We are in the month of Kislev, and it is fitting to learn and speak about the Maccabees who are the stars of the coming holiday. The Maccabees were distinguished by two traits: They were idealistic and they were undaunted by difficulty.
The five brothers were the sons of the elderly priest Mattityahu. The appellation “Maccabee” says it all. It is actually an acronym for “Mi kamocha ba’eilim Hashem,” meaning, “Who is like You among gods, Hashem?” “Maccabee” is a statement of total dedication to the One G-d. The battle the Maccabees waged was the first war in history to be fought not for the sake of land or power, but for the sake of a religious ideal.
The choice of the cosmopolitan residents of Judea to become Hellenists was simply conforming to a world trend. Greek culture, after all, was modern, enlightened, scientific, and universalistic, while Judaism was widely regarded as old-fashioned, tribal, and restrictive. In that era, taking on the Greek lifestyle was a prerequisite to becoming materially successful and culturally sophisticated. Acquiring Greek culture was a passport to first-class citizenship.
Greek troops entered the village of Modi’in and commanded the residents to sacrifice a pig to an idol. One Jew stepped forward to comply. An enraged Mattityahu killed the apostate and a Greek officer. Then he, his sons, and a handful of his supporters fled to the hills.
The Maccabees were, first and foremost, idealists. One can only imagine the discussion that took place that night in the cave where Mattityahu and his five sons were hiding. As they huddled in the cold because they dared not light a fire that would give away their whereabouts, they had to plan their next step.
They never intended to start a war; they didn’t dream of beating the mighty, well-equipped Greek army. Only one thing was clear to them: They would continue to practice the mitzvot of the Torah, and no force on earth would stop them. And if Antiochus sent his troops to enforce his nefarious decree, they would fight those troops. They would fight for their religious ideals.
Figure out what you’re willing to die for. Then live for it. That could have been the motto of the Maccabees. They were willing to die, and all five of them eventually did die for Hashem and the holy Torah. In that cave they decided to start fighting for that ideal.
Had they been pragmatists, they would have cowered before the Greek army with its 40,000 well-trained, well-equipped troops – plus elephants, the tanks of the ancient world. Had they been realists, they would have surrendered to the assimilation that had already swept their country and their people. But they were idealists, and an idealist does what’s right, whatever the cost, whatever the result.
Miraculously, they ended up winning. After three years of guerilla warfare, they drove the Greeks from Jerusalem and from the Holy Temple, and reinstituted the service in the Temple. It took them a full 26 years to achieve complete victory over the Greeks, and by that time four of the Maccabee brothers had been killed. Only Simon lived to witness the final withdrawal of the Seleucid Greek forces from Jerusalem, and seven years later he too was killed by a Seleucid plot.
Idealists, the Maccabees both devoted their lives to and gave their lives for their religious ideals. Sometimes a person who rises to heroic heights for the sake of ideals is routed by the day-to-day hardships of living. In our times, the expression “But it’s hard!” has become a common response to all kinds of proposals meant to benefit oneself and others.
Let’s go back to the cave where the Maccabees are discussing what to do. Imagine a 21st century person joining the discussion.
Judah Maccabee: “We can’t go back to our village. The Greeks are looking for us. We’ll have to live here in the cave, without any of the comforts of home.”
The 21st century person: “But that’s hard!”
All heads turn, but they decide to ignore the interruption. Another brother, Jonathan, continues: “We can’t even stay in this cave. We’ll have to keep moving around so the Greeks won’t find us.”
21st century person: “But that’s hard!”
Simon: “It means not seeing our wives and children – for as long as this takes. It could be a very long time.”
21st century person: “But that’s hard!”
Eliezer: “We can’t just hide. We have to go out and attack the Greek troops, engage them in battle.”
21st century person: “Are you kidding? That would be really hard.”
Maccabees, annoyed, in unison: “What does ‘hard’ have to do with it?”
Fortunately for us, the Maccabees were not discouraged by difficulty. If they had been, the Hellenists would have won, and Judaism would have disappeared. Not only would there be no Chanukah, but there would be no Judaism and no Jews. The Maccabees, dedicated to an ideal and undaunted by difficulty, are indeed worthy Jewish role models.
Today we are living though times when the Jews are being attacked by our enemies. May we too have the strength like the Maccabees to stand up to all that is evil, and be so close and connected to Hashem that even the greatest and biggest enemy will seem like nothing to us. And we will rely only on the one and only G-d.