Jewish holidays by their nature connect us to our millennia of history, but sometimes they also provide an insightful link to current events.
Chanukah is the perfect example.
Almost 2,200 years ago, the Jewish people had to fight for their survival against a combination of political and religious oppression and the lure of secular assimilation. Jews were seen as an oddity, a holdover from the dawn of the Iron Age that should have faded into history with the likes of the Hittites and Assyrians and Philistines.
To the extent we were worth noticing, it was only because we occupied some prime real estate in the clash of great powers vying to dominate the known world in the centuries after Alexander the Great almost unified everyone.
No one except the Jews particularly wanted to live in the Judean Hills or along the Jordan Valley or even on the Mediterranean beaches; the whole area was just a crossroads for Egypt to the southwest, Syria to the north, Parthia to the east, and, across the Mediterranean to the west, Greece and Rome.
Then a ruler in Syria, Antiochus IV, decided that his political and military goals of expanding the Seleucid Empire could best be achieved by injecting some religious fervor. He added “Epiphanes” to his name and put theos epiphanes (god manifest) on his coins to indicate that he was a god-king.
His fatal mistake, at least from the Jewish perspective, was that instead of continuing to overlook us while waging his imperial battles, he felt the need to secure his power in Judaea by incorporating our Temple into his personal cult. If Rome hadn’t forced Antiochus to withdraw from Egypt (and in the process given us the phrase “draw a line in the sand”), he might never have bothered with the Jews, and we wouldn’t know of Judah Maccabee or have dreidels.
So here we are more than two millennia later, and again a religiously inspired military force entrenched to Israel’s north in Syria is threatening the world.
Islamic State has its sights set on much bigger targets than Israel, as its name, its terrorist attacks in Egypt and France, and its new foothold in Sirte, Libya, show. But it will happily kill or convert the Jews along the way.
Islamic State’s nominal ambitions to create a caliphate in Iraq and Syria (or, as an alternative translation, Iraq and the Levant) cover territory Antiochus ruled or tried to rule. His capital, Antioch, where the city of Antakya stands at the southern tip of modern Turkey, is about 70 miles due west and 160 miles north of the civil-war-scarred Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs, respectively.
Just as Antiochus went too far when he invaded Egypt and drew the unwanted attention of the European power of Rome, perhaps the downing of the Russian airliner in Egypt and the slaughter of innocents in Paris will mark the beginning of the end for Islamic State by finally forcing Europe and the United States to pay attention and take action.
But just as Antiochus responded to his Roman smackdown by picking on what he thought would be an easy mark, the Jews, so Islamic State’s threat to Israel could rise if, under concerted Western military attack, the terrorist organization seeks a closer foe against which other Muslims might line up to fight.
All of which serves as another reminder that G-d picked a tough neighborhood for us.