“What is the difference between a rebellion and a miracle?” Ora asked me.
Ora (not her real name) is a member of the “hostage families,” the new family created on October 7th, composed of all the family members of all those taken hostage by Hamas on that dark day. I first met her during the week that I spent on a hunger strike in Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. It was a week that I had decided to “imprison” myself in a circle I had drawn (like in the talmudic story of Honi). She came almost daily to visit me in my circle and to talk. Weeks later, I still feel a deep attachment to the Square and to my circle, and I try to find ways to visit. This day, all I had to justify the four-hour round-trip to and from Tel Aviv was one signature I needed from a lawyer. And the chance to talk to Ora.
She’s the kind of person to ask unexpected, direct, and thought-provoking questions that catch you off guard, as this one did.
I thought for a moment, and then said this:
“I think that the miracle of Hanukkah was enabled by a rebellion. Not the military rebellion. Both that, and the miracle of the candles, were enabled by a more profound, more miraculous rebellion — the rebellion against despair. The first miracle, and the first rebellion, was the chutzpah of the Hashmonaim to light the menorah, when they knew that it didn’t really make any sense, because there wasn’t enough oil to last, and the chutzpah of the Maccabees to fight the Greeks, when they knew that it didn’t make any sense, and that they didn’t stand a chance. The miracles of Hanukkah depended on people being willing to light an impossibly small light in the face of enormous darkness, to simply try, despite all odds.”
During these darkest days of the year, and during some of the darkest days in Israeli history, this thought brought me comfort, and I continued to think about it as I made my way home. I thought about the darkness faced by Joseph, whose story we always hear in the Torah portion read on Hanukkah. Rejected by his brothers, cast into a pit, thrown into Egyptian prison. What was the secret of his redemption? A miraculous act of rebellion that did not make any sense.
One morning, Joseph sees that his fellow prisoners are upset. Is this at all surprising? They were important ministers, now deposed and imprisoned. And how is Joseph able to see beyond his own suffering, to look at the troubled face of the other? But he does see, and then he goes one step further, and he reaches out to them, and asks why they are upset. A small, simple, mundane act, which is completely absurd, and even chutzpadik in the context of Joseph’s predicament. But this is the key to his redemption, the act which opens the door to his salvation, by giving him the chance to display the talent at dream interpretation that will ultimately be his ticket out of prison.
My thoughts about Joseph and the ability of small and brazen acts to dispel the darkness were suddenly interrupted.
“Do you have tefillin?”
I was in the middle of Tel Aviv, at a bus stop, with sunset nearing. The man who asked me looked rushed and a bit desperate. His bus was coming, and he hadn’t had a chance to put on tefillin today. My initial response was- of course I don’t. Why would I be walking around Tel Aviv carrying tefillin? And did I really have time, even if I did? And it was raining. And my bus was on its way, too. But then I remembered that, uncharacteristically, I actually did have my tefillin in my bag. And I remembered Joseph, and the rebellion of small mundane acts during times of great darkness. As I held up my umbrella, so that he could quickly fulfill the mitzvah, I asked the tefillin-layer: “What’s your name?”
“Joseph,” he told me.