who demand that everything return to pre-pandemic ways.  My instinct is to be one of them.  I liked how it was before.  But, in another learning from history, we should remember that it was the very successors to the Maccabean revolt, the Hasmoneans, who in the end were to introduce many of the Hellenistic practices that we have in our Jewish life today.  Whether we like it or not, the implications of new developments are with us forever.
My hope and expectation is that, unlike the Maccabees, we will resolve our differences without conflict and with love.

Over the course of the coming months, we will be able to reopen our building and our communal life more fully, restoring much of what we do to its pre-pandemic ways.
But if there is one learning from the story of the Maccabees, it is that things don’t always have simple endings. That it is rarely as straightforward as the stories we tell.  Reality requires perseverance and patience.
Ours will not be a simple path – none of us knows how quickly things will be able to change, and there are aspects of post-pandemic Judaism which will look different with which we will need to grapple.

But, there is one more learning from the Maccabean Revolt.  However long it takes,  like the Maccabees, the time will come when we can come down from the metaphorical mountains.  In 2021 we will be together, we will be able to sing psalms of grateful praise, we will rededicate this space, making up together for all that which we have missed.