|Vol. IV, No. 12
Adar 5607, March 1847
The Festival Of Chanuckah
A Sermon, delivered by the Chief Rabbi Dr. Lilienthal, and Translated for the Jewish Congregation in Augusta, Ga., by his Brother, S. Lilienthal, M.D.
Holy, holy, holy art thou, Lord Zebaoth, all the earth is full of thy glory. The heavens tell of the greatness of thy name; the earth proclaims the works of thy hands; angels surround joyfully thy throne, and every creature hails Thee in praise and thanksgiving, extolling and acknowledging Thee as our Lord and Father. And also we, thy servants, appear before Thee again on this holy Sabbath eve, to thank Thee, O good God, who art a Saviour to those who are troubled in their distress, and a Physician to the afflicted in their sorrow. Who is among the mighty like thee, our Lord? Thou fightest their fights, and art their shield in battle. The mighty Thou dost deliver into the hands of the weak, the multitude into the hands of a few, the wicked into the hands of the just. “Who is among the mighty like our Lord?” Thus we sing before thee, O Lord, to-day, as we prayed four thousand years ago. O be Thou with us continually, teach us to confide in Thee and thy providence, teach us to give to Thee with a joyful heart ourselves and children, and all who are dear to us; teach us, that we may sacrifice every thing for the sake of thy holy name, which is our pride and our glory, our trophy and our banner; yes, “the Lord is my banner;”—thus we hail Thee; and mayest Thou in thy mercy accept our prayer in the hour of danger and of need, in the hour of triumph and of victory. Amen.
My dear friends! Again we meet at the Sabbath of Chanucka, to take a retrospective view in the history of our nation, to edify our souls and our hearts on the miraculous deeds of our forefathers, and to draw from them useful lessons for all the events of our life.
It was a time full of sorrows and tribulations which gave rise to the jubilee of Chanucka. Judaism was at that time divided into two sects: the one rallied round the old banner, adhered steadfast to the old faith and the time-honoured commandments of their God; the other partly leaned to the Grecian school, to Grecian manners, and studied the wise sayings of a Grecian philosophy; and so they lived in continual quarrels, and what they could not settle among themselves, came for arbitration before the courts of their conquerors; and alas! one party brought accusations against the other; accusations which degraded Judaism, tore it in factions, arrayed brother against brother, and endangered the very existence of our religion.
But as misfortunes never happen alone, so it was here too. Antiochus Epiphanes ascended the throne of the Syrians, and with the unbending power of a tyrant, he commanded to extinguish the whole Jewish religion, in order to make an end to all external dissensions. The temple in Jerusalem was desecrated everywhere, yea, everywhere, the service of the Lord prohibited. Then the blessings of the priests were not heard any more; the choirs of the Levites were silenced; the schools were closed; and the word of God was not taught any more to the children of Israel. Silence, dreary silence, reigned throughout. Nobody dared to perform the holy covenant of Abraham; the Sabbath day was not kept any more as the day of rest; the holy rolls of the Torah were torn into pieces, trampled upon, and burnt to ashes. The Synagogues were closed, and meetings for the glory of the Lord prohibited by the severest punishment. The sword, the stake, and the gibbet threatened the man who dared to disobey those mandates—and sorrowful and bitter days they were for Israel.
Who believed then, that there could be yet redemption? Who could hope that succour should arise? The streets of Zion were deserted, and the pilgrims for the festivals kept afar. With bitter tears on his cheeks, the angel of Israel sat weeping, and there was none to give him consolation.
How! none to give him consolation? No, my brethren,הנה לא ינום ולא יישן שומר ישראל. He sleeps not, and he slumbers not—the Guardian of Israel, and Judah is never forsaken. When trouble was at the highest, when help was the farthest, there arose men in Israel who came to his succour and to his aid, and performed glorious deeds in the name of the Lord.
There lived in a little village a family of priests, the Maccabees, the hoary Mattithias with his five brave sons. At that time their Syrian master had a Jewish altar built, and commanded the old priest to perform sacrifices on it to his false idols. The old man refused, and when another Jew offered himself to perform it at the king’s command, he rose in the zeal for his God, and slew him on the spot.
