The Avatars of Hanukkah

Hanukkah has its avatars. I wrote about this in my 2011 book, "God's Favorite Prayers."

...The concept of avatar has several meanings. First an avatar can be an embodiment or a personification of a substantial idea, for instance, "the embodiment of hope"; "the incarnation of evil"; "the very avatar of cunning." In some respects I describe in this book how the prayers serve as avatars of several diverse personalities. In this sense I can say that the Amidah is an avatar of the priest.

An avatar in the context of religions can have another meaning. In specific it is a manifestation of a Hindu deity, particularly Vishnu, in a human, superhuman or animal form. As an example of how the term is used is, “The Buddha is regarded as an avatar of the god Vishnu.” In this sense of the term, I created my archetypal avatars, such as my “priest,” as representatives of the core values that inhere in the prayers...

... The most recent technological application of the word avatar denotes a computer user's self-representation or alter ego, in the form of a three-dimensional model within a computer game, or as a two-dimensional icon picture on a screen, or as a single-dimensional username within an Internet community.

... On two special occasions, Hanukkah and Purim, we add paragraphs to the Amidah to describe the victories of heroic Jews of the past. I see these hero figures as avatars of the priest.

By no coincidence, where are we told to insert for Hanukkah and Purim the thanksgiving prayers commemorating the heroes and miracles of those festivals? Not in the Shema or anywhere else in the synagogue services. The liturgy masters could have instructed us to add the special accounts of victory anywhere in the services. But they said to add them right into the Amidah, into the blessing of Hoda'ah, thanksgiving, the eighteenth blessing.

The Hanukkah narrative glorifies an actual priest, Mattathias and celebrates his victory of reclaiming and purifying the Temple. The prologue sentence of the prayer is used on Purim and (by some Jews) on Israel Independence Day as well:

And for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders which you have wrought for our ancestors in those days, at this time.

For Hanukkah the prayer continues:

In the days of Mattathias, the son of Yohanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenistic government rose up against your people Israel to make them forget your Torah and violate the decrees of your will. But you, in your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them.
You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with your Torah. You made a great and holy name for yourself in your world, and brought about a great deliverance and redemption for your people Israel to this very day. Then your children entered the shrine of your house, cleansed your Temple, purified your sanctuary, kindled lights in your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and praise to your great name.

The inserted passage for Purim recounts and gives thanks for the deliverance at the hands of Mordecai and Esther, two leaders who also fit as historical avatars for the frequently public, and at times heroic, priest archetype.

In the days of Mordecai and Esther, in Shushan the capital, when the wicked Haman rose up against them, and sought to destroy, to slay and cause to perish all the Jews, both young and old, little children and women, on one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey. Then you in your abundant mercy bring his counsel to nothing, frustrated his design, and returned his recompense upon his own head. And they hanged him and his sons upon the gallows.

A third proposed parallel narration (adopted by Conservative Jews but not by Orthodox) for Israel Independence Day recounts and gives thanks for the deliverance at the hands of anonymous heroes, unnamed leaders who brought forth the victories that created the State of Israel in 1948. They also fit properly among those leaders celebrated as avatars of the ideal priest.

In the days when your children were returning to their borders, at the time of a people revived in its land as in days of old, the gates to the land of our ancestors were closed before those who were fleeing the sword. When enemies from within the land together with seven neighboring nations sought to annihilate your people, you, in your great mercy, stood by them in time of trouble. You defended them and vindicated them. You gave them the courage to meet their foes, to open the gates to those seeking refuge, and to free the land of its armed invaders. You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You have wrought great victories and miraculous deliverance for your people Israel to this day, revealing your glory and your holiness to all the world. (Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, 1998, The Rabbinical Assembly, p. 149.)

Yes, I bend and stretch the concept of the avatar. Still – as I see it – the anonymous architects of the synagogue services did a good job picking out stories of avatars of the priestly archetype to insert into the priest’s Amidah prayer.

I find the idea of the avatar a colorful way to visualize and parse the sacred concepts that inhere in the liturgy...

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