The Fortitude of the Jewish Soul

Miketz | Hanukkah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 15, 2001 / 5762 | Torah Commentary | Holidays Israel

This year I will not be celebrating Hanukkah at home. I’m off to Israel on December 6, and will not be back till the seventh day of the festival, just in time to light a full complement of eight candles on the last night in the midst of family. It is hard to capture the beauty of this holiday or any other on your own. Neither synagogue nor prayer begins to exhaust the repertoire of ritual that enlivens the distinctive character of every Jewish holy day. The home is the great aquifer of our Judaism, indispensable but undervalued.

Many years ago I spent another Hanukkah alone. The year was 1963 and the place South Korea. At the time I was a US Army chaplain stationed for a year in what was then an impoverished and devastated country. The mountain range that ran down the spine of the peninsula was bereft of trees. Most villages were without electricity. Sewage flowed in open gullies alongside unpaved roads, and excrement still served as fertilizer.

Given these primitive conditions, I had left my wife and newborn son in the States. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in November shattered my hard-won equilibrium. Lonely, out of touch and uninformed, I feared the worst. Fortunately, I was reassigned for the month of December from Taegu, where the books I had brought to study outnumbered the Jewish servicemen to whom I ministered, to Seoul, where the numbers kept me busier. Work helped to dissipate the pall.

One of my duties was to prepare a boy, the son of a high ranking officer, for his bar mitzvah, to be celebrated on Shabbat Hanukkah. In those days, instruction was delivered without benefit of tapes. Together we went over the special haftarah from the prophet Zechariah many times. The exercise revived a fleeting sense of normalcy. I no longer remember anything about my young student. What did remain with me, however, was a lasting affinity for the haftarah. Its stirring affirmation of spirit garbed in vivid imagery slaked my parched soul.

Zechariah represented the final burst of prophecy in the early days of the restoration from Babylonia. Its Persian conqueror, Cyrus, had permitted the exiles of Judah to return to Jerusalem in 538 BCE and rebuild their Temple, though their numbers were disappointingly small. Most of their brethren had decided to stay in their new homes in Babylonia. Those who returned found themselves in a city without walls beleaguered by local adversaries displeased at their reappearance. In a series of telling oracles, Zechariah exhorted his people to resume construction. God favored their cause. The incandescent light of a new menorah would link heaven and earth. A foundation stone taken from the old Temple would sanctify the new. (Centuries later, the book of Second Maccabees would express the same idea by claiming that the fire on the altar of the new Temple came from the old.) A completed Temple would again house the earthly abode of God in Zion.

Above all, success was not a function of military advantage or numerical superiority but of indomitable will. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubabel (the settlers’ political leader): Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit – said the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6). This message is, of course, the reason the rabbis selected the reading from Zechariah for Shabbat Hanukkah. They attributed the surprising victory of the Maccabees over a formidable military machine to a spirit inspired by faith. And this provided the wisdom I needed to internalize to survive my own predicament. While I did not have the power to change my circumstances, faith could help me overcome my adversity. The ultimate human freedom is the attitude we take to what happens to us.

If Hanukkah is to be spent away from home, Israel is surely to be the preferred location. It is the place where the festival was born, in a desperate struggle to assert the right to be different. Unlike Purim, Hanukkah merits the recitation of the full Hallel each day in the synagogue because the victory was won on the soil of the ancestral homeland. My heart aches for Israel’s contemporary Maccabees who still need to fight for the right to be different from their surroundings. Their porous borders cannot be sealed against terrorists bent on indiscriminate murder. Depraved suicide bombers target spots congested with teenagers. What an eleven-year-old boy who lost his father in the assault on the World Trade Center said of bin Laden and his followers captures the perverse mindset of all terrorists groups: “Kids over there have terrorist trading cards instead of baseball cards. There are no national sports. Terrorists are their heroes. It doesn’t make sense.” Terrorism is the dark matter of the civilized world. I go to Israel to identify with the plight of my people.

The intifada has become a convulsion out of control. For all the bloodletting, Yasir Arafat has nothing to show. He has failed to internationalize the conflict. He has buried the peace camp in Israel and driven Washington to overtly back Israel’s efforts against Palestinian terrorism. Riding the tiger, Arafat is about to be devoured by it. The Lebanonization of the Palestinian cause seems perilously close.

I used to be a dove and still cringe at the excesses of the Israeli occupation. But I no longer believe that the goal of the intifada is ending the occupation. Had it been, Arafat would have settled at Camp David. Instead, in the wake of the pullout from Lebanon, he unleashed the one kind of war Israel has trouble winning, a war of attrition. The conference on racism in Durban, with its preposterous demand for the return of five million refugees, indicates that the goal is the dismemberment of Israel. Someday, the underlying inequity of the Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank will have to be addressed, but not before reason restores a willingness to compromise.

Till then, the message of Zechariah remains acutely relevant. The intifada coupled with the constraints of Israel’s humanity has neutralized the awesome superiority of its military might. On a level playing field scorched by violence, it will be the faith and fortitude of the Jewish soul, long steeled by adversity, that will help Israel endure and prevail.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary Shabbat Hanukkah Parashat Miketz on are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.