The holiday of Chanukah is approaching and every year it’s important to refresh our thoughts about the event as we enjoy family, candles, dreidels and latkes. We are well aware of the victory of the Maccabees and how the few were victorious over the many. We remember that the war against the Jews was waging on two fronts – there was engagement with a foreign enemy as well as an internal one, the traitors within the Jewish people. There was a tremendous call for Jewish unity as the Maccabees rallied around the cry, “Whoever is for God should come to me.”
The women of that era were as involved as the men in maintaining a strong front against the enemies. While the men were away, engaged in warfare, the women were in the towns and cities maintaining Jewish culture and paying the ultimate price. We study the story of Judith and how her victory and inspirational leadership reads into the story of Chanukah. But it’s important to remember all the details and see what we can learn from them as well.
The hero of the Jewish people was Judah the Maccabee. We learn of his strategies in battle and his perspective on the enemy. The Book of the Maccabees describes to us how he rededicated the Temple and cleaned up the abominations that had been brought into the Temple, including foreign gods. We pay attention to the name Maccabee and connect the meaning to the word “hammer.” We have paid attention to everything except his first name: Judah.
Because we’re so familiar with this name and are so comfortable with it, we forget to ask what we can learn from his name that connects to Chanukah. The first time the name Judah is used by a Jewish person brings us to yet another woman: Leah. Our matriarch, Leah, gives birth to her fourth child and states that she is now giving thanks to God, and she named the baby Judah. The name itself means thanking God. The midrash tells us that until Leah came up with that concept, no one had thanked God.
We say prayers on Chanukah that clearly express our gratitude to God, and it’s the hero himself, Judah, whose name directs us to this gratitude. Yet at the same time, we’re taught to be careful about gratitude for victory in war. It’s clear that while we’re thankful for our victory, is that the same thing as rejoicing over the death of the enemy?
There’s a midrash that states that when we thank God for a victory, the sages quote a verse that says, “Give thanks to God” but does not then say “ki tov” (for He is good). According to the sages, “The Holy One does not rejoice at the downfall of the wicked.”
There was no limit to the cruelty enacted against the Jewish people as described in the Book of the Maccabees, but we don’t gauge our gratitude according to the wickedness of the enemy. We follow the name of Judah and always give thanks to God, but we must separate that from rejoicing over the death of an enemy.
Rachael Turkienicz is director of rachaelscentre.org.