I think this is the first year in a while that I feel like I’m really celebrating Hanukkah it all of its joy and weirdness. Perhaps part of that feeling can be attributed to my celebrating it in Israel. On Tuesday night–the first night of Hannukah–on our way to Eric Gurevitz’s birthday party, we lit the candles and then walked to Rosa’s apartment who was hosting the event. On the way we played ‘spot the candles’ and tried to spot each and every window that had a hannukiah or candle. We passed a Yeshiva on the way to Emek Refaim and the dining room, which looked out onto the street, boasted hundreds of candles.
Perhaps you’re wondering why it’s such a big whoopla for people to put candles in windows. It’s not just that it looks pretty, but there’s a concept called ‘publicizing the miracle’ (pirsumei nisa), in lighting the Hanukkah candles. One of the miracles about the story of Hanukkah is that after rededicating the Temple, they found only one flask of oil to relight the Menorah, but the light from this flask of oil lasted eight days. So in current times, Jews are supposed to relive the miracle, as it were, by proudly broadcasting their own lights to the rest of the world.
This concept is found in a section of the Talmud that I studied in class. Now remember that the chapter that my class is studying is about lighting Shabbat candles. But then the Gemara digresses (and boy does it digress) into a mini chapter within a chapter about lighting channukah candles. Similar to Shabbat candle discussions, the Hanukkah candle discussions deal with what types of oils and wicks can be used.
Additionally though, the text asked the question, What is the meaning of Hanukkah? And then it proceeds to say that after the Hasmoneans overcame the Greeks, they only found one flask of oil that was sealed by the Cohen Gadol that was enough for one day. However there was a miracle and the oil lasted eight days.
My teacher pointed out that this version of the story places much more emphasis on the miracle of the oil and less on the miracle of the military battle. Was it a conscious decision to veer away from glorifying the Jewish uprising during a time when many Jews were living in exile and when the destruction of the Second Temple (which resulted from a crackdown on Jewish resistance) was not too far off in the past? Were the Rabbis among those who looked down on the zealotry of the Hasmoneans? It’s interesting how a text that seems so unphilosphical and detail-oriented, can get one to think about these philosophic, historic and bigger picture concepts. That’s part of the quiet wonder of the Talmud–it doesn’t reveal big issues with bells and whistles but unfolds slowly and steadily.
Because of this emphasis on pirsumei nisa, there are particular halachot about where you should place your candles–i.e. you need to place them where people can see them. The Talmud discusses this idea of where to place the candles as well (but note that the Talmud is not simply a text dealing halachot, rather it is text dealing with discussions. Other books such as the Shulchan Baruch and Mishna Brura would go on to codify such laws as lighting Shabbat and Hannukah candles)
The Talmud quotes a text called a Beraita, which states that it is a mitzvah to place your candle outside your doorway, but if you live in an apartment, you should place it in your window, ‘lereshut harabim’–i.e. in public domain. But it goes on to say that in a time of danger, you put it on your table and that is enough. This Beraita was taking note of times in Jewish history when it wasn’t such a good idea to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah.
I must say that seeing the Talmud in action was really illuminating (no pun intended). After slogging through so many passages and struggling with the logic and minutiae, it was gratifying to see a very old text feel so relevant to Jewish practice today and to see where the halachot originally came from.
I find Hanukkah to be a historically fascinating time as well and the Yom Iyyun day at Pardes further enlightened me about this historical context (ha, ha another pun for you. By the way, did you know that the Torah is often referenced as light in Rabbinic literature?). In this shiur given by a Pardes educator named Raanan, I learned that the Jewish revolt took place during a turbulent period when the Greek power was waning and the Roman Empire was on the rise. The Greeks that the Jews were revolting against were actually Hellenized Syrians, or Seleucids. And as the text of the book of Maccabees, a Greek work translated into Hebrew, some of the Jews were willing accomplices in the Seleucid takeover and managed to overthrow the high priest Onias III.
I also learned that the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV was fearful about Egypt coming after him. He was particularly concerned about maintaining control of Judea because guess what? Judea was the passageway between Egypt and Syria. Not to mention that he was humilated by the Romans when he tried to conquer Egypt because they told him that if he doesn’t retreat, they will kill him. So he kind of vents all of his frustration on the Jews and hence begins the persecutions which in turn lead to the revolt that is celebrated in our holiday.
So you see why this tiny piece of land has always been at the center of dispute and has been conquered and reconquered by each new empire in vogue. It is the connector between Europe, Africa, the Middle East and East Asia. Throw in the fact that it’s right on the rift valley where the tectonic plates collide, and you can easily convince yourself that Israel really is a giant vortex.
Speaking of vortex, you might be wondering why I haven’t written anything about Annapolis. Well it’s not that I haven’t been thinking about it. I mean how can you not when you live in the place that’s under question? The Israeli media has certainly been cynical about it.
Right now I’m taking a wait and see approach. I’m glad that the Zionist left in Israel and the U.S. went to rally in support of Annapolis, but conditioned it on actual progress happening after Annapolis. That’s what I think. If stuff doesn’t happen on the ground now, Annapolis is just a photo op.
It’s a tough road. There’s a lot of distrust of the Palestinians, which isn’t lessened by the fact that they refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (which would symbolically nullify their right of return claims. This issue of whether we should make the Palestinians declare Israel a Jewish state is a big deal which requires more discussion than I can include here. Also the question of whether Israel is a Jewish state is a big debate here too. How do you balance religion and democracy?)
Then there are issues about what the hell is going to happen with Hamas, which keeps repeating that the Palestine encompasses Israel as well as the territories. And Syria and the Golan Heights, which I do NOT think they should give back. Somebody also quoted an article in the Jlem Report saying that the Saudis made the Israelis enter another entrance and that the Israelis accepted. Yeah, I have no love for the Saudis let me tell you.
Oh yes, and on the Israeli side: Even if we reached an agreement, how the hell are we going to get the settlements out? The withdrawal in Gaza went peacefully, but the government has still not accommodated all of the people who have lost their homes. How are the settlers in the West Bank going to come on board if they think that they will be screwed by the Israeli government? And with all of the Dati Leumi soldiers in the army, what if they refuse to remove the settlers? Not to mention the economic aftershocks such as an astronomical rise in housing in Israel–because all of these settlers will all of a sudden have to find homes and there will be a housing shortage.
If it were up to me, I would start drawing up a contingency plan. But I doubt they’ve done that. In fact, I feel as if the government is still supporting infrastructure and trying to grab more land in the West Bank. It’s so counterproductive.
Okay, well that was an interestingly passionate digression from Chanukkah wasn’t it? Sorry to bring you all down, but this is a blog after all and it’s all about expressing yourself.
I’ve gotta run to the Opening Night of the YMCA multicultural festival. If I don’t stop writing, I’m going to be late! I’ll give you a mini report next week.