This week, a parent shared with me that her son asked her if it’s safe to tell his classmates that he’s Jewish. This week, we mourned the loss of Jewish and non-Jewish innocent people who were killed in a targeted Anti-Semitic attack in New Jersey. This week, Nessah Synagogue, a Persian congregation in Beverly Hills was ransacked, leaving multiple Torahs in tatters on the floor. This week, an Israeli woman and a white bearded man in a kippah were harassed and physically attacked on the 2 train. This week, the category of “White-Nationalist” was stricken, by the Senate, from legislation seeking to screen military personnel for extremist views. And this week, we will celebrate Chanukah.
Now Chanukah is often packaged as a kid’s story about a miracle, but I want to suggest that it is actually an adult story about a miracle. And it takes place at just such a time as this. Though it’s not entirely clear what miracle it’s about. See, Chanukah is the ever evolving story which takes on new meaning throughout history. We first learn it’s about a small band of Jews called the Maccabees, who were forbidden by King Antiochus to practice their faith, who saw their Temple desecrated before their own eyes, and who fought back. And against all odds, the small defeated the mighty. It’s read as a miraculous military victory.
And later, it’s read as God’s victory and miracle, as the rabbis teach that the Maccabees did not merit the win, but rather, all glory is to God. Then, in exile, weary from violence and wary of ginning up a revolutionary spirit among the people, the rabbis change the story altogether and make the miracle about this tiny bit of oil found in the rubble of the desecrated Temple, which should have only lasted one night, but instead, lit up the darkness for eight nights. And then, the question is asked—wait, why 8 nights? Oh, they were trying to celebrate Sukkot, which they couldn’t at its right time because the temple had been desecrated, so they were celebrating it late. In all of this evolution, we might ask: so which is, what is, the miracle?
But in the rubble of the defiled temple, in the holy place whose Jewish spiritual objects laid in tatters on the ground, the same images we cringe at from Nessah Synagogue this week—there in the rubble, perhaps, we find our miracle.
The Maccabees should have turn and run in fear they were so outnumbered. But they didn’t. They stayed and fought for what they believed in. The rabbis who said God helped them win should have turned on God in anger for having exiled them in the first place. But they didn’t—they told a story about how God had not abandoned them. The guy who found that small bit of oil should have stepped over it in despair. But he didn’t.
He took it to the Temple Menorah and he lit it, casting light onto the broken walls and his broken heart. In such times of fear, anger, and despair, the Jewish people have chosen not to let go of hope. It’s not the metaphorical eight nights that make the miracle, it’s that they chose to light the oil at all, refusing to let the human spirit be doused, crushed, or fooled into embracing hopelessness as an ideology. That’s a miracle.
And it is a miracle that in such moments of fear or anger or despair—We insist on retaining the values we think are worth fighting for. Though it would be understandable, we do not become an insular, inward turned, parochial, haunches up, suspicious, selfish people. When anti-semitism increases, we respond from love.
Ya know what the Jews in New Jersey did after the attack? They raised money for and are supporting the family of Miguel Rodriguez, the Ecuadorean immigrant owner of the deli where the shooting happened. And the Jews of Nessah Synagogue? Even as they expressed outrage, they asked all people to light the Chanukah menorah and said, no matter who did this: we will not be intimidated. Rather, we are propelled to unite as a community, to unite with fellow Jews, and to stand strong with good people of all faiths.”
We sing loudly. We pray communally. We do Jewish fiercely. We love the other, we trust, we build connections—here at Union Temple, we meet in dialogue with Muslims, we work hard with other faiths, we welcome the stranger, we extend our hearts to every vulnerable people. We remember not just TO exist, but WHY we exist. That is the miracle. That after all this—we still choose hope. That we endure with our values intact, that no one can change us by hating us. That we acknowledge fear, but we are not guided by fear.
So what should we do with such an extraordinary miracle? Well, on Chanukah, we are taught to pirsum it. Pirsum et haneis…Publicize the miracle. Talk about it, celebrate it. And specifically, we are taught to place our Menorah in a window when we light it, where others can see it. It is an act of resistance to light a Chanukah menorah in a window at a time when anti-semitism is increasing. Now there is a caveat to this—one for which each of us has to make our own decision. We are told to pirsum et haneis, to publicize the miracle unless it is a time of danger. It’s not a small caveat, is it? Because we need to ask ourselves—are we living in a time of danger? Would putting our menorah in our window cause us harm? Because if it will, we are not supposed to do that—we believe in the preservation of life. But…if in your calculations and in your heart, you believe that putting a menorah in your window tells a story you need to tell right now: that we will retain our hope even when things are dark. We will choose love even when we are shown hate. We will not turn our backs to the world even when we feel afraid—then light it up. Sing it loud. Publicize it, advertise it, amplify it—because Chanukah is about the miracle of this very moment in history—when things may look like they are getting dark, so we illuminate the darkness. When the rubble of hate is at our feet, so we begin to rebuild.
Because a lot of darkness happened this week, but also—this week, a mother told me she brought her toddler to Shabbat for the first time because in the wake of the New Jersey shooting, she wanted to show her daughter that it is joyful to be Jewish. Because this week, at our Town Hall, someone said: let’s do this. Let’s build something amazing here, even if we fail, so we will fail, but we will have tried with all that we have. And this week, I sat in a room of progressive rabbis and Chasidic rabbis, all of us from Brooklyn, come together to talk about anti-semitism and how it’s hitting our Chasidic siblings hard right now. And we, the progressive rabbis, told them we stand with them as one family, and asked them how we can show up for them and we saw in their eyes what that question meant to them. And this week, after we sang the Chanukah blessings in our preschool, Benny, a three-year-old child who shouldn’t have to know from hate, shouted out the word “Amen” pirsuming that nes with extraordinary joy.
Because this week, the story of Chanukah and the miracle of Chanukah is still unfolding as we live it.