Earlier this week, a bright light shone through the recent darkness. We celebrated an electoral breakthrough as talented leaders who boldly oppose anti-Semitic rhetoric, hate and warmongering won across our nation.
And yet, we cannot forget what else is happening in our country. Violence and hatred are exploding in many directions, and despair can seem like a rational response. In today’s America, bombs arrive at the doorsteps of former presidents and current office-holders, and the President worries only about the implications for his political prospects. Anti-Semites are empowered to spew their rhetorical venom and, unbearably, to take the lives of dear souls in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Racist language and imagery is increasingly accessible in public discourse. Democratic institutions, norms of decency, core principles of Jewish ethics and truth itself are all under attack in today’s America. The successes we saw in the midterms this week provided some much needed rays of hope, but the road ahead remains long and challenging.
Around the world, authoritarian regimes are increasingly successful. Vehement xenophobia is on the rise amidst the largest refugee crisis the world has seen in seventy years.
In our beloved Israel, democratic institutions and convictions are also under attack, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has managed to turn the majority of Israelis toward a narrow-minded, ethno-nationalist version of Israel so different from the founders’ vision. The Trump-Netanyahu axis has repudiated legitimate Palestinian claims for national dignity and identity, making a two-state solution highly unlikely in the near future.
Hanukkah was meant for times such as these. We were taught in Hebrew school that Hanukkah was about the victory of the Maccabees. But I confess that I often sense — this year more than most — that the deeper impetus for Hanukkah is the same as that of other peoples’ winter festivals. When the world around us grows dark, we need light to soothe and lift up our spirits, and to connect ourselves with the Divine around and within us.
Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai famously debated the right way to light a Hanukkiah (Talmud Shabbat 21b). Shammai sensibly asserted that the essence of the ritual, based on the story of the small flask of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days, demanded the ritual equivalent of a countdown: lighting eight candles on the first night, seven on the second, down to one on the last night, when, according to the mythic story, the light would soon go out. This kind of ritual would have brought us palpably into the suspense of the story, anticipating the death of the light.
Beit Hillel had a different spiritual logic, infused with a theology of hope. As a later Talmudic rabbi explained it, “ma’alin bakodesh v’ein moridin,” “We ascend in matters of holiness. We do not descend.” Beit Hillel are understood to suggest that we do not count down from abundance to scarcity. Spiritual life demands a constant and ever-growing cultivation of hope. In matters of holiness, we must rise, as our pain about the way things are gives way to expanding circles of beauty and possibility. In ritual, we move upward and outward, breathing more deeply and fully, casting our gaze higher, expanding our capacity for gratitude about what is and for faith in what can be. Needless to say, the law is according to the House of Hillel.
The sight of the Hanukkiah, moving from faint light to a blaze of nine beautiful candles, is precisely what we need in these times. As we look forward to Hanukkah, we cannot avoid feeling the pain of Israel moving away from peace and justice. But we must also lift our spirits to believe in the light, in our collective capacity to make change, and in the possibility that the tikvah of the founders will yet come to be.
Let the light nourish us this Kislev. Let us feel the warmth of ritual, family and community. And with full hearts, let us renew our determination to work for the Israel we love, a place of peace and justice for all.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She serves as the Coordinator of Jewish Engagement for Faith in Action Bay Area, a multi-faith, multi-racial social justice organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. She previously served as the director of the Pardes Rodef Shalom (Pursuer of Peace) Communities Program, teaching Jewish civil discourse to rabbis, synagogues and Jewish organizations. Her book, From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, was published by Orbis Books in March 2014.
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