Flame of shamash recalls Jewish martyrs through ages

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 must be veiled 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.

In the portion of Vayishlach that is read annually before Chanukah, we are told that "Deborah, 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 figure anyway?

Nachmanides (Ramban, aka Moses Ben Nachman) explains that this passage contains a "screened memory." Actually, it was Rebecca who died — under unspeakably sad circumstances.

Remember: Rebecca intervened in the transmission of Isaac's blessing to save the future of the family, of the Jewish people. Rather than let the legacy fall into Esau's unworthy hands, Rebecca tricked her husband into blessing Jacob.

Thereafter, Isaac, who was always taciturn and rather incommunicative, seems to have slipped into total silence. Did he feel betrayed by Rebecca? Ashamed? Manipulated? The silence between them is deafening.

Then at the time of her death, Rebecca was totally isolated. Her husband Isaac was withdrawn. Her son Esau, openly ready to kill his brother, was silently and implacably hostile to his mother. Rebecca was cut off from Jacob, the son she loved; he wandered, not even knowing that his mother's 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 look out only for themselves often prosper — while those who give themselves over totally to doing good works all too often pay a fearsome price?

Rebecca's pain is too raw, says Ramban; so the Torah masks the reference, 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 philosophical questions that might consume their souls.

Similarly, while Chanukah is most commonly associated with an easy and joyous victory, the holiday actually carries within it a memory so painful that it had to be presented in code.

In the popular version, Judah Maccabee's father Mattathias started a revolt. Within three years, the Maccabees, led by Judah, liberated Jerusalem. And, as the popular version has it, the Temple was cleansed; the oil burned; the holiday was established.

In fact, the Hasmonean wars — the wars behind the Chanukah story ("Hasmoneans" is an alternate title for the Maccabees) — lasted another 30 years.

And Mattathias' family paid a horrific price for Israel's redemption. One of his five sons, Elazar, died in an early battle. After the initial victory, Greek armies repeatedly invaded. In 160 BCE, a diminished band of Maccabees was defeated at Elasa. Judah Maccabee died in the battle.

For years, the family's fortunes seesawed. In 145 BCE Judah's 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 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 BCE, yet another cruel twist of fate found Simon and two of his sons 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 amid endless suffering, treachery and betrayal.

Is this the reward for historical vision, religious fervor, courage in battle? It makes you wonder.

We light candles and oil in memory of the miracle; the chanukiah reminds us of the Temple. Where is the recollection of the Maccabees' sacrifice hidden?

A folk tradition says it lies in the shamash, the candle used to light the chanukiah.

The shamash is not part of the Chanukah narrative; 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 we know that without this kindling flame, nothing else would burn, and the story could not be told.

As the shamash burns down separately, we can spare a thought for the Maccabee brothers and all the good people who died so that the faith could continue. We can remember all the anonymous soldiers who fell in battle so the people could live.

This year, we had yet again the bitter experience of seeing a good man struck down before his time.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, dead and buried before he reached his promised land of peace, was a target because of his visionary drive to transcend enormous difficulties and stop the violence.

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 Yitzhak Rabin and the other good people who paid for the future with their last full measure of devotion.

Say a silent blessing over Rabin's memory and his 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 sake.