Hanukkah: A Time for Courage

Fear not, Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great.
– Gen. 15:1

It has been said that one Jew with courage in a generation is a majority. Forget the candles. Hanukkah is about the courage of Judah Maccabee and his sons’ willingness to resist assimilation and stand apart from the Hellenizing Jews of the time. Hanukkah’s core values are fighting for our G-d, for our Torah and for our Jewish homeland from the river to the sea – and fighting against assimilation. To be a Jew is to belong to “a nation that will dwell apart and not be reckoned among the nations.” (Numbers 23:9) Let’s get real! It’s much more than lighting candles.

“It is ironic that Hanukkah is so widely observed in America,” noted Reb Noah Weinberg z”l of Aish HaTorah more than a decade ago, “because it’s not clear that Jews today in America would side with the Maccabees. The Jews didn’t battle the Greeks for political independence, and Hanukkah can’t be recast as an early-day version of Israel against the Arabs. Hanukkah commemorates a religious war: traditional Jews versus assimilated Jews. The Greeks were benevolent rulers, bringing civilization and progress wherever they conquered. They were ecumenical and tolerant, creating a pantheon of gods into which they accepted the deities of all their subjects. Their only demand was acculturation into the melting pot of Greek civilization and religion. [Sound familiar?]

“The Jewish community was divided in response to this appeal. Some believed assimilation was a positive and modernizing influence and they welcomed the release from Jewish parochialism. [Not much has changed.] Led by Judah Maccabee was a small group opposed to the Greek ideal, and prepared to fight and die to preserve the exclusive traditional worship of Judaism. This was no war for abstract principles of religious tolerance. It was a battle against assimilation fought by people to whom Torah was their life and breath. Looking back from today’s perspective, would we have stood with the Maccabees, or would we too have thought assimilation was the path of the future? Today we face a crisis of identity in America as serious as the one confronted 2,500 years ago. Will we survive this century as a religious community or merely as a flavor in the American melting pot? Hanukkah calls to us to combat assimilation and to fight for our heritage.”

In Vienna 120 years ago, another “Maccabee” stood up. Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Jew, wrote on August 29, 1897, “Zionism is a return to the Jewish fold even before it is a return to the Jewish land.” His famous pamphlet “The Jewish State” had caused an uproar in Vienna and throughout Europe. His articles on going back to our Jewish homeland provoked many in his Jewish community. Forced from Vienna, ridiculed and humiliated by the wealthy Jews of his time, he convened his first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Undeterred, in 1902 he wrote in his diary, “Once the Jewish State exists, all of this [his consistent string of rejections] will of course look trivial. Perhaps a historian will discover that it was still something after all for a Jewish journalist without means, during an era of the most abominable anti-Semitism and when the Jewish people had sunk into the depths … to have converted a rag into a flag and a degraded multitude into a nation. … I realized that for me, Zionism was the Sabbath of my life.”

And with those thoughts and writings, the next day Herzl went off to confront the single greatest obstacle to his dream of a Jewish state – Lord Edmond Rothschild, who was very much against the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine because, among other reasons, “it sounded much too Jewish.” Lord Rothschild felt uncomfortable being looked at as anything but a loyal Englishman. A Hellenist Jew of British persuasion, Rothschild could have been a Jew the Maccabees fought against back then.

We, the Jewish community of 5778, have a responsibility to those who stood at Sinai and those who lived or were martyred after them. The words of another “Maccabee” by the name of Mordechai echo from our history: “If you keep silent now – if you refrain from protesting on behalf of your brothers, then woe to you on the day of judgment, for you had the opportunity to act and you did not. But relief will come from another place, and who knows … Perhaps it was for just such a time that you attained your position.

Just as in the time of the Maccabees, today too we are engaged in a bitter struggle between those Jews who have been seduced into hedonistic assimilation, and Jews who believe in the sanctity of our Biblical homeland – a fight for the rebuilding of our Jewish State and the spiritual rebuilding of our people. “Zionism is a return to the Jewish fold even before it is a return to the Jewish land.” Herzl’s story is very much a part of today’s Americanized Hanukkah tradition.

As a kid, there were only two holidays that I looked forward to: I loved Purim, when I got to play “Jewish Halloween.” And I don’t know a Jewish kid who didn’t grow up in eager anticipation of Hanukkah. Eight days of lighting candles and lots of gifts that we interpreted as our eight days of Christmas. Our non-Jewish friends got one day of gifts and we got eight. Their symbol of Christmas was a fat old man with a white beard, dressed in a goofy red suit; and our symbol was a tough, strong warrior, a G.I. Jew named Judah – a fighter for our people. We knew that Judah was strong and tough. Judah was our hero. I knew about the miracle of the oil, but when I got older I realized that not all miracles are revealed. Many are hidden.

