This Chanukah the world feels scarier than I can remember. What used to feel solid and inevitable, like the strength of democracy and the virtue of values like civil rights, are feeling shaky and at risk of being marginalized.
This year I need the miracle of Chanukah more than I ever have.
Chanukah used to be the quintessential holiday for religious Zionists, who saw themselves as modern Maccabees: a story of righteous rebellion and an unlikely Jewish victory – aided by a little divine intervention – set not in a desert diaspora but in the Land of Israel. This narrative of the miraculous victory of the “few against the many” resonated far more than the purely divine miracle of the oil central to the Chanukah of the Talmud.
Early secular Zionists had no patience for divine miracles or parables of faith. They believed in the work of their own hands. “There was no miracle,” declared the poem by Aharon Ze’ev I sang as a child in Jerusalem, “we found no vessel of oil.” They didn’t need God. They didn’t wait passively for miracles. They made their own miracles, kindled their own light, claimed their own victories through their own sheer strength.
American Jews tend to like the miracle of the oil. Chanukah is a welcome break, an uncomplicated Jewish moment where we don’t have to talk about competing narratives, and certainly not about Israel and military victories and defeats.
Certainly this year, when Chanukah falls at the very end of the Gregorian year, after what for many of us was a hard and devastating fall, we just want to light the candles and enjoy the sparkly lights and indulge in anything fried in oil.
But this year I need the miracle. Not as the halutzim, the Zionist pioneers feared, a passive miracle that’s about sitting around waiting for someone to save us. We need the most active, hard-fought miracle of all: to stare down despair and choose to hope in the face of great opposition. To light that oil even when there seems like no chance at all that it will last.
More than a few people have said to me, some sympathetically, that this must be a hard time to start working for a progressive Israel organization.
I joined the staff of the New Israel Fund a week before the election; I awoke the morning after like many others, in a haze of shock, swirling anxiety and rising fear. More than a few people have said to me, some sympathetically, that this must be a hard time to start working for a progressive Israel organization.
Despite the deep challenges of the moment, I am immensely grateful to be devoting myself to this work: raising up the voices of and building support for the many Israeli individuals and organizations advancing democracy, civil and human rights, social and economic justice and religious freedom for Israeli citizens and residents of all religions, races and ethnicities.
The outcome of the American election has awakened fears about the fragility of democracy. We worry about how we will maintain hard-won rights and freedoms when facing a government hostile to those values.
We have much to learn from the brave and tireless Israelis who create and operate organizations advocating for minority rights, fighting racism and discrimination, and protecting its citizens at the margins. They establish unlikely alliances like those between mizrachim, charedi women, and Palestinian Israelis. They maintain their focus on expanding religious diversity and preserving democracy despite government coalitions trying to erode it. They have every reason to despair. Yet they keep kindling those lights, knowing that even while some might falter, others will prevail.
The situation was dire when the Maccabees revolted; the Temple had been horribly defiled before the vessel of oil was lit.
The appointment of an American ambassador to Israel whose politics and values place him on the extreme right fringe, someone utterly out of the mainstream of American Jews and our values, signals that this incoming administration lacks any interest in or understanding of supporting Israel’s democratic character. In that climate, the role of organizations fighting discrimination and advancing civil and human rights becomes all the more essential. For American Jews to lose focus and surrender hope is to abandon our allies, our friends, our compatriots working for justice.
It’s easier to scoff at hope and surrender to despair. But hope is neither naïve nor passive. Hope is the activist cousin of faith. It’s why the Maccabees lit the menorah when they had no reason to believe the oil would last. The miracle of Chanukah would have been impossible if the Maccabees had not bothered to fight, if they had looked at the pittance of oil and decided it wasn’t worth lighting.
When I place my Chanukiyah in the window in the window each night of Chanukah, I am declaring my commitment to believe in the kind of miracles we must make ourselves, to proclaim and publicize the small miracles being created every day by people who still believe. Together, we can emulate the courage of the Maccabees, by having enough faith to light the oil, by making it possible for people who fight for justice and democracy with so few resources to achieve even more.
Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen is the senior director for the New York/Tri-State Area of the New Israel Fund.