What is Hanukkah really about? Many experience it as simply a Jewish substitute for Christmas – lights, gifts and food. Throughout history, the rabbis strove to focus on the divine rather than the secular, the oil miracle rather than the Maccabees’ victory. With the rise of Zionism, the focus shifted back to the political, equating ancient Jewish national aspirations with their modern manifestation.
During a rabbi’s homily before a New Israel Fund ceremony honoring Richard and Phyllis Franco, my mind drifted to a Zionist Hanukkah song, ending with “No wonder befell us, we did not find any oil flask; we chiseled the rock till we bled – and there was light!” Human dedication and martyrdom, it implies, not divine intervention, will bring victory. The biblical Promise of the Land, the rabbi reminded us, is not unconditional. It must be deserved by following the moral precepts laid out in the Torah, including – but not limited to – caring for the poor, widows and orphans and not oppressing the stranger. Exiles and persecutions have been construed as punishment for failing to abide by these conditions.
If we want to merit the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in Israel and unprecedented freedom and equality for most diaspora Jews, it is incumbent upon us – religious and secular alike – to protect democracy, equality, civil society and human rights in Israel, and to promote unity, civil discourse and mutual respect within Jewish communities worldwide and between them and other nations and faith traditions.
May this be God’s will. Amen.
Rabbi Joab Eichenberg-Eilon, linguist and educator, teaches biblical Hebrew and Aramaic at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, formerly eTeacher Biblical.