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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Mi-ketz 5759
Rosh Hodesh Tevet – Shabbat Hanukkah
Genesis 41:1 - 44:17
December 19, 1998    30 Kislev 5759

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Judaism shuns the celebration of military victory. The conquest of Canaan by Joshua was never transmuted into a holy day. Passover commemorates our redemption from Egypt; Shavuot, the giving of the Torah at Sinai; Tisha B'Av, the destruction of the Temples; but the demolition of Jericho by Joshua or the final achievement of sovereignty with the erection of the national shrine at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1) find no place in the religious calendar of Judaism.

Nor is Hanukkah, a post-biblical festival, an exception to this pattern. It is not the military prowess of Judah Maccabee and his brothers or the territorial expansion under the Hasmonean dynasty which our liturgical texts perpetuate, but rather the memory of Mattathias, the priestly father of the family and instigator of the rebellion, and the ensuing religious persecution and eventual cleansing of the Temple. For the Talmud (B.T. Shabbat 21b), the miracle is not the expulsion of the Syrians from Jerusalem, but a tiny flask of pure olive oil which unaccountably burned for eight days at the rededication of the Temple.

As I said last week, the Rabbis, who gave Hanukkah its final religious imprint, had come to doubt the benefit of taking up arms against the Roman Empire, especially after three catastrophic failures. They did not preserve the text of the First Book of Maccabees, which was written originally in Hebrew rather than the Greek in which the text has survived, and is a full and straightforward account, without theological embellishment, of the ingenious Maccabean campaign against a vastly superior military force. And they expunged both the feats and the despotism of the Hasmonean kings that followed Simon, the last of Judah's brothers, from Jewish collective memory. The historic irony was probably not lost on the Rabbis: the Maccabees had risen to defend Judaism against foreign contamination yet ended up being a major force for its Hellenization.

Against this backdrop, we must also understand the haftora selected by the Rabbis for Shabbat Hanukkah. Taken from the prophet Zechariah, who lived in the late sixth century B.C.E., it urges the exiles who had but shortly returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia to resume the construction of a new Temple. Zechariah uses the menorah as an image of divine favor, hence the link to Hanukkah. Deep faith will prevail over material weakness. Resoundingly, the haftara culminates with the famous line: "Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit, says the God of heaven's hosts (4:6)."

However, I wish to argue that in the mind of the Rabbis there is more to this prophetic reading for Hanukkah than merely a message of political quiescence. Surely that is the overt meaning behind their choice, given their accommodation to hard reality. But the Maccabean uprising also introduced the value of religious martyrdom (as opposed to sovereignty or religious freedom) which the Rabbis did make normative. The Second Book of Maccabees, an abridgement of a larger work written in Greek in the Diaspora, records two chilling instances in which Jews caught by the Syrians prefer brutal execution to violating the commandments of their God. The long history of religious martyrdom as the supreme act of faith has its origins in this ancient book and the persecution that lies behind it. The aged Eleazar and the unnamed sons of a single mother became the prototype for both Jews and Christians. The Church eventually canonized the seven brothers, calling them Maccabees, and designated August 1 as the commemoration of their martyrdom. Preserving and embellishing such acts of martyrdom prepared others to respond with resolve when put to the test. Sounding this note, II Maccabees has Eleazar declare after rejecting all Syrian advances: "By departing this life courageously now, I shall show myself worthy of my old age, and to young men I shall have left a noble example of how to die happily and nobly in behalf of our revered and holy laws (6:27-28)."

While the Rabbis erased the memory of military victories associated with the Maccabees, they often retold the martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons, though shifting it to a Roman setting. In one version, the narrative closes bitterly as the mother says to her sons: "Go and tell your father Abraham: you put up one altar to sacrifice your son, but I have put up seven (B.T. Gittin 57b)." As Jewish life deteriorated, the Rabbis disseminated many similar tales of martyrdom to steel the faith of their beleaguered flock.

Within this context, the haftara bears yet a second message more relevant for Jews condemned to insecurity and degradation in a hostile body politic. Deep faith has the power to transcend daily hostility, to turn the Torah into a portable homeland and to render the pen mightier than the sword. The words of Zechariah put a premium on mind over matter, on will over fear, on transcendence over self.

And it is with this second message that Hanukkah can touch contemporary American Jews who live in an unprecedented moment of collective security and individual freedom. The call to spiritual nobility is a plea for fidelity to an ancient legacy far greater than the self. It is an affirmation of being over becoming, of ascribed status to achieved status. It is a repudiation of our endless quest for novelty, of our ceaseless efforts to redefine who we are, of our frenetic worship of the self.

Nothing could be more alien to our current mindset than martyrdom. And yet without a spiritual center of gravity, a core of ultimate values, an attachment to something eternal, our lives flutter without purpose or satisfaction.

It is no accident that the Rabbis speak of the study of Torah in the imagery of martyrdom. "R. Simon the son of Lakish claimed that the words of Torah spring to life only when one is prepared to kill oneself over them, as it is said: 'This is the procedure [Torah]: When a person dies in a tent [i.e. the tent of Torah]' (Numbers 19:14; B.T. Gittin 57b)."

The paradox is that unless we command an ideal for which we would be willing to die, life is not worth living.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Miketz are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.