Hanukkah (and Leadership)

It’s the end of Hanukkah today.

So what have we been celebrating?

The traditional story recounts how in 167 BC, Yehuda HaMaccave (Judas Maccabeus, or Judah the Hammer) led a relatively small band of Hebrew fighters against the professional army of the Syrian Greeks occupying the Holy Land. The Syrian Greeks had occupied Israel following the death of Alexander the Great and attempted to force Greek culture upon the Jews, even criminalizing Jewish worship. The Maccabees drove out the Syrian Greeks, carved out a small kingdom around Jerusalem, and began the Hasmonean dynasty that lasted 103 years.

When the Jews re-captured the Jewish Temple in 164 BC, they found it filled with idols. After they had cleansed the Temple, they needed to resume worship on the 25th of the Hebrew month Keslev. But at that point Judah, who as also a priest, had only enough sanctified olive oil to keep the menorah lit for a single day. His brothers, and the other priests, would need eight days to sanctify more oil and return. Miraculously, the one day’s supply of oil lasted for eight days. Thus, Hanukkah begins on 25 Keslev and commemorates the miracle of the lights, as well as rededication of the Temple, and the victory of the vastly outnumbered Jews over the Syrian Greeks.

Whether you believe in the miracle of the lights or not, the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty and a period of Jewish rule in Israel is documented in the accepted history of the period. So, we have the spiritual miracle or the military miracle (or both) to celebrate. And that’s usually where the story ends.

The traditional story leaves out the three years of fighting that led up to the recapture of the Temple and the twenty-two that followed, before Syrian Greeks made peace. It also leaves out the conflict between the devout Jews and Hellenistic Jews who embraced the Greek way of life (including its pagan religions).  And…well it also leaves out how in the entire Hasmonean dynasty only one Prince (Judah) and one Queen (Salome) ruled justly. The rest, they were corrupted by their power, conquered the surrounding peoples and one Hasmonean Prince even forced some conquered tribes to convert to Judaism at the point of a spear. Not a proud day for the Jewish people. The story of a kingdom that started out based on religious freedom and a fight to worship according to their conscience, ended with forced conversion and oppression.

So are we celebrating the entire 103 year Hasmonean dynasty? No, the whole isn’t worthy of celebration. Are we celebrating Judah the Hammer and Queen Salome? Perhaps. Are we celebrating the triumph of righteousness, over oppression? Certainly, however long it may last.  But if we remember only what we want to, and ignore the rest, we may repeat the mistakes of history.

So what’s the lesson here? Celebrate the light, but don’t forget the shadows. And whenever you’re in charge, be the kind of leader you would have wanted, back when you weren’t.

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