It’s been more than 2,000 years since the Syrian-Greeks tried – and failed – to stamp out Jewish life and culture and, ultimately, the Jewish people. Since that time, as before then, anti-Semitism has been a constant in the world. Sometimes vicious and open, sometimes mannered and well-concealed, but never extinct. Recent events in the U.S. have confirmed that the oldest hatred in the book unfortunately is alive and well, and have fractured the complacency of one of the most comfortable communities in Jewish history.
The story of Chanukah is eternally inspiring. A Hollywood film could not match the drama, the memorable heroes and villains, the high-stakes action, and the wondrous “special effects” courtesy of G-d Himself. But can the tale of the Maccabees’ victory and subsequent restoration of the Temple inform today’s battles against anti-Semitism?
Initially, the Hellenists sought to envelop the Jews in their hedonistic culture and thereby fold them into the Syrian-Greek empire. There wasn’t – at first – a Haman- or Hitler-style plan to annihilate us, but rather a spiritual holocaust which eventually gave way to a brutal military campaign that killed thousands of Jews.
In our times, we see many forms of “soft” anti-Semitism: attempts to curtail brit milah and shechitah, denigration of the Torah’s prescription for morality, silencing and ostracizing supporters of Israel… And then there is “hard,” club-in-hand anti-Semitism, of which the Pittsburgh massacre is the deadliest recent example in a sea of smaller-scale assaults from Brooklyn to Berlin.
Chanukah teaches the sobering lesson that these two types of anti-Semitism are not disparate animals but two heads of the same monster. The willingness of the self-appointed paragons of enlightenment to welcome us into their good society, provided we adopt their norms and viewpoints, should trigger a familiar alarm bell. Discarding Jewish baggage that exceeds the permitted carry-on size of the prevailing culture does not guarantee us a safe journey. Only G-d can offer that; our faithfulness to Him, and to no other carrier, is our ticket.
That brings me to a second, more inspiring message of Chanukah. The routing of Antiochus’ mighty army was accomplished by strong, brave Jewish fighters possessing minimal munitions but one most powerful weapon: Heavenly assistance. The convergence of hishtadlut (human effort) and hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) created an impermeable shield against the Syrian-Greeks. The Jewish people did not give up, nor did they wait patiently for Hashem to save them. They rallied in His Name – “Mi LaHashem Eylai!” – and stood up to fight.
At a time when Israel, on the very ground on which the Maccabees tread, is now once again fending off perilous attacks from determined, well-armed foes, what better reminder is there than the festival we are about to celebrate that we can and will prevail no matter the odds? Chanukah is the “proof through the night” that – if we follow the Maccabees’ example – Israel and the Jewish people will survive and overcome the obstacles before us.