The Maccabean revolt began in 167 BCE when Mattathias, a Hasmonean priest, stepped forward and killed a Hellenist Jew - one of the assimilated Jews who adopted Greek ways - who was about to make an offering to a Greek idol. Mattathias then killed an Assyrian soldier. The decision to take action, when before he and others had been willing to overlook or at least not condemn that kind of behavior, ultimately led to the Maccabean revolt. In this Midrashic Monologue, Mattathias’ son Judah the Maccabee recalls a conversation from before Mattathias died, when his father described the moment he knew that there was no other option but to stand up to the tyrannical King Antiochus, the Greek army, and even his Jewish brothers and sisters who had fallen in with the Hellenist bully-king.
When my niece, the ever-inquisitive, little Solomonia, asked me her question, I was dumbfounded. How could I help her understand such a complicated subject?
Our three-year war against the Assyrian-Greek army had ended well, and we had finally succeeded in pushing them out of the land of our ancestors. Yes, we had won, but it had been brutal. As I sat with my niece, I was still grappling with the miracle of our survival. Like so many who made it through the fighting, I was trying to come to terms with who we had become now that we had been forced to act in ways that went against the peace-loving values of our Torah. And, of course, I was mourning the many we had lost in the struggle, including my own father, Mattathias, who died just a year into the war.
When Solomonia asked me her question, we were in the midst of our new eight day festival. We had decided to mark the end of the war by celebrating the Sukkot rituals we had been unable to enjoy while hiding, strategizing, and fighting. Our holy Temple had been cleansed and was once again alive with joy as we fulfilled our obligation to give thanks to the Eternal for the bounty we had received. With the added context of commemorating our victory in what had seemed to be an unwinnable war, I wondered if He-chag (“THE Festival”) as we commonly called Sukkot could ever approach the joy surrounding this newly created Chanukat Habayit, the rededication celebration of our holy Temple.
It was in the midst of this joy that my niece asked me,“Uncle, when did Saba Mattathias know that it was time to stand up to the bully-king and fight back?”
Her question threw me back to a time I’d rather forget, to a time when oppression hung over our homes like black and angry clouds, and we were frozen, wondering whether we could weather the storm.
Mattathais once told me that those days were excruciating as he wrestled in the depths of his soul with the very question Solomonia had asked. Before he stood up to the bully-king and his foot soldiers, Mattathias stayed up late into the night, after the last fires sputtered out, after the insomniacs finally succumbed to exhaustion, asking himself what behaviors by the bully-king and his supporters were unacceptable, what enemy actions were too brutal for them to tolerate any longer. Even before he knew how he would answer, the questions themselves felt both consuming and explosive. In his heart of hearts, he knew that even to consider them was to invite danger into an existence that had already gone from thriving to persisting. To live in the time of the bully-king was to learn to endure humiliation and growing oppression.
Mattathias had confessed that no matter how much he had wanted to avoid answering his own question, no matter how much he had hoped that we could continue eaking out lives for ourselves, he had understood a long time ago that he would not be able to escape this fight. Because whenever he opened his eyes, he saw the persecution of our people. And whenever he opened his ears, he heard the incessant patter of insults raining down from the king and his soldiers. Even when he tried to avoid it, he knew that it was up to him. No one else in our clan would be able to make the decision for him. From all that he saw, from all that he heard, from all that he was, he knew that he - and we - could not go on as we had been.
So when my niece asked me, years later, innocently and with such reverence, “When did Saba Mattathias know that it was time to stand up to the bully-king?” I smiled at her sadly, then quietly and honestly said to her, “Little Solomonia, if there had been any other choice, your Saba Mattathias would have never led our people into battle, but one day, he looked around and saw that the battle had come to us. At some point, he just knew that we had to stand up, that if we refused to object, we would lose everything that we held dear.
We sat together in silence.
Then my niece looked up at me quizzically, softly touched my face, and asked a second question, “Uncle, why are you crying?”
I felt the warm tears run down my bearded cheeks and was flooded with memories of how this battle had changed my people. My mind filled with thoughts of priests who had been transformed into soldiers, of wise women transformed into champions. My father had understood that the battles would change us, but those transformations had been only one reason he had hesitated to act. He knew that, once we were standing our ground, life would never be the same. And, most painfully, he knew that in addition to fighting our enemies, we would need to work ceasely to weed out any who would offer apologies or rationalizations for the oppression we experienced. When we stood, we would need to stand as one.
Thinking of my father, feeling my niece’s arms hugging my neck, I understood what Mattathias had known from the beginning. We had won, and we were forever changed by our victory. I wept because even though my father’s decision to rise up had been correct, it had cost us so much. I wept because even as we celebrated, I grieved for all that we had lost.
Looking into the eyes of my niece, a child who had known only war in her short life, I knew that I couldn’t burden her with any of this truth on what was meant to be a Festival day.
So I affixed a smile upon my face, and quietly, ever so quietly, I offered her a gift, a shallow truth, knowing that someday she would know all of the story, “My tears are tears of joy because we are here to celebrate together. Nes gadol haya po - a great miracle happened here!”
Thank God that my words were enough for her that day. As I held her, I prayed that she would remain untouched, untransformed by war. I prayed that she would live a whole, uninterrupted life filled with warmth and hope and beautifully bright light.