Are you happy to be Jewish? Is it a burden or privilege? For many, Jewish identity means having inherited a history of pogroms, the Holocaust, hatred and suffering; and now, the trauma of our past is interlocked with our fears for the future, filled with military threats, mounting international isolation of the State of Israel and increased incidents of anti-Semitism around the globe.
Though we are troubled, we must not fall into the trap of negativity, nor of a Jewish identity defined by our enemies. Chanukah offers us a different path, away from pessimism and toward a positive and inspiring Jewish identity.
There were two great miracles that took place some 2200 years ago, when the mighty Greek Empire was defeated by a rebellion lead by the Maccabees – the priests in the Temple. The first was the unlikely military victory of this group of priests and their followers over a world superpower. The second was when they entered the Temple and, as is recorded in the Talmud, found only one flask of ritually pure olive oil for lighting the menorah and instead of it burning for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight. When we light Chanukah candles, we celebrate the second miracle and not the first. This seems counter-intuitive: on the scale of miracles, surely the defeat of a world empire at the hands of a group of priests is more impressive – and indeed more historically significant – than how many days the oil burnt. Why, then, do we celebrate this seemingly smaller miracle?
Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), writes in his commentary on the Chumash, that our Talmudic sages modelled Chanukah on the G-d-given pattern of our other festivals, which focus not on the defeat of others but rather on the positive goals we achieved for ourselves; Pesach, for example, is called z’man cheiruteinu, the time of our freedom – and not “the time of the downfall of Egypt.” So too Chanukah does not commemorate the defeat of the Greeks, but rather the rededication of the Temple and, especially, the rekindling of the menorah, which represents the light of Torah values.
There is a moral reason for this model: it is insensitive to celebrate the suffering of other people. According to the Midrash, when the feared Egyptian army was drowning in the Red Sea and the angels wanted to sing praises, G-d rebuked them; how could they sing when His creations were being destroyed?
But there is an existential reason as well, and that is that Chanukah is not about the battle won over our enemies but about the victory of being able to light the flames of Torah values in the world. The battle of the Maccabees was not merely about facing mortal enemies who sought to destroy our people, but about fighting to promote and live by Torah Judaism. This is why on Chanukah we focus on the miracle of the menorah and not the miracle of the war. Chanukah teaches us that Jewish identity should not be defined by struggle with our enemies, but rather by our G-d-given moral vision, mission and values.
Suffering and anti-Semitism must not define Jewish identity, for three reasons: first, that would give far too much credence to our enemies; we must not give them the right to define who we are. Second, it creates an identity rooted in negativity and pain, and this kind of Jewishness is not sustainable; who wants to be part of such a destiny? As Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said, the single Yiddish expression which encapsulates the demise of the Jewish values of first-generation American Jews was es iz shver tsu zayn a Yid, “it is difficult to be a Jew.” Third, defining ourselves by a history of suffering fosters the notion that our existence is solely about survival. But unlike animals whose aim is solely survival, human beings were created not only to survive but to live with the higher purpose of a Divine mission, a calling which we carry in our souls.
The lessons of Chanukah need to guide us today. For too many Jews, centuries of pogroms and oppression have defined what a Jew is. Although the halacha mandates that we remember and honour the victims of anti-Semitism and mourn the suffering and destructions on fast days throughout the year as well as during designated periods of national mourning, pain cannot dominate who we are. It forms but a part of a broader, positive whole.
It was the Maccabees, the loyal and devoted priests of the Temple, who fought for freedom in those days because their vision was founded upon authentic Jewish values contained in our Torah. When we light our Chanukah candles, we celebrate not the fearful battle with our enemies but rather the privilege of having a value system given to us by G-d – represented by the glowing flames of the menorah – which illuminates a dark world. These values guide us, giving meaning, purpose and direction to our existence. They guide us on our moral responsibilities and spiritual vision of how to be a nurturing parent, a respectful son or daughter, a loving spouse, and on the meaning of honesty, integrity, generosity and compassion; how to run a government and economy; how to establish courts and what justice is; how to connect with G-d and how to pray and learn; how to practise medicine and law; how to understand science, psychology and history ; how to be ethical in business and generous in charity, and how to live with inspiration and meaning in accordance with Hashem’s will.
This model of positive Jewish identity is the key to our future. Zionism must also be freed from the negativity of anti-Semitism. Theodore Herzl turned to the idea of a Jewish State following his experiences at the Dreyfus trial, seeing it as a way to end anti-Semitism. But the State of Israel cannot be solely about fleeing hatred. Indeed, the bitter irony is that today Israel is the lightening rod of world anti-Semitism. Is our only aspiration to be “a free nation in our country”? The blessing of a Jewish homeland, of a house of refuge, cannot be underestimated; no country was willing to take in Jews fleeing Hitler. But surely Zionism cannot merely be about survival and establishing a place of refuge. Surely it must also about fulfilling our Divine mission.
With all the troubles of our time we need a compelling and inspiring vision of what it means to be a Jew. And that can only be found in the light of the menorah. History has proven that the only form of Jewish identity which has sustained, nurtured and inspired generations of Jews for thousands of years has been an identity rooted in Torah Judaism. As we stand around our Chanukah candles this year, let us look at the lights and internalise what they represent: the light of our values, meaning and purpose, the fulfilment of a noble and Divine mission and the privilege and joy of our Jewish legacy.