When hearing how the Assyrian Greeks tried to stop Jews from practicing their religion in the Hanukkah story, my daughter asked me, “Wouldn’t God understand?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, pausing the story.
“Like, if the Jews became Assyrian Greek, wouldn’t God understand that they were just going along to save their lives and avoid a war? Why fight and maybe die over it?”
The question stopped me for a moment. I had to think about my answer. Because the question goes to the heart of what it means to be Jewish. And to what we are fighting for in this current war. Perhaps, even, to the existential question of why we are here.
On Hanukkah, we celebrate the continued survival of our small nation in our indigenous homeland in the face of the Assyrian Greek threat 2200 years ago. Our victory was that of a tiny minority people successfully keeping our traditions, beliefs, and ways of life despite both the pressures of assimilation into majority culture and the violence perpetrated upon us by those trying to disconnect us from our homeland and wipe us out.
It is an age-old story for the Jews, and the physical lights we kindle connect us to these themes of survival, hope, freedom, and all that is good. Children sing traditional Hanukkah songs, “We came to drive away the darkness. In each of our hands there is a light, a flame. Everyone is a small light, and together we are a strong light. Fight the darkness…fight for the light!” And “Light one candle for those who are suffering the pain we learned so long ago; light one candle for all we believe in, that anger not tear us apart; and light one candle to find us together with peace as the song in our heart.”
What is the ultimate good?
To my daughter’s question, what exactly are we standing for when we protect our tradition, our way of life? Would it have been so terrible if the Jews had avoided war and acquiesced to the many civilizations that attempted to stamp them out?
Certainly you could answer this question religiously, that Jews have a set of ancient laws which keep their souls bound to the Divine and give purpose to their time on earth. That this way of life has a right to exist, indeed must exist, for a kind of spiritual balance in the universe.
But a second answer goes straight to the heart of what our mission is here on earth. I told my daughter that perhaps saving lives and avoiding war is not the ultimate good – as hard as that is for me to consider. If the strongest, most aggressive, most violent elements of society were allowed to absorb all of humanity, what would our lives look like?
If the different ones – those who challenge majority ideas, demand freedom and equality, and defend the weak – if they lay down their arms and choose to prioritize their own survival by blending in, if those who love peace choose to avoid armed conflict, how quickly would violence and might become the only law of the land?
This Hanukkah, we feel it more deeply than ever before in our generation. As we watch masses of people across the world chant for our expulsion from our homeland; as we watch university presidents refuse to condemn calls for genocide against the Jews; as we run our children to shelters under the rain of missiles from Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen; as we sift through the ashes to find evidence of our loved ones who were killed merely for being Jewish, we feel deep in our bones the reminder of this mission. We are the small people on the frontlines with evil forces of the world. We understand that we are standing for our survival, yes, but also for humanity.
‘We came to drive away the darkness’
Jews, as the most ancient minority in the world, feel this responsibility. In continuing to defend our right to live in our homeland, to practice our religion, and to hold our heads high as free people, we knowingly place ourselves on the frontlines of the fight of humanity against tyranny, genocide, terrorism, forced assimilation, brutality, and other forces of darkness.
We are a peaceful people and deeply value all human life. War is anathema to us, but we enter into it consciously with the knowledge that sometimes we must sacrifice even our sacred lives in order to ensure that our world does not fall to those who would destroy those values.
It may sound trite, but I cannot help but quote the last verse of the song we were singing last night in front of the lights:
“What is the memory that’s valued so highly that we keep alive in that flame? / What’s the commitment to those who have died that we cry out they’ve not died in vain? / We have come this far always believing that justice will somehow prevail / This is the burden. / This is the promise. / This is why we will not fail!”
As our young soldiers fight terrorists and search for hostages, they pause behind sandbags to light menorahs that say, “We came to drive away the darkness.” We know why we fight. We welcome our allies around the world who stand with us in this fight for humanity. “Everyone is a small light, and together we are a strong light.” Together, we will succeed.