Happy Hanukkah

The menorah for the coming Temple
The menorah for the coming Temple

As my little bit towards celebrating the holiday, here’s a short story I wrote as an introduction for my upcoming book, Reforging the Menorah:

Icy cold winds whistled atop Mount Moriah, cutting through the cloaks of the men who approached it through the old City of David, armed with sword and spear. The armor and shields taken from their Greek foes had protected them against missile and melee alike, but did nothing to warm them as they passed through streets strewn with rubble and refuse. Most of the men were young, but no few of their number had gray in their long beards. It was those elders who felt the greatest trepidation as they approached the Miqdash, the Holy Place where the Eternal God had placed his Name in the days of David and Solomon . . . and which, they knew, had been corrupted so horribly by Antiochus IV’s idol.

They passed through the ancient gates without the songs that had graced the lips of their fathers, bearing no sacrifice but the memory of those who had fallen in defense of their nation and their faith, no blood but that which sanctified their weapons. Ahead of them, no priest lifted up his voice in prayer, and no fire from heaven lit the ancient altar. The sacred immersion pools were broken and spoiled; only a few had remained untainted to prepare their bodies to enter into what was yet—they hoped and prayed—holy ground.

They entered the outer court, and some among them groaned in horror at the sight of the Grecian idols scattered about, a memory of the idolatry that had polluted the first temple and led to its destruction. Others tore their garments at the sight of the altar, contaminated by the blood of pigs, the bones of which still sat atop the ruined stones.

Their leader was among those who tore his garments. He was, after all, the son of a priest, and knew all too well the law. His family had spent centuries trying to restore the worship of the Eternal God to this land, rebuilding a temple that was like a shack compared to the glories of the one that had preceded it. The wine-dark eyes of Y’hudah Maqqabah, Judah the Hammer, called Maccabeus by the Greeks, did not linger long on the altar, however. They swept the courtyard dilligently, searching for any trap or ambush, then turned to the doors of the temple. His stride paused at the porch, between the two pillars Boaz and Yachin, as he considered laying aside his weapons before pressing further. But there could yet be enemies about—it was a small risk; they had, after all, waited the requisite seven days of cleansing to remove the uncleaness of the men they had slain and the friends they had buried—so he went within yet armed.

In the days of the Davidic kingdom, the interior walls had been covered with gold, decorated with the bas-relief of a great garden, a remembrance of Gan-Eden. There had been ten tables for the Bread of the Presence, lit by ten golden menorahs. Now, the only light came in through the doors behind him and a few narrow windows above. It was enough to show the carnage: The single table and single menorah were both gone. Instead, he found eight golden spears, doubtless cast from the melted-down gold of the holy furnishings.

In the days of Solomon, a great curtain had separated the holy place from the inner sanctum, the Most Holy place which the priests sometimes called the Davar, or Word. Within the Davar the Glory of the Holy One had shone above the Holy Ark of the Covenant, and only the High Priest had been able to enter within, and then only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was that Glory, that Presence of the Eternal One which had made Israel the Holy People, for no other people on earth could claim that the Creator himself dwelt with them as he did with Israel.

The Glory was gone, departing due to Israel’s faithlessness, idolatry, and wickedness nearly five centuries ago. The Ark was gone as well; some said it was hidden in the Land, others that it had been carried off to Egypt or beyond long ago. Y’hudah knew only that it hadn’t been taken to Babylon, and that it had never returned. The Holy of Holies had lain empty, darkened, desolate since it was built by Yoshua the priest and Zerubabbel the governor. The priests who had returned from the exile had restored the service, but while they still honored the God of Heaven and had abolished the idolatry which had been Israel’s ruin, the Glory had not returned despite all their fervent prayer. The Holy One had not forgiven his people.

Y’hudah found only a small pleasure in their victory over the Greeks, the few defeating the many, the weak overthrowing the strong. Surely, it was a sign that the God of Abraham had not wholly forsaken the children of Abraham, that even if the time wasn’t yet, the time would come when the Glory would return to his temple.

But now, looking at the idol that had taken the Ark’s place in the Holy of Holies, Y’hudah’s heart fell. Zeus-Pater, the god of the Greeks, stared down at him with eyes set into the likeness of Antiochus’ face. Antiochus had surnamed himself Epiphanes, the manifestation of his god Zeus. Y’hudah preferred to call him Epimanes, the Madman, but there was no doubt that there had been a dark genius in Antiochus’ madness.

Y’hudah looked coldly at the graven image of Zeus, holding his thunderbolt. The name was different, but the image was familiar. Half a millennium ago, the majority in Israel had forsaken the Holy One for another storm god, Baal. Looking at the face of Zeus, sensing a dark, sinuous presence in the shadows, Y’hudah realized that they were one and the same.

“Bring hammers,” the Maqqabah commanded his men. “Tear it down, and break it into pieces.”

“What do we do now, Rabbi?” young Shimon asked him hours later, as he watched the shattered pieces of Zeus being carried out of the temple to be cast into the Valley of Hinnom.

“We cleanse the temple. We rebuild. And we praise God for this victory,” Y’hudah answered. His voice carried more certainty than he felt. How did one cleanse and rebuild from this?

“The altar?” Shimon asked. “Can we . . . fix it? Sacrifice on it?”

Y’hudah shook his head. “There is nothing in the Torah that covers this, and there is no prophet left in the Land to speak for the Lord. Have the stones carried away and secured in a cave until God makes his will clear. In the meantime, we will lay new stones for the altar.”

“But what of the table, Rabbi? What of the menorah?”

Y’hudah hesitated longer before answering. “Find a suitable table in the city. We will make one specifically for the temple later. For the menorah . . .” He frowned. Could he . . . ? “Bring the golden lances we found to Sha’ul the smith. He will melt them down and forge a new menorah from the remains of the old.” He dismissed his aide, and turned towards the chamber he had set aside for his use. “Please God, let it be a worthy light in your eyes . . .”

A week later, and the Temple was cleansed, and sacrifice had been restored to the altar. Y’hudah Maqqabah declared the eight days that followed to be a festival for the chanukkah, the dedication, of the temple. “Why eight days, Rabbi?” asked Shimon.

Y’hudah smiled for the first time in a long while. “We’ve missed celebrating the Feast of Booths these last eight years,” he said. “I don’t wish to wait another nine months to celebrate it again, so we will have a festival of lights here and now. The people deserve to have their joy.” And the Lord deserves to see his people rejoice before him, he thought, as the newly reforged menorah was lit again for the first time.

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