Hanukkah is coming next week.
Perhaps you are looking ahead to next week celebrations and found yourself asking, What's Hanukkah? How will I explain this holiday to my friends, co-workers or kids? How will I connect to it myself? It is precisely this question that the rabbis have been asking for over 1500 years.
In a discussion about how to light Shabbat candles, one rabbi references the lighting of candles on Hanukkah, to which another replies, "What's Hanukkah? מאי חנוכה" (B.T. Shabbat 21b). Hanukkah was, is and likely always will be a multilayered Holiday. It is a story of resistance, hope, and abundance. It is a story about natural resources and revolt. It is a story about creating light on the darkest days of the year. The mystic in me is most often drawn to Hanukkah teachings about how we have the power to be the light, to kindle hope, to burn bright.
But this week, I have been thinking about the narrative I often ignore and barely understand. The one in which there is a Jewish civil war in Jerusalem. Rabbi James Ponet writes in his article The Maccabees and the Hellenists (which I highly recommend for a complicated Hanukkah history lesson), "So the miracle-of-the-oil celebration of Hanukkah that the rabbis later invented covers up a blood-soaked struggle that pitted Jew against Jew."
This week, with the Supreme Court's decision to support the Muslim Ban and the decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, both of which I see as acts of Islamophobic aggression designed to divert attention away from charges of treason and sexual assault -- This week I cannot ignore that Hanukkah was also a battle for the Jewish soul and its relationship to government, assimilation and interdependence, in Jerusalem, no less.
h/t to Rabbi Sharon Brous' Facebook post for this Midrash:
It is said that two righteous men, Abraham and Shem, called Jerusalem by two different names. One called it Yir’eh—meaning God will reveal—and the other, Shalem—meaning wholeness. God did not want either to feel wronged, so compromised and called the city Yir’eh Shalem, or Yerushalem (Bereishit Rabbah).
Rabbi Brous writes, "This city, which has seen so many miracles and so many tears, is intended to be a place not of sanctimonious grandstanding, but of holy compromise. It’s built into the very foundation of the place. When those who stake a claim on the city are righteous, there is room for everyone."
Next week, in honor of Hanukkah, we will chant the prophetic words of Zechariah which I can only hear in my head through the tune of Debbie Friedman: "Not by might and not by power but with spirit alone shall we all live in peace" (4:6). Going into this Shabbat, I take refuge in Debbie Friedman's three-part ending of that same prophetic song, "Another song will rise."
I pray that in the days to come wise and compassionate leadership will arise and that Palestinians and Israelis avert the violence that could result from the reckless acts of this administration. And may we at Kol Tzedek sing, dance and protest our way through this Hanukkah and be part of that new song.
Tonight, 6:30 pm Friday Night For All Services led by Rabbi Annie Lewis
Rabbi Ari Lev