Parashat Hashavua for Miketz
Rabbi Gary Robuck
Consulting Rabbi, Progressive Congregation of the ACT Jewish Community and
Beit Or v'Shalom (Brisbane)
Gesher Educational Services
Spirit People: Shining Light in the Darkness
This year’s observance of Chanukah takes place in the context of a pandemic that has carried distress and disruption to countries all across the world and cost more than a million lives. COVID-19 has brought considerable misery in its wake: illness, emotional and financial insecurity, isolation and hunger, while also resulting in a staggering financial loss to the global economy. The worst public health crisis in 100 years, COVID-19 has wrapped us in a shroud of darkness that only now, with the prospect of new vaccines on the way, appears to be giving way to new light and hope.
Contributing to this year’s darkness is the death just a little more than a month ago of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. His brilliance, erudition, and ability to relate the Torah’s message to a world in desperate need of its civilizing message, is like a balm for his admirers everywhere.
At Erev Chanukah, I turned to the work of Rabbi Sacks to see whether he might have written something that could speak to us on this most unique Chanukah. As ever, I was not disappointed.
In December of 2012, writing for The Times, Rabbi Sacks wrote how in the years following the rebellion against the Assyrian Greeks and the re-dedication of the Temple, the victors, the Hasmonean dynasty, did themselves grow corrupt, conflate religion and politics and become enamoured of Hellenism – the very foreign influence they had so strenuously resisted. Moreover, he reminded us how their victory, celebrated on Chanukah, would be short-lived when just two short centuries later Jerusalem and the Temple was destroyed by the Romans.
Given that the Hasmonean dynasty was lost, and its victories eclipsed, one could imagine that the Chanukah story too would have been forgotten. Not so fast! According to Rabbi Sacks, an even more salient teaching point emerges from our Chanukah story of victory and defeat:
“We celebrate military victories. We tell stories about the heroes of the past. We commemorate those who gave their lives in defence of freedom. That is as it should be. Yet the real victories that determine the fate of nations are not so much military as cultural, moral and spiritual.”
Later in his article, Rabbi Sacks bluntly reminds us: “Rome won that military conflict. Yet its civilisation declined and fell, while Jews and Judaism survived. They did so not least because of Chanukah itself. That simple act of families coming together to light the lights, tell the story and sing the songs, proved more powerful than armies and longer-lived than empires. What endured was not the historical narrative as told in the books of Maccabees, but the simpler, stronger story that spoke of a single cruse of oil that survived the wreckage and desecration, and the light it shed that kept on burning.”
As he concludes, Rabbi Sacks zooms out to deliver an even broader, more inspiring interpretation of Chanukah’s message: “Something in the human spirit survives even the worst of tragedies, allowing us to rebuild shattered lives, broken institutions and injured nations. That to me is the Jewish story. Jews survived all the defeats, expulsions, persecutions and pogroms, even the Holocaust itself, because they never gave up the faith that one day, they would be free to live as Jews without fear.”
My friends, when the story of this tragic period in the history of the 21st century is written, it will not just reveal the grim statistics or record the exhilarating advances in science, but recall the remarkable spirit and character of those who worked and generously contributed their resources; sacrificed and fed those in need; adapted their lives to provide cheer and comfort to our elderly, instruction to our schoolchildren, healing to the ill and connection to those left alone: a spirit-people who shine their light when it is darkest, who burn like the single cruse of oil that remained lit for eight days.
As we finally pass through 2020, let us salute these modern heroes and all those whose lives are emblematic of the Chanukah message read in the synagogue this Shabbat: “Not by might and not be power, but by my spirit shall we all live in peace” (Zechariah).
My wife Jocelyn joins me in wishing you and your loved ones Chag Urim Sameach – a light-filled and joyous Chanukah.