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Echoes of Glory the Maccabees Bookmark and Share
Echoes of Glory the Maccabees
By: Rabbi Berel Wein

Mattisyahu and His Sons
Even the smallest hamlet in Judah was not safe from the oppression of the Hellenists. The altars to Zeus and other pagan deities were erected in every village in Judah, and Jews of every area were forced to participate in the sacrificial services.
In the small village of Modi'in there lived the family of Mattisyahu ben Yochanan, members of a priestly unit (Kohanim) attached to the High Priesthood in the Temple in Jerusalem. Mattisyahu himself was already aged and physically weak in 166 B.C.E. Nevertheless, when the Greek army attempted to activate the pagan worship service in the main square of Modi'in and found a Jew who would accommodate them, Mattisyahu led his five sons and other townspeople in revolt, killing the traitor and the Syrian-Greek soldiers surrounding the altar.

This act was the spark that lit the long-smoldering fire of Jewish revolt against Antiochus, Menelaus and Hellenism. Echoing the words of Moses shouted at an earlier moment of national crisis, Mattisyahu proclaimed, "Whoever is for God - let him come to me!" Mattisyahu and his sons, Shimon, Yochanan, Yehudah (Judah), Elazar and Yonasan, rallied an army of 6, 000 to their cause and retreated to the desert of Judah, from where they conducted a successful guerilla war against the more numerous and better-armed Syrian Greeks. By the time Mattisyahu died in 165 B.C.E., the war against the Syrian Greeks and their Hellenist Jewish allies was in full force, with the army of the traditional Jews led by Yehudah, who was known as Maccabee.

Yehudah HaMaccabee
Mattisyahu was the patriarchal figure, the hoary hero of the rebellion. He was the one who gave it spiritual justification and religious fervor. Yehudah, however, was the pragmatic leader, the warrior general whose skill, courage and tactics translated the religious hope of freedom into victory on the battlefield. After Mattisyahu's death, it was Yehudah's raw valor that rallied the Jewish forces and steeled them for the long ordeal ahead. Philip and Apollonius, the two main generals of Antiochus in Judah, attempted to annihilate the Hasmonean forces but instead suffered serious setbacks at Nablus and Beis Choron. Antiochus sent a third general, Seron, with a far larger army, to Beis Choron; but this force was also defeated by Yehudah.

Antiochus, enraged by the ineptitude of his generals, wildly swore to crush the Jews and lay waste to their country. However, he himself had great problems at home. His treasury was drained by his lavish personal spending, campaigns of conquest, the upkeep of his large standing army and the necessity of paying tribute to Rome. Therefore, before turning to Judah, he first invaded Persia to collect real or imagined tribute owed him. Bogged down in this thankless task, Antiochus appointed his blood relative, Lysias, to serve in his absence as head of the government of Syria and guardian of his young son, the heir to the throne, Antiochus V Eupator. The future of the war against Judah now was in Lysias' bloody hands.

The Miracle of Chanukah
Lysias appointed three of the most able generals of , Syria - Ptolemy Dorimenes, Nikanor and Gorgias to crush the Hasmonean rebellion. An enormous Syrian army, numbering almost 50,000 men, marched into Judah and encamped near the Emmaus. Yehudah marshalled his forces at Mitzpah, the biblical site of the home and grave of the prophet Samuel, twelve miles east of Emmaus. With guile and courage, Yehudah outmaneuvered the far larger Syrian army, forced it to divide and then destroyed its various components, killing many thousands and forcing the survivors to flee north to Syria. Lysias evidently despaired of subjugating Judah.

There was now no large Syrian force remaining in Judah, and Yehudah and the Hasmonean army turned in joy and awe to the task of liberating Jerusalem and purifying the Holy Temple. The accomplishment of this historic task is the basis of the miracle and festival of Chanukah.

The Jewish army retook Jerusalem, destroyed the pagan idols on the Temple Mount, purified the Temple and its vessels, drove out the hated Hellenist Jewish collaborators, and lit the candelabra in the Temple, which miraculously remained lit for eight days with only one day's fuel in its cups. Even though the military and political victo of the Hasmoneans were, historically speaking, short-lived, the glow of the holy fire they lit in the Temple in 165 B.C.E. still shines in Jewish world today.

The significance of the Miracl
Hanukah is not merely a commemoration of a victory of arms. Neither is it the symbol of religious freedom that much of modern Jewry, in its heartbreaking ignorance of its tradition, believes it to be. It is rather a clear restatement of an essential truth: that Torah demands of the Jewish people, individually and nationally, continuing sacrifice and unwavering commitment, and that when these are present in Jewish society, spiritual and even supernatural help will always guarantee Jewish survival.

The ritual of Chanukah observance throughout the ages, though not ignoring the military victory and heroism of the Hasmoneans, places its main emphasis on the rekindling of the Temple candelabra and the miracle of the small one-day pitcher of olive oil that fueled the holy candelabra for eight days.

The symbol of the candelabra of the Temple and of the eternal light shining therefrom has become the symbol of the people and the Torah of Israel. It is because of this emphasis on spiritual triumph and the victory of belief in Torah ritual and values that Chanukah is timeless and eternal. If it were only the commemoration of military might, Chanukah long ago would have disappeared, a hollow anniversary day, much as a celebration of the First Battle of Bull Run by the American South would be today.

Yehudah and the Hasmoneans used the respite granted them by the withdrawal of the Syrian armies to strengthen their fortifications and consolidate their control over the area surrounding Jerusalem. The walls of the Temple and of Jerusalem itself were repaired and in many places rebuilt.