A Hanukkah Meditation

It’s Almost Hanukkah

Hanukkah will soon be arriving (December 8, 2012 to be exact). The erev of the holiday falls on the night of December 7 — which happens to be the “date that will live in infamy” when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Which brings me to another possible war, the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, and to the Maccabees.

The Hanukkah Story

Hanukkah today is a pretty de-fanged holiday.  Sometimes people will dress up as Judah Maccabee and we’ll tell the story of the fight against Antiochus Epiphanes. We’ll light the menorah, of course, sing Hanukkah songs, and spin the dreidel for gold-wrapped chocolate gelt. Consider that the main story of Hanukkah began with one Jew killing another (the pious Mattathias did in the dude who was willing to engage in pagan sacrifice), not to mention the anti-Semitic legislation emanating from Antiochus and his defilement of the Temple by sacrificing treif to Zeus on the altar. (The legend of the eight days of oil didn’t come till much later.)

It’s a long way from all that to the safety of Grandma’s kitchen and her golden-brown latkes.

Missiles and Messiahs

As I write this, Israel has responded to a long-term barrage of missile attacks by striking back at Hamas in Gaza, and the situation has since escalated. If not for the Iron Dome system in place, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem may well have seen serious casualties and loss of life by now. And of course there is loss of civilian life in Gaza as well.

What do people look for in times like these?

Right now, failing to achieve a ceasefire, Israelis will be looking for a military solution to the rain of missiles coming from Gaza.

Confronted with tough times, religious Jews hope for a Messiah — one who will, among other things, destroy Israel’s enemies.

Despite the party atmosphere of Hanukkah, most Jews read the story of the Maccabees as the story of military victory, enabling Judaism and the Jewish people to continue unmolested.

Enter Jesus …

… or to use his Hebrew name, Yeshua.

Then came Hanukkah at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Judean leadership gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (John 10:22-24)1

It seems to me that the question being put to Jesus at Hanukkah is this: “We know how the Maccabees defeated the Greek-Syrian armies. If you’re the Messiah, that means you’re claiming to defeat Rome just like the Maccabees —  so out with it already! Are you the Messiah or not?”

Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, …” (John 10:25)

Jesus’ answer reflected his own vision of what he was all about. He never claimed to be the kind of Messiah who would defeat Roman armies. Instead he performed miracles of healing and compassion, and taught his followers that he would go to his death as the atoning sacrifice for our sins (that is, the sins of Jews and Gentiles alike), and rise from the dead the third day after.

It’s not what a lot of people wanted to hear.

People and Problems

When you think about it, most of the problems in this world are due to people — how we treat one another, how we fail to treat one another. The root problem of Antiochus, of Hamas, of Israel, of Norway, of you and of me — is the sin in our hearts that leads to war. Perhaps we don’t all wage war on the scale of nations. But I’ve seen enough to know that we all manage to do it on a more personal level.

If it weren’t for all the people, we could finally live in peace.

Of course that makes no sense, because we are the people. Jesus knew that the problems of the heart had to be resolved before the problems of politics could be addressed.

Israel and Hamas are once again on the verge of warfare. It’s good and right to seek political solutions, to work for ceasefires, to address issues of justice and injustice and humanity on both sides of the fence. Yet a deeper solution will elude us until matters of the human heart are addressed, exactly what Jesus said he came to offer.

So This Hanukkah …

… as you munch latkes, spin dreidels, and light the menorah, think about what Hanukkah means. Is it just about the tough guerilla warriors of the Maccabee family? Is it even about the legend of the oil?

Consider what Jesus said at Hanukkah — even if you don’t usually read the New Testament. Hanukkah means dedication. More than dedicating an altar, Hanukkah can be about dedicating ourselves to God this year. At the end of the day, that will be the only sure, permanent path to peace.

Missiles only go so far (no pun intended). The Messiah Yeshua is who we really need this Hanukkah season.


1 In the interests of full disclosure: most translations say “the Feast of Dedication,” going from the Greek directly into English; but the Greek is exactly the translation for “Hanukkah.” Most translations say “the Jews gathered,” but after all Jesus and his followers were Jewish too; the correct nuance is to the leadership, particularly in Judea (the Greek words for Jewish and Judean are the same). Finally, most translations say “Christ” — which every yeshiva bocher ought to know, if they don’t already, means “Messiah.”