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The Light That Burns

A candle is a brief flare of light. A wick dipped in oil burns and then goes out again. The light of Chanukah appears to follow the same narrative. Briefly there is light and warmth and then darkness again.

120 years after the Maccabees drove out the foreign invaders and their collaborators, another foreign invader, Herod, the son of a Roman Idumean governor, was placed on the throne by the Roman Empire, disposing of the last of the Maccabean kings and ending the brief revival of the Jewish kingdom.

The revived kingdom was a plaything in the game of empires. Exiled by Babylon, restored by Persia, conquered by the Greeks, ground under the heel of the remnants of Alexander's empire, briefly liberated by the Parthians, tricked into servitude and destroyed by Rome. The victory of the Maccabean brothers in reclaiming Jerusalem was a brief flare of light in the dark centuries and even that light was shadowed by the growing darkness.

Israel was free only to the extent that the prowess of the Maccabees had made it too expensive to properly reconquer. Playing off the Syrian-Greeks against Rome allowed a temporary independence that ended when one of the players dropped out. Even as Rome's power was growing, its headlong collapse into decadence led to heavy spending, corruption and barbarism.

The fall of the Roman Republic made the end of Israeli independence inevitable. The civil wars of the new empire, its uncontrollable spending and greed made it hopelessly corrupt. Caesar repaid Jewish loyalty by empowering the Idumean murders of Jewish kings, which made the Jewish crowds weeping over his death in Rome all the more pathetic. After Caesar's death, his successors saw the Jewish state as a way to bring in some quick money by squeezing the populace. Out went the Jewish kings, in came the son of Rome's tax collector, Herod.

The instability of the Roman Empire made it perpetually hungry for money. Gold and silver were the lubricants of empire. The loyalty of armies, ministers and nations could be bought with enough of the stuff. Ruling meant collecting revenues. Whatever promises had been by the Senate to the Maccabees had ceased to matter long ago. A Rome where loyalty meant nothing between senators and aspirants to the throne, meant even less to the descendants of a small foreign kingdom.

Imperial greed collided with Jewish nationalism in a war that for a brief shining moment seemed as if it might end in another Chanukah, and when Jerusalem was liberated and stayed free for several years, it led to the holiday of Lag BaOmer, which when Rome finally crushed the revolt and the Jewish state, had to be disguised with symbolism and code words. There were more revolts and while Jerusalem was freed again, that freedom never endured until 1948 and 1967.

The real lesson of Chanukah is in the dreidel, that wooden or plastic spinning top, which lands to reveal a single letter. Freedom is a game. If you play well, then you might win it. Play badly and you lose everything.

The miracles of the war and of the oil that burned for eight days showed the Hand of G-d in these events, but as always it was the hands of men that the problem lay. In the grasping hands of men who had been brave fighters, but whose sons became quarreling kings greedy for power, it lay in wars over doctrines that were actually wars for power, and in the men who followed them all the way to Rome.

Today the streets of Jerusalem are lit by Menorahs again, even as the city is besieged by the greed of empires desperate not for gold, but for oil, and for buying peace with the hordes of the east. If an occasional Gingrich speaks the rare truth about the history of the region, he is quickly silenced by the weight of Muslim oil and imperial concerns about regional stability.

When a Jewish house goes up in Jerusalem, Proconsul Shapiro trims his beard and delivers a stern warning from Washington D.C. If the house is large enough, then one of the emperor's minions will issue an even sterner reprimand. The White House has made it clear that it supports Livni or Barak on the throne, but its officials can only do so much to remove the leader of a democracy, and its attentions are occupied elsewhere with unrest in North Africa and Syria.

The United Kingdom, the Syrian Greeks to Washington's Rome, has much less restraint about interfering. Its troops haven't been gone so long that the old imperial instincts and grudges aren't still there. And the European Union, doing its best to play a Fourth Reich, is still trying to figure out how to edge out the Americans and take control of the situation the same way that was done in Yugoslavia and Libya.

And the degenerate sons of the Maccabees, they too are with us. The sons and daughters of the men who liberated Israel in 1948 turn eagerly to foreign powers, fight over power and expect to be MK's or Prime Ministers because of who their parents were. And their children are often even worse. The establishment is built on lies upheld by the most thoroughly rotten media establishment outside of Moscow or Cairo and enforced by a law enforcement and judicial apparatus that is almost as bad.

As the Maccabees went from a rural family resisting the rot from the elites in Jerusalem to the rot at the center of Jerusalem, so too the grandsons and great-grandsons of the men and women who guarded orchards and villages now wage war from the big cities against the rural families working the farms and orchards.

