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
Though we are troubled, we must not fall into the trap of
negativity, nor of a Jewish identity defined by our enemies.
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 2,200 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 Hanukka candles, we celebrate the second miracle and not the
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 Humash, that our
Talmudic sages modeled Hanukka 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; Passover, for example, is called z’man heiruteinu, the
time of our freedom – and not “the time of the downfall of Egypt.”
Hanukka 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
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 Hanukka 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 Hanukka we focus on the
miracle of the menorah and not the miracle of the war. Hanukka teaches us that
Jewish identity should not be defined by struggle with our enemies, but rather
by our G-dgiven moral vision, mission and values.
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
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
The lessons of Hanukka 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 honor 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 Hanukka 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
practice 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.
Theodor 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
land”? 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.
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 Hanukka candles
this year, let us look at the lights and internalize what they represent: the
light of our values, meaning and purpose, the fulfillment of a noble and Divine
mission and the privilege and joy of our Jewish legacy.The writer is
chief rabbi of South Africa.
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