During Hanukkah, as we celebrate the multiple miracles of the Maccabees and their victory, we should also remember what we have forgotten about them and why. For example, there is no Megillah for Hanukkah, despite there being several books of the Maccabees. Why this is so can teach us what is truly significant and lasting about this holiday and what is merely incidental.
The Maccabees stood for tradition. At a time when the majority culture was not Jewish, and when many Jews were deeply immersed in that non-Jewish culture, the Maccabees held the line against assimilation. Their battles were not only military both social and religious; they fought not only the pagan Greeks but the idea that Jews could easily lose their identity to another culture. But when the early rabbis decided which books to include in the Tanakh, they pointedly left out the books of the Maccabees. There were several reasons: The Maccabees themselves quickly assimilated after the war; they invited Rome into Judea as protectors; their exploits were rooted in violent revolt; the later descendants of the Maccabees persecuted early rabbinic figures.
The temporal details of battles and personalities are of passing interest but teach us little more than the pitfalls of particular people. What we should remember at Hanukkah are the values which motivated the Maccabees and the miracles of that time: the freedom to worship as Jews, adherence to tradition, the courage of the few to stand up to the many, as well as the miracles of the Maccabees’ victory and that of the Temple oil. Those are the eternal lessons of these days, which continue to move and inspire us as they did in the past.