Tonight we are here together to celebrate a minor Jewish festival that commemorates the restoration and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 166 BCE. It is sometimes called the Jewish Festival of light. Its central theme and symbol is the great gold seven branched lamp that stood in front of the Holy of Holies in keeping with the Law of Moses. Too often in our enthusiasm in lighting the wicks night after night for eight days until the entire surrounding is illuminated we forget some of the incidents that led to either the revolt of the peasantry of Judaea under the leadership of Judas Macchabaeus against the ‘Greek’ rulers of the land…or the involvement of even the Temple and its priesthood in perhaps creating the conditions that led to it.
On the death of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE his conquest was divided amongst his Macedonian generals after much contention. After the absorption of the Greek city states, Egypt and the trans Mesopotamian Empire of the Persians that had conquered the Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian kingdoms of what we all today southern Iraq, the world had changed considerably. Under the Macedonians were their attempts to unify at least some aspects of it according to what were called by some, the dream of Alexander. One world, one ruler, one God, a single language and even a model for the intermarriage of peoples who had hitherto lived quite separated cultural and religious lives. How many of these aspirations (ideals?)are attributable to him are perhaps questionable as his later biographers tended to magnify his exploits and the magic of his person.. Nonetheless this new world was certainly, though diminutive in many respects, had become globalized, Apparently no people escaped the temptation of repudiate their old traditions in order to participate: socially, intellectually and even religiously, in it…the Jews were no exception.
Most likely in emulation of Alexander who had named his model city Alexandria and given it a constitution modeled on that of Athens. A distant relative of Alexander, Antiochus named his new capitol Antioch that included within it administratively not only Syria but also the Jewish Commonwealth that had emerged after rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. By 168 especially the urban Temple priesthood, and circles associated with it, had to a degree become ‘Hellenized’, spoke and dressed like and took Greek names. In 168 BCE through edict of King Antiochus and in collusion with the priesthood Judaism as such was proscribed, and the Temple re-dedicated to Zeus, pigs offered on its altar and the Law of Moses: the guardians of Jewish identity was profaned. Jerusalem became part of the new globalism. The great ever burning Seven branched candlestick was extinguished.
By 166 a revolt was intricately organized and programmed that was initiated by the family of Judah the Hashmonean and on a night suddenly bonfires were ignited that seemed to catch each other’s fire until the hill tops were ablaze and the revolt succeeded in seizing Jerusalem. The re-establishment of the Jewish state was a given a miracle to mark its success as well…It is said that when the Temple had been cleansed and it was the hour to light the great Menorah that no ritually pure olive oil could be found save in a single ewer that refilled itself nightly as eight days passed until suitable oil could be brought.
Thus, in our synagogue since at least 1996 when we began the work of renovation annually we light our menorot – one placed prominently before one of the iron gates for all to see to attest to our adherence to Jewish values. This year it is done with some anxiety which is not part of the spirit of the festival as we have little oil for it.
The profanation of the Temple in collusion with some of its priests and certainly of the
Jewish establishment of the time, has been forgotten in the course of re-telling of the event.
It is customary to lay full blame on the ‘Greeks’ which, in this context actually means
Jews who had already made their own kind of compromise with Greek culture and civilization. Seeking meaning and definition in the secular globalized world that opened un-explored means of economic and social advancement…or to Macedonian and Syrian mercenaries in the army of King Antiochus.
The Temple was, at this time, the central focus of Jewish life. Its rituals, priesthood and sacrifices carried out three times a day were by many understood as the stable pivot on which the world is balanced and was the source of Jewish identity as adherents to the Torah.
I can say truthfully that Etz Hayyim, as our Temple, has been an important means in my re-defining myself, if only weekly, as a Jew when we gather for Kabbalat Shabbat – I thank you all for this and I especially pray that our Menorah remains a beacon. G-d bless you all.