As the clouds begin to converge on the sun and the human reality freezes over, the trees stripped of their familiar colors in the backdrop to the dramatic downpours of the heavens, we welcome this recurring darkness with a light of our own. Throughout the generations, in each Jewish parallel universe, the winter has brought with it its own unique survival challenge: in Eretz Yisrael, a desperation for rain, and in diaspora, maintaining warmth, avoiding local diseases, and pogroms. The common denominator here would indicate that winter represents, beyond a change of landscape, a loss of control. Exile itself, too, symbolizes the ultimate loss of control, whether through the helplessness with which we are dependent on the whims of foreign powers, the uncertainty as to which host country we may have to turn to next when the current haven turns hostile, or simply the lack of a home.
Home is a refuge, a source of strength and comfort, where its occupants can enjoy the illusions of control in a private capacity. Through it, its owners build a little world of their own that reflects their interests, values, and worldview. In the Jewish exile, there was no privilege of illusion; the Jews’ home had always belonged to God, and we had to surrender the control we never had, this time outside the familiarity of our carefully cultivated civilizational center. We were forced to acknowledge emotionally what we already logically had known to be true: that we are not the masters of our own universe.
Through this lens, Chanuka is the ultimate diaspora holiday. Born in circumstances far from idyllic, as a very belated Succos celebration, in the shadows of ongoing war, at the stormiest time of the year, Chanuka’s laws do not require sacrificial rites or even a minyan. Our bravery on the battlefield seemingly won us nothing but more borrowed time. We fought for God and won, and then immediately turned against one another, and lost. And so, the story of Yosef and his troubled relationship with his brothers which we read in this week’s parsha, repeats its themes yet again. The final chapter of the second Judean commonwealth ends with the death of the Ten Martyrs, as Hadrian cruelly demonstrates the irony of Rome having seen all along our failure to heal our own wounds which we’d lost sight of in the quest to seize control of the future.
Bitachon (trust in Divine providence) and hishtadlus (initiative) are often viewed as separate obligations, at times maybe even conflicting. On the one hand, Pirkei Avos tells us “it is not your responsibility to complete the work”: yiras shamayim (fear of Heaven) mandates that everything works ultimately in accordance with the Divine plan— our agency is limited, our role is predestined. Simultaneously, the adage continues, “and you are not free to exempt yourself from it”: it is demanded of us to put in our effort and not to remain static. The reconciliation to this is simple enough. As the “work” in this life is to sanctify God’s Name in this world, we are tasked only with discovering the best path by which each of us can maximize our contribution to this end, which necessitates the trust in Heaven that our work is not in vain and accepting that our capacity to understand the universe is limited. Like Yosef upon his arrival in Egypt discovering the complex role he had in his own destiny at age seventeen, we renounce the power over reality that humanity tends to chase into oblivion in exchange for the comfort of knowing that all we must do is our best. Bitachon and hishtadlus are complementary.
Ever since the Babylonian exile, or arguably ever since the splitting of the Kingdom of Israel into distinct northern and southern territories, Jews have been living from one small victory to the next. Golden ages and gedolim have been our historical lifeblood. The Macabim lived in bleak circumstances under a looming threat of cultural extinction. At the time of the Hasmonean revolt, prophecy was long lost. Am Yisrael was divided between a disconnected aristocracy and the impoverished masses to whom they seemed treasonous. Tribes of the Northern kingdom had long since disappeared with Assyria leaving little trace. The glimmers of hope brought with the rebuilding of the Second Temple were substantially dimmed by foreign oppressors, bitter rifts and rivalries, internal ideological battles imposed by imperial forces, and the incomplete return to Zion which left a significant Jewish remainder in Babylonia, who had enjoyed affluence and freedom of religion for the most part under Persian rule prior to the Seleucid conquest. Political freedom, national unity, and a basic cultural consensus on what constitutes authentic Judaism were a distant memory of the Bronze Age.
Geula was not meant to be for the Jews of the Second Temple era, but the Second Temple era was meant to be. Many Jews chose to stay in the Babylonian region despite the pleas of Sheshbazzar and Zerubavel, but others did return. Ezra and Nechemia could not undo all of the cultural damage to Judaism, but they restored the Temple. The Macabim couldn’t reinstate the Davidic dynasty, but they did make Judea autonomous again. They sought after a light in the suffocating fog engulfing our history, and when one couldn’t be found they kindled torches on their own with whatever they had, to provide us a flame by which to light our menorahs.
We are forbidden from benefiting from these lights, for they are dedicated to every future generation. They serve to remind us of divine intervention, of the miracles on our behalf. They remind us, too, of the Menorah we lost, of the shortcomings of the Hasmonean dynasty, of our failures to each other. They are a signal to place our trust in Heaven, to take initiative, to light the fire and make sure the world sees it. “A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness”.