I’m sure you are all as deeply unsettled as I am by the shocking rise of antisemitism across the U.S. and around the world, on college campuses, and expressed as an almost normative outlook by certain repulsive cultural and political figures.
I think it was Rabbi Leo Baeck who noted that we Jews view the world through ancient eyes. If so, and knowing our history, perhaps we should not be so shocked to see antisemitism on the rise once again. And yet we are shocked, disappointed, and afraid. How can this be happening?!
There are many answers as to how hatred metastasizes in society, generally, and how and why it is doing so today in particular. I invite you, though, to consider a different question over this Shabbat, parsahat Vayeshev, and during the upcoming Chanuka holiday. The question for us is: How do we respond?
This was the question our ancestors faced in their battle against the wicked Antiochus, the story of which we still recall at Chanuka each year. (The first candle of Chanuka is lit this Sunday night!)
When the Seleucid empire tried to destroy the Jewish People, we revolted and fought for our freedom. After the battles were over, we returned to the Temple in Jerusalem which was the center of our religious, cultural, and political life – the expression of ourselves as a collective People and Nation. The place was desecrated. To reaffirm who we are – perhaps to ourselves as much as to anyone else – we set about to rededicate the Temple. Hence the word “Chanuka”, whose root means to “dedicate” as well as to “educate”.
Sure, we all know the story of the oil that lasted eight days, and we’ve been told our whole lives that THIS was the miracle we celebrate by lighting candles.
But maybe if we look with our ancient eyes at this story we see that there are some other miracles here, miracles that might give us some insight as to how we now respond to threats and difficulties:
The more detailed version of the Chanuka story is that when we came into the Temple, we found eight spears thrust into the floor of the holy area. Recall that the very essence of the Temple is to give expression to the ideal that we Jews pray for and work toward more than any other ideal or value: Peace. This was why King Solomon built the first Temple, we’re told, rather than his father King David: David was a warrior and had blood on his hands. Solomon was wise in seeking peace.
So there in the Temple of peace, the Greeks had brought weapons of war. They had pierced the Temple’s sanctity with hatred and violence…not unlike the antisemites’ message of hatred and intolerance and white supremacy – a message of violence – that belies and undermines the American values of democracy, equality, freedom and justice – a message of peace, ultimately.
What did we do? We put oil and wicks into the ends of those spears in the Temple, and used them to provide light…light to rededicate, light to educate, light to worship. We transformed weapons into lamps; a message of hatred into a signal light of freedom, a beacon of bravery, the enlightening ideals and values we stubbornly stand for: peace among ourselves and among all people.
Maybe this is the miracle, that we responded and rebelled and that we continue to respond and rebel against hatred…with a response of love, a response of peace, a response of remaining true to ourselves.
Our proven ability to respond to hatred is profound on a theological level as well. The Rabbis say that we Jews – today and always – are witnesses for God. We testify to God’s presence in the world through our actions. In fact, were we not to be witnesses for God it would be as if there is no God. The very idea – and Being – of God, depends on how we respond to the dark forces in the world: When we fight for justice, we show that there is a God of justice. When we stand up for the dignity of compassionate, kind, and caring behavior, we show that God is a God who cares; we show that we humans are not mere animals among animals on this planet but uniquely endowed with dignity and spiritual qualities that reflect in Whose Image we are created. When we bring light to the world, the world has light. Many more examples can be provided.
The question remains: How will you respond?
SHABBAT SHALOM and Happy Chanuka!
Rabbi Michael Schwartz