This series about the battles of Hanukkah is ending; today is the 8th and last day of the holiday and this will be the last battle of Judah Maccabeus. Judah appeals to the Romans to enter into a pact with Judea to be their partners against the Greeks and to protect them. This move angers Demetrius, the Seleucid emperor, who sends the largest army yet in the Judean conflict and the most experienced general, Bacchides to deal with the Jewish problem.
Judah has won battles in the south, west, and north of Jerusalem so Bacchides comes along an untried road – the Gilgal-Jericho-Beit El road on the east. Unlike before previous battles, Bacchides encounters resistance from the villagers living on this road. With a heavy hand, the Greek general kills them and clears a road for his troops to the area of Beit El.
It is difficult to write these words this year after the terror attack last night, the 8th night of Hanukkah, on the roads in this same area. On the road outside of the Jewish village of Ofra, 9 Jews, including a pregnant woman, were fired at by those who would deny the story of Judah Maccabeus and Jewish presence throughout history in this place. May God guard and heal them.
On a personal note, a member of my own family was fired at by terrorists during Hanukkah several years ago as she stood on the road in this area waiting for a ride. She is, thank God, expecting her first child now.
Judah Maccabeus encamps with 3000 of his best fighters in Eleasa, which is identified as being near el-Bira of today. He is surprised by the appearance of the Greek army because of their novel advance route. The Jewish fighters become frightened when they see the Greek army approaching with an army of 20,000 men and 2,000 horsemen; and most of Judah’s army ran away into the hills, leaving only 800 to fight against the Greeks. Judah encourages the ones who remain to stay and fight. This pep talk given by Judah, in contrast to his encouraging words before other battles, contains no reference to divine assistance or the religious significance of the fight. Instead, it focuses on Judah’s personal honor; winning wars has changed him.
The Jews again attack the commander’s unit, as they did in the previous battle against Nicanor. This time, however, they walk into a trap set for them by the Greeks. Bacchides’ army retreat slightly, drawing the Jews after them. The Greek cavalry closes in on either side and seal the fate of Judah Maccabeus’ army.
Now, it is Judah Maccabeus who meets his death. His brothers, Jonathan and Simon, in the chaos of war, remove his body and bury him in the family plot in Modi’in. The remaining Jewish soldiers flee with the loss of their general.
The hero of the Hanukkah story, Judah Maccabeus is mourned by his supporters quietly. Judah’s brothers go into hiding; and it will be another 18 years, after many more wars and negotiations and ruthless murders, before the Jews will achieve sovereignty under Simon and his descendants.
“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Pirkei Avot 2:21
It is us, through the ages, celebrating Hanukkah, the holiday mandated by Judah, who mourn him eternally and openly and draw strength from the stories of his acts. But in the end, Hanukkah is not about remembering what was, but about working toward what can be.
Happy Hanukkah to one and all!