The Maccabeats do it every year: Parody a popular tune in their own re-telling of the Hanukkah tale. This year they chose to pull songs from Broadway’s smash hit “Hamilton.” On the surface, the choice was obvious since “Hamilton” has managed to cross over Broadway and take over popular culture at large. Pretty much anyone was guaranteed to recognize the parody even if they haven’t yet been able to score tickets to the sold-out show. But, it doesn’t take long for the Jewish acapella group to reveal a deeper meaning behind their song choice.
That’s probably because the story of America’s Revolutionary founders isn’t all that different from the story of the Maccabees, the Jewish rebels whose ragtag army rebelled against Seleucid rule over Israel from 168-164 B.C. Both the Revolutionary and the Jewish armies were definite underdogs in fights against the armies of massive empires. Empires ruled by despots who claimed authority over economic, social, and religious rights.
Most notably, the Maccabees fought against an emperor, Antiochus III who demanded they forego their Hebrew religion in favor of pagan practices. Antiochus demanded that the Jews rescind their very sense of self-identity to his empire. This enslavement is much the same as that Patrick Henry spoke of when he said, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” In the same speech, Henry referenced “the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.” This reverence for God over an earthly king was as controversial to announce in 1775 as it was in 168 B.C.
It was quite smart of the Maccabeats to draw a comparison between Judah Maccabee and Alexander Hamilton. After all, it was Hamilton who noted, “There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.” Having joined a Revolutionary militia, he raised his own artillery company and eventually became a senior aide to General Washington. Like Maccabee, Hamilton was a committed nationalist who played a major role in convening the meeting in Philadelphia that led to the writing of the Declaration of Independence.
Hanukkah will always be one of my most favorite of holidays. Contrary to the belief that it is a “minor” holiday for lack of being prescribed in Leviticus 23, Hanukkah marks the confluence of spiritual and physical, a living reminder of the ultimate expression of faith put into practice. Those of us who cherish the history of America’s founding find much the same in the words of the Declaration of Independence. The sheer audacity to place God above government and the will of the people ahead of the will of one leader echoes the Maccabean determination for freedom. In truth, both groups drew their inspirational water from the same well. And if there is any time so good as to remember that truth and call upon it, let it be the season in which both Hanukkah and Christmas coincide.