The first deed was done. The priest fled with his five sons to the mountains, and called upon all Jews who loved God and lived in his commandments, to follow him. The clarion sounded, and re-echoed in many a stout heart which had not been bold enough to battle single-handed; but the faithful now rallied around Judah—the Maccabee, and he, the most chivalrous and the bravest of the brothers, took the command. The Syrians pursued them; but Judah routed his aggressors on all sides, took one town after the other, and from day to day the force which accompanied him increased in numbers.
Antiochus then sent his generals with twenty-eight thousand men, expert in arms, and used to the battle-field. A proclamation announced a great fair, where the Jews who should be taken captives were to be sold in slavery, to be carried off from the land of their ancestors. The gentiles retook one town after the other, and all seemed lost again. Then Judah threw himself with a lion’s courage and a reckless bravery on the Syrians.
מי כמוך באלים ה' “Who is among the mighty like our Lord?” is inscribed on his banner; מכב"י is the battle cry of the struggling Jews, and in the name of the Lord they gained the victory, overthrew the Syrians, scattered their armies, and the proud Syrian who had proclaimed the sale of the vanquished, was compelled to fly, and to save himself in the dress of the poor, despised slave.
Now the wrath of the tyrant was roused, and he took the command himself; the most stringent measures were taken; bribery and corruption used, and nothing left untried. But all failed signally; the Jews stood their ground like one man; the five brothers were animated by one spirit; the king had to give way; his legions were dispersed, his armies destroyed, and after a long and tedious, but victorious campaign, the servants of God regained the holy city, captured the citadel, and to Him who giveth power and victory resounded the songs of their praise, and their joyful hallelujahs.
The temple was cleansed, the rubbish cleared away, the sanctuary restored, the altar, the table, and the lamp were brought to their proper place; but when they wanted to light the sacred lamp none of the holy oil, which was burnt in the temple of the Lord, could be found. And see, there was obtained from among the rubbish a small jar, scaled with the seal of the high priest; and this small jar lasted them for eight days to light the lamp of God; and they rejoiced because of his aid, thanked Him for his mercy, and made it a statute in Israel for times to come, to celebrate the Feast of Dedication.
And now, my brethren and sisters, to celebrate in the proper way this holy feast, let us ask, “What lesson can we draw for our life from these events?”—for this is the real idea connected with every festival, that we may place clearly before our minds the past events of history, and to draw from them what suits in our time, and what they are destined to teach us. Therefore let us contemplate the words of the Psalmist:—
אפתחה במשל פי אביעה חידות מני קדם למען ידעו דור אחרון בנים יולדו יקמו ויספרו לבניהם: וישימו באלהים כסלם ולא ישכחו מעללי אל ומצותיו ינצרו:
“I will open my mouth in a parable, I will utter dark sayings of old, that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born, who should arise and declare them to their children, that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, and keep his commandments.”
And the Lord, who is love and truth, may give us his blessing in this hour, Amen.
“What lesson can we learn from this celebration?” Thus do you ask, my friends, and I answer you: first, we have to sacrifice all and every thing for the holy religion of our fathers. Brethren, how would it stand with our sacred religion, if this family of priests, these glorious Maccabees, had lacked the courage to offer for it every thing that is dear to man, comfort and wealth, life and happiness? Then, no one said, “I have a wife and children, what do I care for the national cause?” Then no one said, “I have my farm and my business to attend to, I cannot quit it for religion’s sake.” Then no one said, “I have trouble enough in my own household, why meddle with other people’s business:” No; faith called, and they forgot all other engagements; the name of the Holy One called, and they forgot all, sacrificed themselves to Him, because they loved Him with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their might.
