Yom Chamishi, 13 AdarI 5781
Ta anith Esther Thursday, 25 February 2021
Parashat Vayeishev & Chanukkah 2012

Parashat Vayeishev & Channukah by Rabbi David Goldberg
7 December 2012

As my long-suffering wife and family know, I am a devotee of Cowboy films. I will watch every B Western on lunchtime TV, can recite the dialogue of The Searchers and Shane almost by heart and reckon I would win any Mastermind competition on the subject of the Wild West.  When people used to ask me what I would have liked to be if not a rabbi, I invariably replied, a trooper in the 7th Cavalry commanded by John Wayne in a John Ford Western.

My defence for this passion is that just as Albert Camus claimed he learned all he knew about morality from playing goalkeeper at football (also my position on the school team), all I know about right and wrong comes from childhood days at the cinema imbibing the code of the Old West. As fellow aficionados will recall, at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance the editor of the Shinbone Star newspaper famously declares: ‘When the fact becomes legend, print the legend!’

Which serves as a neat introduction to this week’s festival of Chanukkah, along with Pesach probably every Jews’ favourite festival; both festivals based more on legend than on fact, both celebrating an idealised triumph of right over might (just like cowboy films!) and providing a happy ending escape from harsh, everyday reality, especially in bleak midwinter.  An ancient rabbi once described the homilies in the Midrash as berachot v’nechamot – ‘benedictions and consolations’.  That is what Chanukkah is; a consolatory story of redemption.

The actual facts were less heart-warming. The long struggle of the Maccabees against Seleucid domination did indeed restore Temple worship and usher in a brief period of Jewish independence. But the Hasmonean dynasty that ensued was as corrupt, dysfunctional, riddled with court intrigue and palace assassinations and just as nasty, as any other ancient despotism or recent Middle Eastern tyrannies like Gaddafi’s or Bashar Assad’s. The end result of the Maccabean triumph was to leave Herod, a hated Idumean (from biblical Edom), on the Judean throne as a lackey of mighty Rome, which led in turn to the uprising of 70 CE and the destruction of pokies australia the Temple, and that led…..and so on and on.

Of course, it is only in hindsight that history unfolds in such a clear-cut, linear fashion. At the time, those in power are desperately trying to impose order on events that happen randomly and messily, whether it be the Maccabean descendant John Hyrcanus ruling Judea from 134-104 BCE or Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel today. In modern parlance, ‘stuff happens’. And because that ‘stuff’ is always new and unexpected, so too our response to it needs to be fresh and flexible, drawing on previous experience from analogous situations to guide the way in which we respond.

‘Learn from history’ should be the first lesson drummed into rulers.  It is a regular biblical motif. ‘Remember’ is one of the most frequent words in the Bible, followed by its synonym ‘Do not forget’.  That is an incidental moral of the wonderfully subtle Joseph story that we begin reading from the Torah this Shabbat. We learn that the imprisoned chief butler was profuse in his promises to remember Joseph, but once restored to Pharaoh’s favour forgot all about him; as did, incidentally, the Pharaoh who arose several generations later and enslaved the Israelites because he ‘knew not Joseph’ – another link in the chain of remembering and forgetting.

Because we like to think of ourselves as the exception to the rule, all too often we forget andfail to learn from history. What other explanation can there be for Bush and Blair’s disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan? Their foreign policy advisors, who at least should have known their history, were equally culpable. And when, dare one ask, is the Israeli government going to learn from history and take on board the inevitable consequences, from Roman times onwards, of empire-building at the expense of subjugating another people?

So by all means let us enjoy celebrating the legend of Chanukkah and its harmless opportunities for fun. But it will be to our long-term peril both as Jews and Israelis if we remember only the legend, and choose to ignore, or forget, the uncomfortable facts that lay behind it.