The world’s great religions all reject the idea that power is a virtue. The Almighty is described as having a particular affection for the weak and oppressed; followers are urged to imitate God’s special love and provide protection for those most in need. When human virtue fails in this regard, God may intervene, either directly through a miracle or through an agent who brings the appropriate restoration of justice.
Judaism has three festivals that celebrate the Jewish people’s victories in the face of stronger adversaries – Hanukkah, Purim and Pesach. Hanukkah is unique in that our physical survival was not at risk. The message is of Hanukkah is a universal and timeless one: minorities not only have a right to physical protection but they have a right to maintain their own identities, to withstand coercion to conform to a dominant culture.
Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the few against the many, the weak against the powerful. The miracle of Jewish survival is always framed in such terms because it is so – we have never been numerous and we have rarely in our history held any power.
We have always had to stand up to enemies and empires bent on our annihilation or at least our humiliation. The shoah was the last in a long history of terrible threats to our very survival. Yet, we have survived and today we thrive.
Indeed, despite the obvious schisms in the Jewish world, we are now more autonomous, more united and more powerful than we have been since the reigns of Kings David and Solomon. Nearly half the Jews in the world live in the Land of Israel – a higher percentage than at any time since the united monarchy. We have a state that is independent and prosperous. Nations threaten to expel us or to dominate us here but there seems little likelihood that they will be able to defeat our powerful military defences. More people are engaged in serious Jewish studies than at any time in our history and while the diversity of Jewish belief and practice is no doubt more broad than ever before, there is unity in our diversity regarding the quest to define or redefine Jewish life and values.
The very issues that divide us – more than anything else, competing claims for the right to define what is authentic “Judaism” or what are “Jewish values “- are indications of our strength, not weakness. How miraculous it is that Jews want to be part of shaping the culture that will take us into the future.
So what do we learn from Hanukkah that is relevant for today?
Following Hillel’s dictum, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others,” perhaps we should now use Hanukkah as a time to consider how we are using our new-found power.
Rav Kook taught that Hanukkah is about the relationships between Israel and the other nations. He taught that the lights represent the unique qualities that each nation brings to the world and that their increasing intensity over the eight days represents the synergy when Jewish values reach beyond ourselves into the world and we learn the best that other cultures can teach. Rav Kook was not concerned that the relative small numbers of the Jewish people would preclude them from spreading their message. He believed that the minority could learn from the majority but that they had even more to teach. Our potential power was in our message to the world.
Today, we are still not one of the world’s most numerous nations but we are one of its better off. Having been weak, can we now show the world a different way of having power? Can we use our power to strengthen the foundations of the world and spread the values of justice, truth and peace, values taught by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and cherished by all sectors of the Jewish community?
If we can manage this, the Festival of Lights will provide us with the basis for being a “light unto the Nations” – showing that real power is measured by the way we treat those weaker than ourselves.