And not only did such a spirit inspire the men, for the same zeal enkindled a bright flame in the pious mothers in Israel. There was a mother, a poor widow, with seven children, whom she had raised by the works of her own hand, in truly maternal love. They were her treasure—her wealth; she had nothing else but her seven children, whom she had herself borne, nursed from a mother’s breast, raised by the labour of her hands, and by many a sleepless night. And this mother with her seven children was summoned before King Antiochus, who ordered them to offer prayers to his false idols; he promised them all that the human heart could desire, if they would obey his commands, and threatened them with the punishment of death, if they dared to disobey. And the first boy, a lovely child of eight years, answered, “Never, never, O king, will I pray to thy false gods.” And the king ordered to have him torn to pieces with red-hot pincers. Fathers and mothers, you who love your children with a never-fading love, you can feel what were the feelings of that mother—how her heart was tormented—how her soul wept, and, embracing for the last time her first-born son, she thanked God for his mercy to have given her such a child—kissed him, who died a martyr’s death. Then her second boy approached, a blooming, innocent child, who did not know yet the sorrows of the world, but had listened to the piercing cries of his brother, and said fearlessly, “King, let me follow my brother.” A mother’s tears were dried up; she had no sighs more, but she blessed her child, and saw him die. And thus died four more. One only, one of seven remained—one who was her only her only consolation, her only hope. “Foolish woman, will you see also this one die?” asked the king. “Mother, poor mother, have you no feelings for your child?” inquired the sorrowing executioner. And she knelt down, the poor desolate widow, and prayed: “God, my God, why is mine this severe trial, this hard and bitter lot? but let thy will be done, let thy holy providence be accomplished;” and pressing the babe to her bleeding heart, and bathing it with her tears, she blessed it with her last and best blessing, and saw it follow the fate of his brothers.
Mothers, do you feel what she sacrificed for her faith? Mothers, do you feel what she did for the Jewish religion?
O, it was a hard lot, a terrible doom, but this deed inspired thousands in Israel, aroused them from their lukewarmness to take arms, to fight courageously; and she, the good mother who bled for thousands, it was who gave back safety and happiness, and whose name was blessed and venerated by a whole nation.
From us, thank God! such sacrifices are not any more required; but nevertheless, we are under the same obligation to do every thing for the holy heirloom, bequeathed to us pure and unspotted from a pious ancestry. From you, elders and fathers, it requires to show it by your life, how a Jewish heart acts, how the Jewish faith ennobles man. You, good and pious mothers, prove it by the education of your little ones, that you too belong to the pious mothers in Israel; and from every one of us, as individuals and members of a Jewish society, it is required to leave nothing undone that could give strength to our faith, that it may bloom and bear holy and godly fruits.
This is the first doctrine which the Feast of Dedication teaches; it is a weighty and glorious doctrine, but not less weighty is the second: “Confide in the Lord in all the relations of your life.” Very weak indeed was the power of the Maccabees; a few hundreds only stood up against thousands of warriors; how could they hope for success? how be vainglorious enough to think of victory, if they had not had confidence in God, in Him who can help in all conditions of life? O, they knew it, that a Father’s hand watched over them, who forsakes none that confide in Him, and forgets none who rely upon Him. And in this confidence they grew strong, in this confidence they prospered, and in this confidence the Lord assisted them.
O, such a confidence should animate all of you, my friends. When sorrows press upon you, and tribulations surround you, when you are disappointed in your hopes, and the road which you laid out for your pilgrimage through life becomes more and more obstructed, never despair, never cast down the eye; but look up to Him; for He who feeds the ravens will not forsake you. You, my brethren, who fled to this free and harpy land, so as not to forsake your old faith, who would not sell your freedom of soul and of body by apostacy, brethren who left house and home to enjoy your religious rights untrammelled, confide in the Lord, although you may have many things to encounter in a strange land, the Lord will not forsake you, for you have not forsaken Him. And you, my friends, whose good fortune it was to be born on a soil which knows only religion as the guide for life, but not as an oppressor of conscience, show it by your actions that you are the worthy sons of worthy sires; prove to your fellow-citizens, that to be a good citizen you must be also a good Jew; and the Lord in his mercy will sustain you in all situations of your life will be nigh unto you, because you look up to Him as your only Saviour for guidance through life.
But if the Lord should not fulfill the wishes of our life, my brother; if we work days, and years, and the balance-sheet shows no improvement; if we would then let sink the hand, and lose all courage to begin anew our daily work: then let the Chanucka festival teach us to persevere courageously, to suffer patiently; for all will yet end well.
Look only, my friends: the Maccabees had fought like lions, battled with courage and zeal, had never swerved to sacrifice all for their holy cause; and when they were near the holy city, after many a hard-fought field, two of the valiant brothers lost their lives in battle; the Syrians were again victorious, retook the cities, gained reinforcements, and a slave-mart was already proclaimed, to sell the Jews far from their homes. All seemed lost. But did they lose their courage? did they lose their perseverance? or falter in their confidence in the God who alone can and will help? No, my brethren; Judah alone stood now for three, the sorrows for the lost ones gave new courage, the desire for revenge made them perform deeds never dreamed of before, the misfortune itself acted for their welfare, and in Jerusalem, which they conquered, they celebrated their victory.
