There are memories so painful that they must be stored away and hidden lest they break the heart.
In Jewish history, there are some memories so poignant that they had to be screened to make them bearable.
The tradition refers to them in code language. In this way, those who can handle the pain will know; those for whom the agony is too much will be shielded from the memory by the cover story.
In the portion of Vayishlach, which is read annually before Chanukah, we are told that “Debiorah, Rebecca’s wet nurse, died … at Beit El” on Jacob’s way home to Canaan.
The reference is totally obscure. Deborah had accompanied Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, on her original journey to marry Isaac. There is no record that she accompanied him back to Laban’s home. And why tell us about this minor personage anyway?
Nachmanides (Ramban) explains that this passage contains a screen memory. Actually, it was Rebecca who died – under unspeakably sad circumstances.
Consider: Rebecca intervened in the passing of Abraham’s blessing to save the future of the family, of the Jewish people. Rather than let the legacy fall into Esau’s unworthy hands, she tricked her husband into blessing Jacob.
Thereafter, Isaac, who was always taciturn and not too communicative seems to have slipped into total silence. Did he feel betrayed by Rebecca? Ashamed? Manipulated? The silence between them is deafening.
In her dying moments, Rebecca was totally isolated. Isaac was withdrawn. Esau, openly ready to kill his brother, was silently and implacably hostile to his mother. She was cut off from Jacob, the son she loved; he wandered, not even knowing that her life was ebbing. Her act of responsibility had brought her only terrible affliction.
Thinking about Rebecca’s end raises troubling questions.
Why is the world so constructed that people who play it safe often prosper – while those who give themselves totally to do good, all too often pay a fearsome price?
Rebecca’s pain is too raw, says Ramban; so the Torah masks the memory, hiding it behind the account of Deborah’s death. Henceforth the cognoscenti will be reminded of Rebecca, the good woman, whenever they read about Deborah’s death; the others will be spared troubling questions that can consume their souls.
Contrary to the image of Chanukah as a celebration of an easy and joyous victory, the holiday actually carries a memory that is so painful that it had to be coded.
In the popular version, Mattathias started a revolt with his family. Within three years, the Maccabees, led by Judah, liberated Jerusalem. The Temple was cleansed; the oil burned; the holiday was decreed.
In fact, the Hasmonean wars lasted another 30 years.
And Mattathias’ family paid a horrific price for Israel’s redemption. One son, Elazar, died in an early battle. After the initial victory, Greek armies repeatedly invaded. In 160 B.C.E., a dwindling band of Maccabees was defeated at Elasa. Judah Maccabee died in the battle.
For years, the fortunes of the Hasmoneans seesawed. In 145 B.C.E., another brother, Jonathan, caught the wave generated by a civil war over kingship of the Seleucid empire, and rode it to confirmation as high priest and leader of the Jews.
But then Tryphon, an important Seleucid general, decided to go for the throne.
He lured Jonathan to his side and held him hostage. Rather than surrender, the Jews asked another brother, Simon, to take over leadership. Jonathan was cruelly executed by Tryphon.
Simon rebuilt the Hasmonean empire and won both recognition from a new king, Antiochus VI and an alliance with Rome. However, Simon had to fight against recurring invasions by Seleucid pretenders.
In 134 B.C.E., in another cruel twist of fate, Simon and two sons were betrayed and killed by Ptolomey, Simon’s ambitious son-in-law. Ptolomey’s head had been turned by the dizzying round of Seleucid rivals jockeying for the throne, he hoped to do the same for himself.
Luckily, Simon’s other son, John Hyrcanus, survived the assassination plot. He brought the Hasmonean wars to a close and consolidated the Jewish empire.
The dream of Chanukah was fulfilled at last. But what a price for the Hasmoneans: four brothers dead, endless suffering, treachery and betrayal.
This is the reward for historical vision, religious fervor, courage in battle? It makes you wonder. So the tradition opted to screen this memory.
We light candles and oil in memory of the miracles; the menorah reminds us of the Temple. Where is the recollection of the Maccabees’ sacrifice hidden?
A folk tradition says that it is carried in the shamash, the candle used to light the menorah.
The shamash is not part of the narrative of Chanukah; it is not present in the story of the eight days of purification and the miracle. The shamash candle is not treated as sacred.
Yet, as we know that without this kindling flame, nothing would burn, and the story would not be told.
As the shamash burns down separately, we spare a thought for the Maccabee brothers and all the good people who died so the faith could be passed on. We remember the anonymous soldiers who fell in the battles so the people could live.
This year, we again have experienced the bitter taste of a good man struck down before his time.
This time it is Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the leader who is dead and buried before he reached his promised land of peace.
He was in the line of fire because of his visionary drive to break through enormous difficulties and stop the killing.
Why should good men and their families have to pay such a terrible price? There is no answer. This is the way of the world.
When the righteous Rabbi Akiva was flayed alive by the Romans for daring to rebel, we are told that the angels shrieked in horror. “It is my decree,” was God’s inscrutable answer.
This year, when you finish lighting the candles, hold the shamash gently for a moment and think of Rabin and the other good people who paid for the future with their last full measure of devotion.
Say a silent blessing over his memory and name.
Perhaps the martyred Hebrew poet, Hannah Senesh, wrote our prayer for us:
Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling the flame. Blessed is the flame, burning in the heart in secret places. Blessed is the heart with the strength to stop its beating for honor’s [peace’s] sake.