The Lie in the Sand

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How did Hanukkah,
celebrated last week, actually come to be?

The popular
explanation is that the eternal flame of the Temple in Jerusalem
burned for eight nights on a supply of purified olive oil that should
have lasted for only one. This was after the Temple had been rededicated
following the Maccabees Revolt, in which a Jewish rebel army ousted
the Seleucid Empire, which had outlawed the practice of Judaism,
from parts of Israel.

Yet in the
contemporary accounts of the rededication, the oil is not mentioned.
Even in the apocryphal Books of the Maccabees, no miracle is mentioned.
Instead, the success of the revolution is the reason for the celebration.
Four hundred years later, when many of the oral traditions of the
religion were first put to parchment, no mention is made of the
miraculous oil. It wasn't until 300 years after that, in the Talmud,
that the miracle first appears in writing.

Perhaps a fuller
history is needed.

Antiochus IV
was the king of the Seleucid Empire, which covered the parts of
the Middle East where the U.S. is either fighting right now or looking
to fight — Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Israel, Lebanon,
Syria, and, of course, Iran. Although it is popular to compare America
to the Roman Empire, in its rise and scope and ultimate fall, it
is probably closer to the Seleucid Empire.

Like almost
all leaders past and present, Antiochus liked war. He attacked Egypt
twice, and failed twice. The second time, he encountered Gaius Popillius
Laenas, an old Roman envoy, who, standing alone, demanded Antiochus
withdraw from Egypt or consider the Seleucid Empire at war with
Rome. Antiochus said he would discuss the matter with his council.
The envoy then literally drew a line in the sand, encircling Antiochus,
telling him to give an answer before he crossed the circle. Antiochus
meekly complied and withdrew. This is the origin of the phrase "line
in the sand."


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Antiochus returned
home from Egypt a loser, and his need for tyranny unfulfilled, so
he outlawed Judaism. He looted the Temple in Jerusalem. He massacred
anyone possessing Jewish scripture. He made observing the Sabbath
illegal. He brought a statue of Zeus onto the Temple and ordered
people to sacrifice pigs to it, an abomination and idolatry under
the traditional Jewish religion. Whoever failed to pray to the Greek
gods was executed.

One family
resisted. Mattathias, the father, refused to worship the Greek gods.
A Hellenistic Jew tried to take his place and offer the idolatrous
sacrifice. Mattathias killed him. He and his five sons then fled
into the wilderness. A year later, the father was dead, but his
son, Judah Maccabee, using guerilla tactics, led a makeshift army
to victory over Antiochus. They immediately went to cleanse and
rededicate the Temple. (Hanukkah translates as "dedication.")

The first couple
of decades after the Maccabees revolution saw relative peace and
independence, but then the military leaders established the Hasmonean
dynasty, which engaged in more war. Ultimately, the dynasty ended
in Roman subjugation.

Perhaps the
editors of the Talmud wanted to downplay the Hasmonean dynasty,
partly because they felt only descendants of the House of David
can rule Israel, and the Maccabees/Hasmonean were not, and partly
because it was a violent regime. Perhaps they thought if Hanukkah
celebrated olive oil instead of bloodshed, that would be a good

We are now
building our own empire on the basis of even flimsier rewriting
of history. None of the 9/11 hijackers were from any of the countries
we are now occupying or eyeing. None of those countries have weapons
of mass destruction. Without our military interference in the Middle
East over the past 50 years, it is possible al-Qaeda and other extremist
Muslims would have never existed or would have eventually fallen
into obscurity. Where is our Laenas today? Nobody has drawn a line
in the sand for America.

This article
originally appeared in the Fairfield

24, 2009

Dr. Phil
Maymin [send him mail] is an
Assistant Professor of Finance and Risk Engineering at the Polytechnic
Institute of New York University. He is the author of Free
Your Inner Yankee

and Yankee
Wake Up

Best of Phil Maymin

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