Lincoln and the Maccabees

Abraham Lincoln was the first to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday, almost exactly 150 years ago. Thanksgiving had been celebrated in some communities in America since 1607, but Lincoln was the first to make it a holiday for the nation itself.

The language of the declaration, written for Lincoln by Secretary of State William Seward, is powerful and poetic. It said, “And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, … commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

Lincoln did not wait for the end of the Civil War to offer gratitude and ask for kindness toward those in need on both sides. He delivered it in the middle of a war that would continue for another year and a half.

The story of Chanukah takes place in the middle of the war, not the end. It celebrates the Maccabees reclaiming and rededicating the Holy Temple, but the war for independence took another dozen years.

According to the first book of Maccabees, which was written around the time of the Chanukah story in the 2nd century BCE, The Maccabees declared eight days of thanksgiving, even though one would have been fine. Maybe the oil lasted for eight days because they were willing to celebrate those eight days. The celebration was giving thanks for getting the Temple back and for being able to resume their full lives as Jews.

There are only two mitzvot, two commandments, on Chanukah. The first is to light the lights, and if possible place them so people outside can see them. Even in the darkness moments of our lives it is possible to find light and goodness and share that with the world.

The other is to give thanks. Thanks for everything, for the good things, and for the opportunity to help fix the bad, and gratitude for all those who struggled and gave their lives so we could be free.

This is what Lincoln meant in his dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg almost exactly 150 years ago, too.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This is the spirit of the Maccabees.

The struggle is never over. The world is still a dangerous mess. If we wait for everything to be settled and perfect before we celebrate we never will. The celebration must include gratitude for our lives and dedication to making the world better.

We have shown the ability to celebrate during times of grief and chaos, and to still remember who we are, both our identity and our values as Jews.

What we as a people can do is remind the world that it is always possible to still be fully human, and that goodness can be found in unlikely places. And that it is our responsibility to help others live lives they can be grateful for, and to help protect the world from those who want to destroy everybody’s liberty.

If we do so, then we, as Lincoln said, shall not perish from this Earth.

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