“We have come to banish the darkness
In our hands we carry light and fire
Each person is a single small light
And together we are a steadfast and strong light…”
While better (and much more ‘catchy’) in the original Hebrew, this little holiday ditty was written by Sara Levi Tanai for the children of her kindergarten class in the early 1940s, pre-state British Mandate period, and very soon become a fan favorite for kids and families around Israel every Chanukah as they stomp and banish the darkness while raising their flames to bring in the light.
Living in the modern city of Modiin, I have often found that the 100,000 strong (and growing) population, are either extras in a historic play that has had a longer run in the limelight than the ‘Lion King’, or invited guests with the best seats in the house. This of course is based on the name of the city and its visceral connection to the holiday of Chanukah. The vision of Moshe Safdie begins to emerge from the rocky terrain of the Shfela foothills of the Judean Mountains at the ground breaking ceremony, on a chilly Chanukah day, December 14, 1993. The historic namesake on the sign, Modiin, is followed by an addendum, “the city of the future”. At once, the glory of this city is vested in both the past and, well, the future.
We live on one of the outer edges of the city, not far from an Aroma café. We also live down the block from an ancient synagogue, dated to the second century bce through the second century ce and the Bar Kochba Rebellion. The synagogue was discovered as new access roads were being laid more than two decades ago. To my knowledge there is no hard proof that this was the exact location of the beginning of the revolt, led by Mattathias, Judah and the gang, back in 167 before the common era. The truth is, that the name of the city today may only provide an allure of our ancient past, even though ancient Modiin most likely was in the vicinity.
So, what do we know? We know that this ancient synagogue was located within an active Jewish commercial and residential area, and served as a local ‘JCC’ and a Beit Knesset (synagogue). It included a mikveh (spiritual cleansing bath), main prayer space and even a social hall of sorts. When Jewish life was outlawed by the decrees of Antiochus the 4th, there is no doubt that this would have been a space where we would have come to discuss, debate and decide what we should do. Considering that human nature, and Jewish nature, doesn’t seem to change, we would have also heard voices that were not uniform. It would have been there, amongst the stone benches, colorful mosaics and eight pillars holding up the ceiling, that that vibrancy must have been palpable.
Ultimately, a decision was taken to stand up to the Greeks. We fought against all odds. Some of us may have even left for the front lines to the battle at Beit Horon, or the one at Emaus, directly following those deliberations. We would no longer accept those that would destroy us and we would do what we needed to do to ensure Jewish continuity. Now, we know that the song above was written by a very talented young woman and later recipient of the Israel Prize, but it seems that already back during the Hasmonean Rebellion, each of us did hold up a light and carry a flame. We did banish the darkness and, standing united (or at least at that moment in time), we were steadfast through and through. We went on to re-dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem and as we know, Chanukah is in fact in memory of that dedication. The power of this story has been strong enough to rekindle perseverance, dedication and bravery over the span of multiple millennia. And it began at the synagogue down the road from where I live…or perhaps across the valley, or, at most, over the hill and road 443.
Actually, we do know that just down the road there are some other battle sites of major clashes that took place during the War of Independence in 1948. That would have been one of those moments where we drew on the memory of Judah, his family, and the very Maccabees whose hometown was close enough. One of those who fought in that same war of independence was a young officer by the name of Haim Gouri. Gouri would be of our Greatest Generation, of our Palmach Generation. His sword was pretty powerful, but it would be his pen that not only sustained him until his death in 2018, but all of us as well.
Last week, a colleague and friend, Scott Copeland, reminded me of one of Gouri’s later poems (which he translated):
I ask from the winter
To wake me with lightning and thunder
To shake us up and polish our souls
And cleanse our hearts.
I call on strong winds to come
And rattle our streets,
And rock trees laden with heavy branches
And flags and frenzied laundry.
I call on the wind
To come from the world’s four corners,
To remind us who we are
And what is our finest hour.
When I used to walk down to the ancient prayer space with my family when my daughters were younger, the deliberations and the decisions to stand up and protect our people, were, as I mentioned above, palpable. One can imagine how much more so, when I walked down there yesterday, realizing that this is Chanukah 2023, or rather, Chanukah, October 7, 2023.
If I were to converse with Chaim Gouri, I would tell him that we woke to lightning and thunder, two months before the winter did. I would berate his poem and make clear that our souls were shaken to their core and our hearts broken in two. The streets of Sderot, Ofakim, and Netivot did in fact rattle, but with the sound of those who came to kill, and since October 7, every sidewalk lined with Israelis, waiting silently has reminded us how powerful our flags can be, no wind needed.
Most powerfully though, while the wind is welcome, especially if it brings with it the breath we so desperately need to complete, NOTHING and NO ONE needs to remind US of what our finest hour is. Our finest hour are our daughters and our sons, our brothers and sisters who are standing in the breach, protecting, defending and moving us closer to an Israel in which we can take a deep breath, again. Our finest hour will be when we can embrace those who have been ripped from within us. Our finest hour is our society, that has not only risen, it has caused us to stand. This does not mean that we are not without fault. This does not mean that we aren’t still in pain and even broken. But what it does mean, is that in this moment, right now, our personal and collective perseverance, determination and bravery is what will save us and in fact, has begun to do that. We may indeed light candles and celebrate, inspired by those who fought in these hills 2300 years ago, but we do not need to imagine what their devotion and dedication must have been like. All we have to do is to look into the eyes of the families of the hostages, or watch in amazement at Israelis who give of themselves more than they have to give, or step back in complete awe and gaze at our young soldiers and old who are themselves steadfast and strong in their will to ensure the continuity of Israel and the return of all our families.
While the past and the future appropriately adorn that initial billboard upon the barren, rocky landscape way back “in those days…”, it is the present, “…at this time”, that fills every fiber of our being. Therefore, this Chanukah, may all of our light and fire shine more brightly, and bring about the elusive deep breath that we all so desperately need, for ourselves, for the families who have lost loved ones, and for those who are waiting for their loved ones to return.