Judah Maccabee’s victory and the one day’s worth of oil remaining lit for seven additional days, are obvious miracles. But what about the anonymous priest who probably was taking his life in his hands when he hid the cruse of oil, believing that one day the Temple would be restored and the oil would be needed to rededicate the Temple? We don’t even know his name – but we know his dream. Herzl had a dream. His grandfather, Simon of Pest (now in the eastern part of Budapest), had placed the dream – the cruse of oil – the “pintele Yid” – in Herzl’s memory—if only Jews had listened in 1902. In his personal struggle, against the odds, against the then-insane idea of rebuilding a Jewish state, how many more Jews would be alive today had they followed this Don Quixote’s dream! Undeterred, Herzl was a nineteenth century Judah Maccabee, very much fighting the same Jewish Hellenists and the same enemies in his day. And yet, for many in more recent years, it was our bubbies and zaydies who kept the dream alive. Sometimes it was a little blue box to throw a few coins in after a long, hard week of work. Sometimes it was two candlesticks lit on a Friday night. Sometimes it was the wonderful smell of chicken soup. Sometimes it was lovingly kissing the mezuzah on a doorpost. They “planted” the cruse of oil for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, for “once the Jewish State exists …” Imagine the chutzpah – almost 50 years before it happened!

We’ve been given the privilege and the blessing in our time to go back to our Land – the Land of our covenant with our G-d and our Torah, a covenant with the dreams of our bubbies and zaydies. They were the Herzls who dusted themselves off after every humiliation, every slaughter, every defeat, and continued the journey with the spark of the pintele Yid … from the river where Joshua crossed into the Land. Most of us will not make the journey, but the least we can do is show respect and gratitude for all those who have.

Our return to our Land was made possible by the courage of hundreds of nameless Herzls and thousands of Maccabees. It was only through these Zionist dreamers that our people came back to our Land and our city of Jerusalem. The State of Israel is a modern realization of our covenant, and we must have the courage and humility to never take it for granted or waver in our love and determination for our Land and our people so that Jews 20 and 50 and 100 years from now will look back and know that we too did our part; that we stood up for our people, for our Land and our G-d. When He called us we answered: Hineynu! Hanukkah is about Jewish courage, faith and self-respect.

Another time, another Judah Maccabee – another Jew with courage, self-respect and determination: The room was hushed as Louis Brandeis came forward. It was a dramatic moment, the first time the exclusive Harvard Honor Society had ever accepted a Jew. For Brandeis, it had not been an easy road. For the past three years, other students had sat next to him, uninvited, as he ate his lunch, saying things to him like, “Brandeis, you’re brilliant. You could end up on the Supreme Court—except that you’re a Jew! Why don’t you convert [become Hellenized]? Then all your problems will be solved.” Brandeis had listened but not responded.

Finally, in his senior year of law school, his preeminence could not be denied. Jewish or not, he was invited to join the exclusive honor society. On the evening of the official induction, tension filled the auditorium. All eyes were on him as he walked to the lectern. Slowly he gazed around the room and softly began: “I am sorry I was born a Jew.” And with that, the room erupted in applause – an explosion of cheers. They had convinced him! They had prevailed upon him at last. Brandeis waited for silence and then began again: “I am sorry I was born a Jewbut only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.

This time, there was no shouting, no cheers; just respectful silence. The members of the society listened attentively, awed by his strength of conviction and character, by his unequivocal choice, by his unflinching courage. When he finished, all who were in that hallowed Harvard hall, (where a Jew had never before been allowed to speak) rose in standing ovation. (As retold by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove.)

Being a Jew is a privilege – not something our people need to apologize for. Although most have never walked on water, we have been and continue to be an Am Segulah, “G-d’s treasured people,” and G-d has continued to “bless those who bless us and cursed those who curse us.” (Gen. 12:3) Let your Hanukkah gift to your children and grandchildren be more than a bag from the Gap, the Apple Store or a UPS box from Amazon. May your gift for this Hanukkah be the gift of lovingly teaching your children to be strong, proud and courageous Jews. Give them the gift of reinforcing their connection to that spark of holiness within – the pintele Yid – of self-respect and pride in their identity as part of a wondrous tradition, heritage and an incredible people. I guarantee it will last a lifetime.

Happy and meaningful Hanukkah, 12/08/2017

Jack “Yehoshua” Berger

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About the Author
Educated as an architect with a Masters in Architectural History, Jack Yehoshua Berger became a practicing architect and real estate developer. In his late 30's he met a Rabbi who turned him on to the miracle of Israel and he began learning how the amazing country, against all odds, came to be the miracle of the modern world.
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