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December 6, 2001

A Lesson from the Maccabees

As we celebrate the heroism of the Maccabees, let's focus on the hope.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/celebrations_simchas/article/a_lesson_from_the_maccabees_20011207

Children in Israel celebrating Chanukah. From The Illustrated History of the Jewish People, Harcourt Brace & Company.

Children in Israel celebrating Chanukah. From The Illustrated History of the Jewish People, Harcourt Brace & Company.

The news from Israel these days takes me back to 165 BCE. We all know the story: The Maccabees, a small band of Jewish rebels, fight the mighty Syrians who rule the land and have desecrated the Temple. Judah and his insurgent band hide in the mountains and caves around Jerusalem and attack the superpower with rocks, arrows, and whatever other weapons they can find.

The ironic hand of history has reversed the Chanukah story today. It's Israel who is now portrayed as the conquering and insensitive superpower. It's the Palestinians who are defending their avowed claim to the land with rocks and stones. The Temple Mount has again become the setting for violence.

We have only our imaginations with which to draw portraits of the Maccabees. But we have videotapes and long-lens cameras that have captured front-page pictures of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy collapsing against his father, or of an Israeli soldier being thrown out a window into a lynch mob. How do I explain such pictures to my children? What can I -- should I -- teach my children about power and powerlessness?

My 9-year-old daughter Shoshana says that in her Jewish day school last year she learned that a lot of people are getting hurt on all sides. Many of her classmates saw the violent images and wanted to discuss what was happening. Her teacher suggested that in their moments of daily silent prayer, the children could add their own prayers for peace in Israel.

"Is it good to be strong?" I ask Shoshana. "Yes," she nods. "It helps Israel." "Can you ever be too strong?" I persist. She cites her vast experience on the subject from a "Hey Arnold" television episode. "Arnold's grandmother taught him karate. Then Arnold met a guy, and he thought he was going to be mean, so before hearing what the guy wanted, Arnold punched him," Shoshana remembers. "The guy just wanted to know where the bus stop was."

Of course, the crisis in Israel goes way beyond karate chops and bus stops, beyond big bullies beating up on little kids with pebbles. But it is about strength and how to use it; it is about listening, about perceptions, misconceptions and alternatives to violence. As peace becomes more and more elusive, Israel is caught in the horrendous vise of using just enough power to defend itself without exceeding limits.

The critical question of our time is how to exert power with restraint, says Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, founder of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and president of the Jewish Life Network, which supports Jewish social and educational programs. "The use of force is legitimate in the name of defense. But anytime you use force, even if you exercise restraint, innocent people will suffer. That's part of the complexity of real life."

The great evolution of the Jewish people, Greenberg continues, is that we've given up powerlessness. "That's healthy. Powerless people cannot exist anymore, so Israel could not exist if it were powerless. But the stronger you are, the harder you have to work at controlling yourself and admitting mistakes."

Greenberg points out that the warm, fuzzy Chanukah story with its happy ending is not true to history. The Syrians, and the Hellenist Jews who supported them, didn't accept the Maccabees' victory as final. For 20 years, the two sides continued to battle each other. The Maccabees suffered a major defeat until they eventually triumphed and achieved both religious and political independence; Judah was killed in the process.

"People love a happy ending," Greenberg explains. "The romantic version of the story has been told through 2,000 years of exile and powerlessness. Now it should be told in the context of the real world. The Jewish people won sovereignty -- but in a painful way. They had to learn to fight. There are very few simple military solutions. After you've won, you have to negotiate your place in the world."

The analogy to the crisis in Israel today is obvious. But there are also many practical applications to our children's lives. The real Chanukah story can teach children to absorb defeat and rebound from setbacks. They have to continue rededicating themselves to their goals, because obstacles beset them every day. "Growing up means persisting until you're fully accepted," Greenberg says. "That's how you earn the label of maturity."

Our children's lives don't always follow the patterns they'd like. Accepting that certain problems may not have solutions -- or, at least, the solutions they'd prefer -- is probably one of the hardest lessons to learn. Shoshana prefaces every recollection about a family situation with what I like to call the B.D.-A.D. question: Did that happen "Before the Divorce," or "After the Divorce?" I imagine it's her way of putting her life in context.

It's important to talk to children from an early age about what it means to be strong, says Zina Rutkin, a psychologist in Great Neck, N.Y. Give children a broad definition, she says. "Strength doesn't simply imply muscle or exerting your will over someone else's. Being strong means using our brains and viewing situations from multiple perspectives. That's what sets us aside as humans."

Even preschoolers have a level of empathy, she says, and can turn that understanding of others' feelings into better playground politics. For older kids, popularity equals power. Encourage them to define power in terms other than force, she says: Power can mean including someone who is being ostracized or left out. In public school districts throughout Long Island, where I live, a special bully-prevention program teaches fourth- and fifth-graders to put themselves in others' shoes. Rather than focus exclusively on the bully or the bullied, the program targets the 80 percent in the middle, who constitute a silent majority.

It's not always clear who is the bully and who is being bullied. To try to protect themselves, victims often become aggressors, Rutkin explains. Teach kids alternatives early, she recommends, so they can express themselves through words instead of fists. Suggest that they ignore the aggressor. Nothing gets a child madder, she says; the lack of a reaction is the opposite of what they expect. Ask children to think about what's behind the taunting and bullying: not real power, but insecurity.

As with most things in life, the answer to the power dilemma seems to lie in achieving balance. Don't be a victim -- but don't abuse your strength. Stand up for your beliefs when you think you are being treated unfairly, but do so with maturity. That's a challenge for adults, not just for children. How much more so for entire nations.

"Life is unfair," Rutkin states. "All of us have to come to terms with that. We often teach kids they deserve everything instead of being able to tolerate minor injustices that are just life." When something is important enough to protest, she encourages her children to do so in a nonhysterical, cogent way. Her daughter Ariela and her friends, for instance, started a petition when they felt the paraprofessionals on the school playground were consistently assigning the girls a smaller soccer field than the one the boys used. All the girls in the grade signed the petition, and the situation changed.

If the use and misuse of power are inescapable aspects of life, so, too, are hope and despair. As we celebrate the heroism of the Maccabees, let's focus on the hope. Maybe the words of Zechariah we recite in the haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah will inspire a miraculous peace, both in Israel and in our own lives: "Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord."

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