Life in Israel is by no means simple and my engagement in this country is layered with ever expanding layers of complexity. Living here, I consider what is Israel to me? On Hanuka what is the light I wish to transmit to the world?
My teacher Noam Zion tells a story of his father, Rabbi Moses Sachs, who represented the Conservative Movement and travelled to Birmingham, Alabama, USA in 1963 to march with protesters from the civil rights movement among them Martin Luther King. Rabbi Sachs approached a woman in the street selling pins that read: ‘I believe in human dignity’. He asked her: “Can I buy a pin?” She responded: “Do you believe in human dignity?” He came back: “Well, I am not sure”.
When we light the Hanukia we are fulfilling the Mitzva, commandment of sharing the light of Hanuka. Hanuka is a public festival and as such many of the Hanuka lights lit around the world look out into the public sphere. The story of Rabbi Zion contemplating the purchase of a badge, demonstrates the necessity of carefully choosing which message we decide to send out into the world. Placing a Hanukia on your windowsill is the transmission of a message. What is the message?
Hanuka is the story of religious freedom. The story is of the Macabees defeating the Greeks in armed struggle and retaking the holy Temple to resume Jewish ritual worship. Mattathias Macabee is the archetypal strong Jew, upon whose image modern Zionism has reestablished the festival of Hanuka as a festival for Israel and its achievement of independence. The image becomes one of Jewish strength and victory.
But between the flickering shades of color encapsulated in the flame of the Hanukah light there is another message – one of the belief in religious freedom and practice, one of human dignity and power of the human spirit. Inside the word Macabee, the Hebrew letters mem, caff, bet, yud, spell out the first letters from the verse from Exodus: ‘mi camocha, ba’’aylim, Adonai’, ‘Who is like you, God, among the mighty?’ Within the very fabric of our festival of human strength and self-accomplishment is an underlying message of the spirit of humanity.
It is upon all of us to decide which message we choose to send out into the world. My hope is that in these dark months of the year, the Hanuka light reinvigorates us all in our work, both in Israel and abroad. There are many struggles to be fought whether against discrimination, intolerance and racism or against poverty and social injustice or against a consumer culture which cares not for the world and our precious environment. We get to decide which struggle to engage in. It is not upon us to finish the job but it is upon us to make a start.
David Hartman says that the miracle of Hanuka was not in the oil that lasted eight days but that the Jews of the Temple lit the lamp at all when they knew not if the light would stay alight.
Let us light Hanukiot this year in all corners of the world. Let us each decide the meaning of the light we bring to the world and let us follow up with words and with actions and who knows where it might lead.
Dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Moses Sachs (ז”ל) and with eternal thanks to his son, my teacher Noam Zion.
Oliver Joseph is a Ziegler rabbinical student living and studying in Israel. He is a graduate from the Shalom Hartman Institute and is currently completing his masters at the Tel Aviv University while studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Originally from the UK he grew up in NOAM and the Masorti Movement. During his time in Israel Oliver has been active with Encounter, an organisation which brings Jewish community leaders to meet with Palestinians in the West Bank.