Where Have You Gone Judah Maccabee?

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18 Dec 2008

In 1969 Paul Simon wrote the song ‘Mrs. Robinson’ in which he likes to think he helped immortalize Joe DiMaggio with the lyric ‘Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…’ In a chance meeting with DiMaggio years later, the Yankee clipper wondered why Simon had thought he had gone anywhere when he was right there. Simon’s reply, and the point for us, was that the line was not meant to be taken literally, but rather that DiMaggio was a symbol of the American hero and we were sorely in short supply of those. DiMaggio accepted and thanked him.

In the words of former President Clinton the symbol of DiMaggio was one of grace and dignity, power and skill. We idolized him for his talent, skill and professionalism on the field and marveled at the pride, composure and stateliness with which he carried himself off the field. We compare other athletes and public personas to him and they fall short. We placed him on a pedestal for us, and all, to aspire to.

Our world is one which always looks for heroes and legendary leaders. Too many times we are wont to build them up only for the opportunity to tear them down, but that is for another time. The headlines scream for individuals who would take the mantle and run. Too often we are presented with pretenders. Those who are successful remain forever etched in our minds as ‘Great’, the others fade from memory and are doomed to life in the locker room of ‘has beens’ and ‘never was,’ of ‘one hit wonders’ and ‘what was his name again?’ The athlete who guarantees victory in the big game and matches with a performance for the ages gets fame and fortune and the one who fails gets head shakes and a clear path to the exit.

Why do we do it? Why do we seek out and build heroes? Within the field of psychology heroes are viewed as filling gaps within ourselves. Dr. Stanley Teitelbaum PhD, sports psychologist and author of ‘Sports Heroes as Fallen Idols,’ says that heroes perform the role we once proscribed to our parents. We initially view our parents in the ideal and along the way they may disappoint or fail and as we become adults we find heroes to recapture that earlier time. Where we find holes, flaws or failings within our own personal world the hero comes along and provides surety. Their successes or victories reassure us, confirm our beliefs and our convictions and proffer a sense of confidence within us that we too can succeed. It is why, psychologists say, we feel better or worse when ‘our’ team wins or loses.

The Jewish community is no different. Over the generations our heroes and leaders have taken on a variety of forms. Some have been rooted in religious observance, the ‘Rebbe’ or the sage of the town. Others have been political leaders who went out with a vision and built a legacy. We have had our share of athletes too.

The question now is, where are our Joe D’s? To paint it in a more Jewish light, where have you gone Judah Maccabee? Do we have individuals amongst us who will lead our people forward? Those who would grab us by our yarmulkes and tzitzit fringes and pull us into the future of Jewish peoplehood? Where are those who publicly pronounce with great pride their Jewishness to the world in a way that is a credit to us?

Judah was one such individual. The people of Israel were in a dire situation. They were unable to worship as they pleased. Decree after decree diminished their ability to practice their faith in their own land. The Hellenists in the Jewish camp were all too happy to remove the ‘burden’ of faith and practice to absorb themselves in Greek culture. Judah and his small family of brothers, disciples and warriors literally took to the hills, and proceeded to fight and fight and win and win, in battle after battle. And yet, while immersed in war, the Maccabees were meticulous in their religious observance and greatly concerned for Jerusalem and the defiled Temple. The 25th day of Kislev is not chosen by accident. The text tells us that it was strategically selected because it was the date when the alter was first defiled three years earlier. The rededication then is an act of revolt and a symbol of freedom. And Judah and his brothers led the charge. We do not know whether or not Judah or his brothers were what we call tzadikim. We do not know if they were roshei yeshiva. We do know they were leaders of our people when no one else would step up. We do know the numbers working against them did not faze them. They had an unyielding faith in God. We know they battled in the name of God, people and country. Judah and the Maccabees are still viewed as legends of our people, and venerated for their strength and faith.

We have yearned for such countrymen for too long. We ask for it in our daily prayers. We beseech God to ‘Restore our judges as at first…’ to bring us to a time when our people lead our people, and I dare say we were proud of those leaders. In the current climate many individuals relish the chance to lead and few are actually leaders. Most seem to be more interested in personal glory and riches rather than actually leading. Too many are corrupt; too few are righteous, honest and truly worthy. Enough of those! Enough! We are a nation in need of leaders and heroes. We are a people in search of men and women who model goodness and righteousness and show the power of word and deed to the world. We need them; we pray for them, will we step up and be them?

‘Where have you gone Judah Maccabee, A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…’

Rabbi Bini Maryles is Director of The Pepa & Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services at the Orthodox Union

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.