Thus we have also to act. Inscrutable are the ways of the Lord, inexplicable the ways by which He guides us, and what we consider as a misfortune and a great tribulation, may yet lead to our happiness. Nachum, a pious man, used to say, when misfortune befell him, “Even this is for my happiness, and it will lead to happiness.” Why therefore despair in an unlucky moment? Through life night and day change places. The pain itself, which depresses our spirits, and is gnawing our hearts, is for our salvation, and for the purification of our souls. Fathers, when anxiety tortures your mind, when sickness takes fearful hold on the members of your family; you, poor mothers, who have wept perhaps over the grave of one of your dear little ones; and children who have lost your parents, perhaps at that very hour when you could hope to repay the obligations of your childhood; and you, my friends, who have felt perhaps the bitter sting of disappointment at that very moment when success seemed to crown your wishes: never give up, never despair, all will yet end well. Have you not improved most in the very hours of trial? did they not awaken in you holy feelings? did they not stir up in you a power, unknown and unfelt before? O, these sufferings are such sufferings as an ever-loving Providence has sent us for our trial and for our welfare; they come from a Father, who chastises us because He loves his children. How did Job suffer and yet all ended well! Take David, what severe trials had he not to undergo, and yet the kingdom of Judah became the reward of his patience. Therefore let us also persevere, my friends, persevere amidst trials and tribulations, and success and happiness will also be the crown of our patience.
One more doctrine, which the Chanucka festival will teach us, is: To live in peace and harmony with one another.
The Maccabees could never have gained such victories, the Maccabees could never have performed such deeds of glory, could never have restored the holy temple, could never have confirmed the laws of the Lord, could never have bequeathed to us such a glorious festival, if they had not been animated by the spirit of peace and of harmony. Among them there was no quarrelling for the command, no bickering about small matters, no ill feelings about trifling sacrifices. Every one was willing to do his part, instigated by a pure love for the holy cause; and therefore with small means they were enabled to perform great deeds, and what seemed impossible, was done; for, where peace reigns, there is happiness; where harmony is, there is the blessing of the Lord of peace, and then all succeeds, all prospers.
Dear friends, consider well this great doctrine! Father and mother, who are perhaps not happy yet, and expect better times, which are sure to come; bear your lot in peace, and the worst is endured. Husband, when thou relievest the sufferings of a sick wife with love; wife, when thou easest by a friendly word the tribulations of thy consort, then is your home a home of blessing and of peace. low many families were not ruined, how many families have no lost their hard-gotten earnings, because the man would have his own will, and the wife would not yield her own opinion, because each went his own way, and ruin and desolation came over the once blessed threshold of that family.
O, my friends, I have seen amongst you so many good and beautiful qualities, that I expect nothing else, but a loving and peaceful disposition towards the members of your families; and I am certain, when you meet one another on Friday’s holy eve, with the greeting “Peace be with you,” that the angels of peace will hasten to you, to bless and to protect you.
And to you, my friends, as members of our yet small congregation, let me say: Keep up a spirit of peace and of harmony amongst us. What we have begun for our faith, what we have established for our mutual benefit, though the beginning is small, will prosper and grow; for do you know what the Chanucka lights tell us, where we begin with a single weak light, till the lamp of the Lord is full, and sheds its radiating light over the whole house? However weak, small and trifling the beginning is, it constantly becomes brighter and brighter, till the house of the Lord is resplendent with lustre, when peace and harmony reign every where, and there the light shines on, till it ends like the Chanucka lamp on the last day of the dedication of the altar; so that it may be said that this light is kindled by the fire of Love, which reconciles whole Israel to their God, and sheds lustre on every child of Judah.
O! may the Lord give us his blessing, that such a sanctuary be reared among us, that the knowledge of the Lord and love and contentment may dwell among us; that we may look up with full confidence to our Father in heaven, who is the Dispenser of all gifts, and that He may bless us with His blessing. Amen.