(This blog post is a re-post from something I wrote in 2007)
The background of the Chanukah story recalls the struggle for religious freedom from the Hellenistic Syrian-Greeks in the year, 165 B.C.E. Antiochus, who was the occupying King at those times, sought to crush our Jewish identity and passed decrees against the practice of Judaism. We were forbidden from studying the Torah, we were forbidden to keep the Shabbat (Sabbath) and we were forbidden from making a brit milah (circumcision). To do so meant the death penalty.
"Hellenistic rituals and sacrifices were instituted in the Bet HaMikdash (the holy Temple in Jerusalem), thus desecrating the sacred center of Jewish ritual life. Many Jews were impressed by the culture and power of their Greek conquerors and adopted their customs and practices. These Jews came to be known as "Hellenists". – Sound familiar to our situation today?
“Other Jews were infuriated by the oppressive decrees aimed at destroying their religion, and vowed revenge. They were led by Mattityahu, a Chashmona'i (Hasmonean) who lived in Modiin with his five sons, who came to be known as the Maccabim. This name is derived from the first letter of each word in the phrase "Mi kamocha ba'elim Hashem?" ("Who is like You, O L-rd, among the mighty?". After three years of guerrilla warfare in the hills and forests against the strong and powerful armies of the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus, the relatively small and poorly armed Maccabim won, and recaptured Jerusalem. But WHAT started this revolt? What shocked the Maccabim into action?
One of my favorite stories of Chanukah is the story about Chana (Hannah). Not the extremely powerful story of Hannah and her 7 sons, but a different ‘Chana’.
This 'Chana' used what I think is an important strategy to wake people up from their stupor. Shock.
Too many of us do not want to change our daily routine. We are comfortable in our lives and we don’t want disruption, and so it easier to bear burdens if they come in servings that we are able to swallow. If an evil regime passed all their terrible laws at once, people would be convinced they must fight. But if the laws are ushered in one by one, in bite sized pieces, we learn to adapt. We act this way because it is easier to be a little uncomfortable than have to go to battle and face having to risk it all, to lose everything we have worked for and even possibly risk our lives and that of our children. No one likes disruption, and so we swallow the evil.
Sometimes we need someone to slap us, to wake us from our stupor and fight the evil that has embedded itself in our midst. A young woman who lived many years ago did just that. And we should all thank her.
The story from the Midrash goes like this:
(Taken from http://www.morim-madrichim.org/en/content/AC/229/chanukah-and-heroines?firstreq=1 )
The Marriage of Chana, Daughter of Mattathias (Mattityahu)
As part of their campaign to break the spirit of the Jews, the Greeks decreed that every maiden must spend her wedding night in the bed of the regional governor, and that only afterward would she be permitted to her husband. They wanted to destroy Jewish sanctity and degrade the Jews. As a result of this decree, the Jews stopped marrying. For three years and three months, no wedding was held in Judea. Then it came time for Hannah, daughter of Mattityahu the Hasmonean to marry. In spite of the decree, Mattityahu held a great celebration, inviting the leaders of the nation, for Mattathias' family was extremely prominent. The bride sat, as was customary, at the head table, but suddenly stood up, clapped her hands together, and tore her expensive wedding dress, exposing herself.
Everyone looked away in embarrassment, and her brothers ran to fall upon her and kill her for shaming herself and her family.
But Hannah exclaimed to them all, 'now you are so zealous as to shield your eyes?, for THIS you are zealous, yet you are willing to have a Greek see me naked and have his way with me?' She added, "Why, when I shame myself before my relatives and friends are you so filled with embarrassment and anger that you wish to kill me, but you agree to surrender me this night so the heathen governor can lie with me? Why do you not learn from Simon and Levy, sons of our forefather Jacob, who avenged the rape of their sister Dinah (in Genesis, chapter 34)? They were only two brothers who fought and took a whole city to free her, I have FIVE brothers - and where are you?'
This, my friends, is what spurred the revolt of the Maccabees on the Syrian-Greeks and led to the first holiday commemorating religious freedom and the lift of the yoke of Hellenism and Greek occupation.
The story of Hannah goes on:
"Everyone realized that Hannah was right; her brothers discussed the matter and came to a decision. They dressed their sister in the finest garments and brought her with great ceremony, at the head of a large procession, to the King. Hannah's brother's declared, "We are the sons of the High Priest, and it is not fitting that our sister be given to the governor. Our sister is fit only for the King himself!" The brothers' words found favor in the King's eyes.
The brothers accompanied Hannah to the royal bed chamber, and thereupon, seized the King and killed him. Afterward, they stormed out killing ministers, guards, and servants, who were in the palace. So began the Hasmonean revolt. "
A sequel to this story is the story of yet ANOTHER Jewish Heorine named Yehudit (Judith). Yehudit was a beautiful woman who single-handedly saved the Jewish town of Bethulia during the Hasmonean revolt.
When her city was surrounded and besieged by the Syrian army of General Holofernes, she made a plan to save her people. She left the city walls of Bethulia with her maid in what looked like her fleeing to Holofernes' camp. She told the cruel General Holofernes that she wanted to save herself and told him that the defeat of the Jews of the city was near. Impressed with Yehudit's beauty and her prediction of his defeat of the Jews, he invites her to celebrate with him 'alone'. Yehudit tells him she must eat her own food which she made, and shows him the cheese delicies she has brought with her. She feeds him this salty cheese, which induces the general to wash it down with wine and he falls into a deep sleep. She then approaches his bed and says a prayer:
"Answer me, O L-rd, as You answered Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, when you delivered the wicked general Sissera into her hands. Strengthen me this once that I may bring Your deliverance to my people whom this cruel man vowed to destroy, and let the nations know that You have not forsaken us..."
Yehudit then unsheathed Holofernes' heavy sword which was hanging near his bed and brought it down upon his neck with all her might.
She leaves his bloody corpse soaking his mattress and takes the head and her maid away from the slumbering enemy camp to Bethulia. She tells the Jews of Bethulia that victory will soon be theirs. She takes the head of Holofernes and puts it on a stake in public view to strengthen the will of the people. She then tells the Jewish men to wait for dawn to make a surprise attack. The enemy's camp is not prepared for a Jewish onslaught on them. When the morning comes with the charge of the Jews towards their camp, Holofernes's men run to their commander's tent where they find his headless body on the blood soaked mattress. In their shock, fear and confusion, they flee for their lives. The Jews won the revolt and Yehudit was their hero.
This Chanukah, we must remember the valor and strength of the Jewish women who risked their lives, to keep Israel Jewish. To Chana and her 7 sons, to Yehudit, and to Chana the daughter of the high priest who shocked the Jews into action, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.