Ask any kid who is the hero of the Chanukah story and they will say Judah the Maccabee: the leader who waged war against the Greeks and became the hero of the story of Chanukah.
Recently, a child in Hebrew school asked me, “Why were there no Maccabees in the story of Purim? Haman decided to wipe out the Jewish people, so why didn’t they flee to the mountains and wage guerrilla warfare against him and the king who rubber stamped his genocidal scheme, like the Maccabees did during the war against the Greeks during the time of Chanukah?”
Why all the diplomacy of Queen Esther trying to save the Jewish people? Thank G-d it worked out, but if it hadn’t, wouldn’t the Jews have gone to war? So why was it a last resort in the story of Purim, while in the story of Chanukah the Maccabees don’t seem to have engaged in any excessive diplomacy and skipped straight to war?
The question is strengthened by the fact that our enemies in the story of Chanukah – unlike Haman in the story of Purim – were not seeking to destroy us. Theirs was a war on the Jewish way of life, not Jews, and yet the Maccabees go to war?
The answer is: that’s what happens when you start up with a Mama Bear.
During the story of Chanukah, the Greeks did not announce a plan to wipe out the Jewish people. Even their war on Jewish life did not involve outlawing the practice of Judaism altogether. They simply wanted G-d out of the picture. They granted the Jews permission to study the Torah and practice their faith as long as it was rational and logic-based. The concept of surrender to G-d and service to a higher desire and a divine wish was what the Greeks wanted to abolish.
Thus, it was not technically a war on Jews, nor on Judaism – it was a war on G-d. Now, that touched off the mama bear instinct in the Maccabees on behalf of the Jewish people. They said, “If you start up with us that’s one thing, but when you start up with our G-d, that’s a whole other thing. If you threaten to destroy us, we can come to the table; we can negotiate; we can use diplomacy; we can go about trying to get the decree annulled. But you lay hands on G-d and there will be a price to pay.”
The Maccabees went to war against the Greeks because the Greeks went to war against G-d. This is emblematic of the fact that as much as G-d has watched over and taken care of the Jewish people throughout the long and difficult years of exile, the Jews have watched over and taken care of G-d during that time too. Ours is a relationship with G-d; we are there for each other.
When Haman started up with the Jews, G-d quickly finished off Haman. When the Greeks started up with G-d, the Jews quickly went to war to finish off the Greeks. That’s how mama bear works. That’s what friends are for. When you love someone, you will defend them far quicker and with even more vigilance than you will defend yourself.
Today there is also a war against G-d, and it is once again our duty and our privilege to be there for Him. The Greeks waged their war against G-d with the weapons of violence. Today the war on G-d is waged not with violence but with ignorance. So, while the Maccabees fought back with war, fighting fire with fire, the call today is for us to pick up tools of education and fight the good fight to raise a generation of children who recognize that the world has a Creator, that the Creator has an opinion, that everything we have we owe to Him, and that His vision, hopes and dreams for the world rest upon our shoulders.
We are living in particularly urgent times. In the story of Chanukah, the Jews who went over to the other side were self-proclaimed atheists, rebelling against their parents and teachers who were believers. In cases like that, the rebellion itself is done with religious fervor. But today, where the ignorance is multigenerational, people struggle to believe, but so do their parents and their teachers. It is far less egregious but far more urgent.
We need to do everything in our power to speak to our families, friends and communities, one person at a time, with sincerity and respect, about the importance of living with a faith in, and a faithfulness to, G-d, in family, education, commerce and casual life. And words from the heart enter the heart.
Chanukah is not merely a celebration of what happened a long, long time ago. Like all our holidays they are as instructive as they are retrospective. They speak to us today, giving us guidance for today and telling us the call of the day, today.
On this Chanukah, be a Maccabee, be a lamplighter, carry the torch of Jewish pride, and let there be light!