Fourteen years before he was killed during Israel’s daring rescue of Jewish hostages at Entebbe airport, Yoni Netanyahu wrote the following: “Because each and every minute is made up of seconds and of even briefer fragments of time, and every fragment ought not to be allowed to pass in vain… I must feel certain that not only at the moment of my death shall I be able to account for the time I have lived; I ought to be ready at every moment of my life to confront myself and say: This is what I’ve done.” (Yonatan Netanyahu, Self-Portrait of a Hero)
Nearly 2,200 earlier Mattathias and his sons led a revolt against the oppressive rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the ruler of the Seleucid Empire. The first battle occurred in Modein, in the land of Israel, when Mattathias killed a fellow Jew who was obeying the king’s order to sacrifice to his pagan gods. Mattathias then single handedly killed the king’s officers standing nearby. He cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” And he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the city. (I Maccabees 2) Thus begins the three year war which culminates in the Jewish fighters reclaiming Jerusalem and rededicating the ancient Temple.
Our history is filled with many battles, wars and struggles. To my mind they are far too numerous. My rabbinic forebears felt so as well and thus recast Hanukkah into the holiday that we know today. They made the day not so much about a military victory but instead about a divine miracle. We light the menorah not to commemorate the Maccabees’ bravery, military cunning and ultimate victory but the miracle of oil lasting for eight days. In the rabbinic imagination the soldier must be stilled and war silenced. Only God’s power remains manifest. Authoring their books in the years following Jerusalem’s destruction and subsequent failed rebellions (in particular Bar Kochba’s in 135 C.E.) they saw only danger in celebrating the feats of soldiers. They foisted all their hopes on God and scant few on their own might and power.
Our world is of course not like the early rabbis and not as well like the Maccabees. Here in the United States we are blessed with a vibrant diaspora community. 6,000 miles away there exists the seemingly unprecedented, a sovereign Jewish state. Never before have we beheld such blessings in the same day and age.
When Shimon Peres asked the soldiers returning from Entebbe how Yoni Netanyahu was killed, the answer came immediately: “He went first; he fell first.” Whether we rely on God’s miracles or our own strength we must always have such faith to go first. Yoni Netanyahu is perhaps the modern embodiment of Hanukkah’s ancient message. Netanyahu like the rabbis reveals in his letters that he was disheartened by war. But Yoni Netanyahu was also like Mattathias because he was zealous and unafraid.
As we light our menorahs and celebrate Hanukkah we thank God for daily miracles. But we must also remember we dare not wait for them.