While Tel Aviv and Jerusalem quarrel over doctrine, the tide rolls in. The revived Jewish kingdom was a plaything of empires that never escaped imperial obsessions. The new Israel is much the same. The United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republicans both approved it for varying reasons. The British left, the French came in, the French left and the United States came in. Russia is still on its borders and the Chinese are slowly contemplating their move.

While the Muslim Arabs dream of an empire of their own, the Jews still quarrel over a tiny state, still not having learned that internal division is the quickest way to foreign dominion. The Jews who returned from the exile of empires some twenty-six hundred years ago were never able to escape them. The Maccabees who rose up against Syrian-Greek dominance fell into the same pattern of obsessing over political power and the nature of a state. On a tiny sliver of land, bellicose arguments go on as if the debates between the left and the right, the religious and the secular, will finally be settled here. But these debates are not philosophical, they are fights over microscopic bits of power and the smaller the sphere, the louder the argument.

There is a reason why we forget what happened to the Maccabees after Chanukah, it is because they became increasingly unworthy of the miracle. It is the miracle that we commemorate because it is a reminder of possibilities, the possibilities that were lost in sectarian fighting and the Roman night. Each time we light a candle or dip a wick in oil, we release a flare of light from the darkness to remind us of what was and of what can still be.

Two thousand years after the Jews had come to believe that wars were for other people and miracles meant escaping alive, Jewish armies stood and held the line against an empire and the would be empires of the region. Their victories were miraculous, the aftermath less so. The flame still burns, but it is flickering. Sixty-three years is a long time for oil to burn, especially when the black oil next door seems so much more useful to the empires and republics across the sea. And the children of many of those who first lit the flame no longer see the point in that hoary old light.

But that old light is still the light of possibilities. It burns to remind us of the extraordinary things that our ancestors did and of the extraordinary assistance that they received. We cannot always expect oil to burn for eight days, just as we cannot always expect the bullet to miss or the rocket to fall short. Each time it happens it reminds us of how little we have done to deserve such miracles and the great worth of this renewed opportunity that we have been given.

It was the search for pure oil that made the miracle of the eight days happen, a divine bridge that crossed the gap in human effort. Had no one intended to find or bring more oil, then the miracle would never have taken place. There would have been no point to it. Just as there would have been no reason to part the sea if no one had wanted to cross to the other side.

Generations longed to reclaim and rebuild the land, and having done it we are caught once again in a game of empires and a civil war between those who would put out the light and those who would bring oil so that the flame might burn, so that the miracle will have meaning and endure.


  1. Surah choshech, halah shchor,
    surah mipnei ha'or.

  2. !!!!!!

    Amen Lemon.

  3. Where's Isaac Stern when you need him?

  4. Anonymous21/12/11

    "The miracles of the war and of the oil that burned for eight days showed the Hand of G-d in these events, but as always it was the hands of men that the problem lay."

    I think one of the overriding messages of the Torah is that when Israel was righteous, God protected them, and when they forgot him, he sent enemies to stir them up to remembrance of him.

    I think this is one of the functions of resurgent Islam. As both the great Satan and little Satan slip into secular decadence, the jihad serves to stir us up to remembrance of God.

    After 9/11 we saw a brief resurgence of religious devotion, but apparently the wound was not serious enough to engage our attention in the long term, so I expect something worse. Maybe Iran's nukes will play a part in this. Let's hope they are not right about Israel being a "one-bomb state", or even a four-bomb state as more recent comments have indicated.

  5. Anonymous21/12/11

    "And the European Union, doing its best to play a Fourth Reich"

    Now that's interesting. I thought the EU was trying to copy the US! But now that you mention it, I suppose rampant socialism makes a comparison to National Socialism appropriate. Of course, in the headlong rush to socialism in the US, it looks more like we are striving to copy the EU.

    Any further insight into your reasoning behind the Fourth Reich model would be appreciated, whether a full article, or a note in the comments section.

  6. The Third Reich was supposed to be the successor of two previous German Reichs. The EU as the Fourth Reich to unify Europe fits into that model.

  7. Anonymous24/12/11

    "As the Maccabees went from a rural family resisting the rot from the elites in Jerusalem to the rot at the center of Jerusalem, so too the grandsons and great-grandsons of the men and women who guarded orchards and villages now wage war from the big cities against the rural families working the farms and orchards"
    Beuatiful and poetic as usual but then Sarah Honig's article in Jpost this week robs the current leadership of even their former glory

  8. Anonymous24/12/11

    previous coomet by BB


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