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According to one version of the Hanukkah story, Hanukkah celebrates the remarkable victory of a small band of Maccabees over the militarily superior Assyrian Greeks in their struggle for religious freedom. This story encourages a popular narrative of Jewish strength, after millennia of Jewish vulnerability.
The other version of the Hanukkah story is the tale of the miracle of a small cruse of pure oil lasting for eight days until more oil could be found for the sacred light in the Temple. This legend gives rise to the ritual of lighting the lights, beginning with one candle on the first night and increasing the light each day until the hanukkiah is ablaze with eight candles. The symbolism of creating light in the darkness (shared by other religious traditions throughout the world) speaks to a deep human need for light in the darkest time of the year.
In this version, the hero of the story is God, and the triumph is of hope over despair. Instead of a military victory, we have a miracle, sustaining the everlasting light in the Temple in the aftermath of battle and destruction. On reflection, it also took strength of spirit to light the first cruse of oil without knowing how long it could last and whether it could be replenished in time. That was an act of spiritual courage. Such audacity, and the candles themselves, evoke a sense of hope and possibility for our lives and for the world.
Both versions of the story invite reflection on the nature of heroism. Pondering the quality of heroism, I am drawn to a beloved text from Pirkei Avot, that begins, “Who is a hero?” The answer, we might think, would be military leaders or firefighters or others who risk their lives for the well-being of others. Heroism is defined by physical prowess and skill, right? But the text paradoxically continues: (Who is a hero?) “One who subdues one’s own inclination [to evil].” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)
The text upends our usual associations. Strength is (not only) a matter of physical prowess. It is an inside job. It is how we manage the complex pushes and pulls in our inner lives, how we respond to the temptations that arise when life is hard. To be courageous is to craft a life of goodness and caring, despite challenges, disappointments and unwholesome cravings.
Another version of the same text asks a variation on the same question: “Who is the greatest of heroes? One who makes an enemy into a friend.” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 23)
Heroism and courage are not only expressed outwardly, but in the quiet, inner work of dealing with our wounds, angers and resentments, in order to turn troubled relationships into loving connection. Heroism defined in this way is the process of working through our pain and opening our hearts so that healing may have a chance to come to a strained relationship.
The parashah that we read this week, in the midst of Hanukkah, brings us an example of leadership more like that of the Maccabees.
In Parashah Miketz, we find Joseph in his role as the king’s chief of staff, managing the threat of famine for the people of Egypt. The Rabbis labor to interpret Joseph’s words and actions as exemplary, in line with the image of Joseph as a tzadik (righteous person).
But, honestly, it seems to me that Joseph uses his power to intimidate his brothers. He conceals his identity and puts his brothers through repeated tests when they come seeking to buy food to bring home to their father, Jacob. As I read this part of the story, Joseph lords his superiority over his brothers, implicitly punishing them for how they had hated and hurt him.
In next week’s parashah (Vayigash), the tension breaks open when Joseph’s brother Judah begs Joseph for forgiveness. Joseph sees the genuineness of his brothers’ regret for how they had treated him. He bursts into tears and loud cries, shocking his brothers and all the people of the palace. Judah had opened his heart, and his authenticity touched Joseph’s heart. They became brothers again.
It seems to me that that scene of reconciliation is heroism, not like that of the Maccabees, but in the model of “Who is the greatest of heroes? One who makes an enemy into a friend.”
Which is the Hanukkah story that the world needs to hear today?
Surely there are places and times when physical strength is needed, when military means of defense are required. There are times when leadership must be tough, and when power must be wielded strongly.
But in a time when our nation and our world are torn by hatred, polarization and disregard for human dignity, we desperately need the audacity to create light in the darkness. We need to exercise strength through open-heartedness. We must cultivate hope, believe in the possibility of things unseen and dare to work for peace. This is the Hanukkah story that inspires me today.
This column first appeared at https://jweekly.com/2021/12/03/why-the-light-hanukkah-story-especially-resonates-in-the-darkness-of-today/.