Though we celebrate Judah and his brothers as heroes for their successful revolt against the tyranny of Antiochus, soon after the miraculous victory they fall from grace due to arrogance and hypocrisy. Their triumph and popularity were short-lived.
The Maccabee brothers were from the tribe of Levi but with theological conceit sat on the throne in Jerusalem. Their usurpation of the monarchy prevented the ascension of a potential messianic king, a Davidic scion from the tribe of Judah. Our ancestors were livid. The Maccabees declared Chanukah to be a holy day, but only the festivals mentioned in the Bible by God were sacred. Mortals could not establish new holidays by fiat. The Jewish masses were enraged.
And finally, these champions of religious fidelity who fought against Hellenism succumbed to assimilation. Who would have thought that Judah’s descendants would not be Moishe or Yossel but Hyrcanus and Aristobulus and Jannaeus? For such betrayals, Chanukah and the Maccabees were ignored by tradition and by the sages for years.
It is interesting how the echo of our history, in a different arena many miles and many years away, can serve as a warning to the peril of wielding power with haughty indifference. What begins as noble is easily corrupted by unholy leadership. Not Talmudic, but certainly an appropriate warning: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Many of the strategies dealing with the coronavirus are inconsistent. Myopic. High-handed. Too often policy does not follow wisdom nor compassion, but a misguided paternalism/maternalism. Harsh decrees from those in power figuring that they and they alone know what needs to be done. Father and Mother know best as they decree policy from state houses and city halls. With the flick of a sanctimonious wrist, many politicians deprive citizens of liberty and livelihood in a vague, confused assault that goes way beyond the legitimate call for masks, distancing and hygiene. But moreover, it is the Maccabean descent into arrogance and hypocrisy when too many of our elected officials ignore their own admonitions and guidelines. “For thee but not for me” they cry out. “Let them eat sufganiyot.”
Our elected officials have not missed a paycheck while millions over whom they lord suffer shattered lives, fiscal ruin and misery. When many of our leaders cry out for neighbors to turn in neighbors for violations, it should terrify us and remind us of some very malevolent behavior not so long ago and not so far away.
Establishing a balance when confronting complex issues is not an easy task, but our leaders must step back from pompous executive orders that are un-American and downright dictatorial. Such actions do not unify, solve, nor inspire; rather, they alienate, confuse and infuriate.
The Maccabees got what they deserved for abandoning their allegiance to righteousness and humble leadership. I pray that those leaders who are guilty of over-reach recognize their power lust and finally govern with prudence, empathy and vision. The Maccabees were lost to history for centuries for their hubris. Do today’s governors and mayors wish the same fate come next election day? Lessons taught 2,000 years ago. Will they be lessons learned today?
Shalom Lewis is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Etz Chaim.