HaArakhim Hallalu– The Values With Which We Must Light Our World

I remember volunteering to go out and canvass for Ted Kennedy before the Democratic Party primaries when I was an undergraduate at Harvard in 1980. After Jimmy Carter was nevertheless re-nominated, I don’t think I remained very involved. Immediately after Ronald Reagan won the presidency, a demonstration was organized on campus to protest against his expected policies. As a leading activist on campus, I was asked to speak. However, I doubt that anybody was expecting what I said. I told people that it was a bit ridiculous to be protesting the day after the elections. Those of us who had not participated in the elections in any way, perhaps because we didn’t believe that there was much of a difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, had only ourselves to blame.

I hope that we will not be in the same position in Israel on March 18th. As an amutah (Israeli NGO), we in Rabbis For Human Rights are forbidden from supporting or endorsing any party or candidate. But, Israelis reading this can work for the party of their choice. Both you and we can attend parlor meetings of candidates from across the political spectrum, and ask questions regarding the issues and values close to our hearts. We can check and publicize their voting records. We can speak of our values with our acquaintances, and we can write and organize actions to make the issues and values we believe in as visible as possible.

Now is the time. Not just on election day, and certainly not the day after. Midrash Tanhuma teaches us that Noah began to cry when he left the ark and saw the devastation around him. He asked God, “How could you do this?” God replies, “For all those years you worked on building the ark without saying a word. Now you complain?”

Today Israel is not only standing at one fateful crossroad, but many. Will we be a society that heeds the Torah’s demand to uphold the rights of non-Jews who are fellow citizens or who live under our control, or will we be a society that exploits power to secure exclusive domination of the Biblical Land of Israel?  With the annual Israeli poverty report hot off the press, we must decide whether we will implement the Alaluf Committee recommendations on how to fight Israeli poverty. Will Israel remain true to the Jewish belief that caring for all is a matter of justice, or will we abandon our faith for the false god of neo-liberalism? Most Israelis today believe that anything the majority decides is “democratic.” We must remember that the ultimate test of being the majority in a democracy is knowing what the majority must be prohibited from doing.

In many liberal Jewish communities it is customary to dedicate each Hannukah light to a value that we wish to shine into the dark places where that ideal is needed. I was thinking about this in synagogue this past Shabbat. What are the ideals we want voters to take with them into the voting booth? What are the values we want to demand of our MK’s when we attend their parlor meetings? In the second blessing in the shakharit (morning) amidah (central standing) prayer we learn of some of God’s deeds we must emulate. Among them, God “Sustains the living…, upholds the fallen, heals the sick, frees the captives and keeps faith with those that sleep in the dust.” The concluding blessing, “Sim Shalom,” lists seven of God’s most ultimate blessings that we must help God bestow to the world. The traditional version asks these blessings only for ourselves and for the Jewish people, whereas liberal versions ask that God bestow them on all humanity. The Orthodox and liberal rabbis of RHR are united in our desire for a society that is neither divorced from Torah, nor in which the those acting in the name of Torah in government and society honor God’s Image in Jews only. Sim Shalom teaches us that God has given us a Torah:

  1. Khayim – That honors all life – Both Jewish and non-Jewish; Those Israelis living in poverty, along with the wealthy and middle class.
  2. Ahavat Khesed – Of loving-kindness towards every human being.
  3. Tzedakah – Teaching that enabling each and every person to live in dignity is not charity, but justice.
  4. Brakhah – Of Blessing. We must organize as a society to ensure that the blessings enjoyed by some are shared by all.
  5. Rakhamim- Of compassion. We expect that our elected officials not blame the victims, and believe that our societal responsibility is to extend a hand even to those who have made misguided or dysfunctional decisions that have worsened their situation.
  6. Khayim – The word “life” is repeated, emphasizing its centrality.
  7. Shalom – Of peace and wholeness. Who will strengthen the belief that peace is possible by demonstrating that Israel respects Palestinian human rights? Who will promote peace among Israel’s citizens by treating all citizens justly and equally. Who will create strife between Israel’s diverse population, and who will bring about reconciliation?

So, these are seven candles we must light. But, we need eight:

      8. Assiyah- The eighth light is the light spurring us to action not just  on election day, but during the months in which we must do everything in our power to influence voters, candidates and parties. This is the light that dispels cynicism and gives us faith in the efficacy of our efforts. Even when success is not guaranteed, we know that we will never succeed if we don’t try.

Visiting the “unrecognized” Negev Bedouin village of El-Araqib last week, I couldn’t help but think of the striking verse from Second Maccabees, “They joyfully celebrated eight days like the holiday of Sukkot, remembering that not so long before they had spent Sukkot living like animals in mountains and caves.” (10:6). After 79 demolitions, confiscations, arrests and physical abuse, the remaining El-Araqib families are strapped with debt from mounting legal fees and are spending the winter in conditions that most animals wouldn’t live in. In the words of our Hanukah liturgy, they are truly the weak few standing up to the powerful majority. Every time I visit, I am truly amazed at the tenacity of the human spirit. However, I am also painfully aware that there are so many in our society living in ways that no human being should be forced to live.

Midrash Pesikta Rabati 8 teaches that, while we are forbidden to use a Hanukah light to kindle a light we are going to use, we can kindle one Hanukah light from another. We are then reminded that “God’s Light is the human soul” (Proverbs 20:27), doing God’s work in this world.

In other words, “HaArakhim Hallalu Sh’Anu Madlikim” we must be the shamash, kindling our eight Hanukah lights in an Israel standing at multiple crossroads, and in the souls of our fellow Israelis.

Wishing us all much Hanukah light

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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