Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gush Etzion and the Chanukah Story

I woke up this Chanukah morning and looked out my picture window to the hills of Gush Etzion. Suddenly, I envisioned the events that took place here 2200 years ago - the Battle of the Chashmonaim against the Greeks - yes, right here in Gush Etzion.
Gush Etzion has always been a place where the Jews stand up for Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael. It's been like that since our patriarchs, and it has continued, through David HaMelech, the Chashmonaim, Bar Kochba until today - Givat HaDagan, Givat HaTamar, Netzer, Shdema and more.
I wrote about the battle once in VOICES Magazine many years ago, and I'd like to share the story with you again.
Sit back and drink your coffee, and I will share with you the thoughts of Chaim Makovsky, Neve Daniel resident and noted tour guide.
Once upon a time 2200 years ago, the rebellion by the Chashmonaim against the Greek Empire began not far from Gush Etzion in the Modiin region.
"The Jewish rebellion took the Greeks by surprise," Chaim told Voices. "They thought they'd be able to squelch the rebellion quickly, but they couldn't, because the Jews fought back."
In total, there were eight battles between the Maccabee-led forces and the Greeks. Two out of the eight Chashmonaen battles were fought in Gush Etzion - the battles of Bet Tzur and Bet Zecharia, and one of these changed Jewish history.
The first of the eight battles - in Modiin - caught the Greeks so off guard that they were resoundingly defeated. After the Greeks sent for reinforcement, a second battle was fought near Bet Horon, closer to Jerusalem. With great faith, the Jews fought fiercely, and the Maccabees won again.
In the third battle, the Greeks brought in more reinforcements, Chaim said. They marched in from another direction, dear Park Canada and the Latrun Junction. Still the Greeks lost.
Needing a bigger show of strength, the Greek Army (under the evil Emperor Antiochus - pictured at left), decided to bring in their most power weapons - the war elephants. Chaim explained, "Elephants were considered scare tactics. They were the tanks of their day," giant unstoppable beasts that could really knock out anything in their path. Add to the legion of elephants, tens of thousands of soldiers whom the Greeks had just brought up from the South, and the fighting force was tremendous.


"This is how Gush Etzion got involved," Chaim explained. "Yehuda HaMaccabee got wind of this plan to bring enemy soldiers from the South. He in turn set up a camp in Bet Tzur (between today's Carmei Tzur and Rosh Tzurim). There he carefully planned his battle tactics, which even took into consideration the Greeks' use of these giant animals. And again, the Jewish army was victorious near Bet Tzur (in its fourth battle)."
This battle brought Gush Etzion into the thick of the Chashmonaen rebellion. The Book of the Maccabees notes that in the battle near modern-day Rosh Tzurim, the Greeks outnumbered the Jews by more than two to one with close to 100,000 Greek foot soldiers facing only about 40,000 Jewish "soldiers" who were recruited ad hoc.
The Jewish army was not composed of regular soldiers, but simple people who lived nearby in tiny villages all around Gush Etzion. Bet Tzur was the central village. As the small Arab neighborhoods in Gush Etzion live today, Jews lived more than 2,000 years ago - spread out over the hills in tiny villages with a few homes grouped together. The families subsisted on agriculture.
The Jews fought a guerilla war in the hills which were familiar to them, Chaim explained. "They set up small units that attacked the Greeks from the back and the sides, and they broke the might Greek spirit," he said. "The small number was able to overcome the larger number."


After winning four battles in a row and now finding themselves in Gush Etzion, so close to Jerusalem, the Jewish army felt uplifted. Yehuda HaMaccabee decided to gather a troop of men to march onward to Jerusalem. Chaim explained, "He founda Jerusalem that was completely destroyed and Bet HaMikdash that was totally desecrated. It was a tremendous amount of faith, but he rallied the men to clean and purify the Bet HaMikdash." And the result is the eternal story of the one small flask of pure olive oil that burned from the 25th of Kislev for eight days.
What is not so well known is that while Yehuda and his men were readying the Bet HaMikdash for its rededication, the battle was still raging in Gush Etzion.
The fifth battle of the Chashmonaim against the Greeks was the famous battle of Zecharia. While his brother Yehuda was in Jerusalem, Elazar led this campaign.
Although the Jews had vanquished the Greeks in four consecutive battles, their elephant tank corps had been unstoppable. To break the morale of the Greeks, Elazar deemed that at least one elephant had to be killed. As the Greeks drew near, Elazar saw an elephant fitted with a red and gold carpeted saddle, and figured this must be the evil King Antiochus himself, or at least his general. In order to strike a fatal blow to the Greek forces, the elephant would be the target.
"Everyone else was afraid," Chaim said, "So Elazar undertook the tank himself. He got under the elephant and stabbed it in the stomach with a spear." He succeeded in killing the elephant, but tragically, the beast fell upon him, and Elazar was killed as well.
"We of Gush Etzion remember Elazar for his courage in that battle that raged nearby by naming the town of Elazar in his memory."
On the heels of Elazar's death, the Chashmonaim lost the battle of Bet Zecharia to the same Greek commander they had defeated at Bet Tzur.
However, the Maccabees continued, fighting three more battles against the Greeks and succeeding in demoralizing them until the final Jewish victory.
"Altogether there were eight battles," Chaim noted. "Eight is a theme that runs around Chanukah - eight days, eight lights, eight battles."
Chaim added that Gush Etzion, during the time of the Bet HaMikdash, had the same job as Gush Etzion today - defender of Jerusalem. "Gush Etzion was the protector of the Bet HaMikdash, as far back as the Maccabees. That seems to be our historical role, to be the buffer for Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, the protector of Jerusalem, our Holy City."
PS - if you'd like to see a child's version of the Chanukah story, watch this: .

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