Judging the activity on social media, Hanukkah in 2020 has taken on a far deeper resonance. There has been a flurry of activity to make Hanukkah meaningful, fun and engaging as we continue to wrestle with the virus. In my family, we too have succumbed to that impulse as I decked out my house in more decorations than usual, provide more sweet treats and presents for the kids than anticipated and found myself hungering for Hanukkah in a way that felt almost physical.
Light. It is all about the light. I craved cheer, good tidings, hope, and I am sure you do too. Perhaps many Jews find themselves connecting with Hanukkah in unexpected ways as we drill deep into the wells of the tradition to carry us through these times.
Hanukkah itself, of course, is a messy and strange holiday – half in, half out in terms of its Biblical authority. Last week I addressed the ambivalence we may feel towards the Maccabees. It is strongly suggested that the Rabbis of the Talmud felt that same ambivalence, shifting the emphasis away from the victorious sword and towards the glorious light. Like many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah struggles with questions of particularism versus universalism—how to be Jewish in the world and what values to hoist onto our banner of Torah.
I had an entirely different sermon in mind. I wanted to talk about the archetype of the Hero’s journey as we begin reading the Joseph cycle in Parashat Vayeshev. I wanted to talk about the lonely road all of us are walking now (albeit in varying degrees) and how bearing the light within us could help the fall of our feet.
Instead, I was alerted by yet another antisemitic incident, this time far too close to home. Temple Emmanuel in Davenport, where my beloved colleague Rabbi Linda Berthental is the Rabbi. Someone had tagged their building on the first night of Hanukkah with ‘John 8:44’ – a reference to the Gospel of John in the Christian Bible, where the Pharisees in particular and Jews in general are accused of being the children of Satan. There is both context to the Gospel of John, of course – beyond the scope of this sermon, but perhaps worthy of consultation with Christian clergy – as well as the tagging of that particular verse. The murderer who murdered eleven Jews in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue had referenced that same verse in his hateful screeds. Clearly, its selective reading speaks to unreconstructed antisemites.
The first obvious step is to offer succor and support to the congregation and its Rabbi in Davenport, and then to partner with our allies on monitoring this situation and moving forward in constructive ways. At the same time, there is no denying that this act on the first night of Hanukkah, where we started lighting our hanukkiyot to proclaim the miracle of our Jewish light, feels particularly cruel and raw. And it pulls our frame of mind to reflect on what Hanukkah is supposed to stand for, what the Maccabees stood for and how we engage in that eternal balancing act of the particular and universal. We may feel angry and defensive and those feelings are both healthy and legitimate—when our Jewish community is threatened, we must rally to protect it. When Jewish existence and identity is delegitimized, we must muster pride to claim it. It would be easy to see the Maccabean account as a simple expression of those age-old truths.
But Hanukkah is much more complex and the Rabbis of our tradition were both bold and wise. In subtle (and perhaps not-so-subtle) ways they pushed back against the dangers of the Maccabees in extremis. Just like Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi in last week’s parashah put the Shechemites to the sword after their forced circumcision, so too did the Hasmoneans force the neighboring Idumeans to choose conversion to Judaism or death. This is the horrifying specter of unchecked, chauvinistic particularism. The Rabbis lived with that legacy and with the shards of the destruction of the Second Temple and the failed Bar Kochba revolt. They knew intimately the dangers of such thinking.
So, they pivoted Hanukkah, to be about light and miracles, about sharing our values and about transforming bold courage into proud conviction. And they chose a Haftarah from the book of Zechariah which is even bolder. It opens with an exuberant messianic vision when Zion is restored and the Divine Presence returns. ‘V’nil’vu goyim rabim el Adonai bayom hahu v’hayu li le’am v’shachanti b’tochech…’ – ‘In that day many nations will attach themselves to the Eternal and become His people, and He will dwell in your midst.’ (Zech. 2:15) This, coupled with the later teachings directed at Zerubbabel, a royal descendant of David poised to assume power upon the return from Exile, forms a compelling Prophetic as well as Rabbinic vision. ‘Zeh d’var Adonai el Zerub’avel lemor lo va’chayil, v’lo vakoach ki im beruchi amara Adonai Tzeva’ot.’ – ‘This is the word of the Eternal to Zerubbabel: not by might, not by power, but by My spirit—says the Eternal of Hosts.’ (Zech. 4:6)
The oppression and persecution of our people has always prompted vigorous responses. The wisdom of Hanukkah is that we get to consider the full consequences of those responses. Our initial reaction is a surge reaction: to resist and fight is legitimate, but when the dust clears and the swords are sheathed back into their scabbards, we are left with important questions. Do we want to meet oppression with oppression? Do we want to choose the path of parochial, chauvinism? Do we succumb to the seduction of power, violence and corruption? Do we become spiritually ensnared in the false truth that we have The Truth? Or do we want to choose a gentler path?
There is another Hanukkah. A delicately balanced one, holding the blessings of both particularism and universalism. A Hanukkah of committed pluralism where we respect and learn from other traditions where curiosity and ‘sacred envy’ allow us to relish the wisdom of many voices, other from our own. A Hanukkah of gentle universalism, nurturing the voluntary and free spirit with which we offer and share our gifts to the world and welcome those who wish to join us. Where we dwell on the joy of light rather than might, on love and connection. Where we honor our fellow human beings both in their own distinctiveness as well as honor the possibility that (some) others can be transformed by our Torah just as we are.
The response to resurgent antisemitism is multipronged, complex and beyond the scope of one, short sermon. However, this Hanukkah is a powerful and unique Hanukkah where we get to shine our light in an age that craves it so. Let us choose to meet hatred with love, bigotry with pride and the darkness of our days with an abiding joy knowing that the spirit of our beautiful tradition will carry us through.